Working with the Queensland Police Dive Squad

By Tim Playne

In 1962, Ivan Adams, A Senior Constable with the Queensland Police, was transferred to the Queensland Water Police. He was an avid Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (SCUBA)  Diver.  Soon after, he was formally asked to establish the diving squad.

Tim Playne under diving instruction

Tim Playne: ‘After working as a boat builder until the 1960’s I applied for the Queensland Police force and underwent a three-month probation in the Police Barracks in Caxton Street. I was sworn in in 1961. I was then sent down to the traffic branch which I didn’t like, but had to accept because I didn’t want to leave Brisbane. However, I thought the water police looked better suited for me so I applied for a transfer to the water police. My application was successful because they needed people to form the new diving squad and required good swimmers and people experienced with boating activities.

At that time the Water Police station was situated behind the Port Office Hotel. They were housed in a small convict-built building. Underneath the building had access straight to the river and in the old days they used to launch there and do their patrols by rowing boat. They’d send about 4 constables out to row up and down the river. 

When I was transferred to the Water Police they had twenty-one staff and were led by Sub Inspector Morris. Soon after I joined, the unit was moved to Howard Smith wharf nearby. It then occupied the main office building and a large shed on the upstream side of the Story Bridge. These building are still standing and converted to cafes etc. We also had control of fair length of wharfage at which we moored the Police Boats.

At this time, about 1962, the department commissioned a new thirty-two foot timber motor launch built by Clem Masters. It was powered by a V6 Detroit Diesel.  She was called MV Seymour. We also acquired an inboard/outboard speed boat on a trailer which was towed by an F100 Ford. This was used for access to rivers and lakes and more remote jobs that required a quick response. About this time Sub Inspector Morris retired and the new Sub. Inspector in Charge was L. Ingram.

Learning the Beat (photo: Courier Mail Tuesday October 15, 1963)

‘Beside learning the physiology of diving, we also had to learn ‘dark water diving’. We were taken to somewhere like Peel Island’s Horseshoe Bay where the water was clear, and then they’d put a blank mask on each of us so we couldn’t see, then we had to learn to search where we couldn’t see anything. Most of the jobs we had to perform were in the Brisbane River where there was with little visibility searching for bodies or stolen property. The way we conducted such searches was off the back of a dinghy and they’d drop what they called a shot line down to the search area, then two of us would go down together. One of us would stay on the shot line and hold a rope for the other diver who swam in a circle round the shot line. When he had done a complete circle, the diver at the shot line would give the rope a couple of tugs and let out another couple of metres for the operation to be repleted. Once I remember I was doing the search and another bloke was on the shot. However, the rope must have become caught on a snag and I did another circle so that I came back behind him, so I grabbed hold of his legs and he thought he was being attacked by a shark and went very quickly to the surface!

Divers using the shot line

‘One of the jobs we had to do was to recover the bodies of three youths from a car that had missed the turn and plunged into Stockyard Creek about five miles from Mt. Gravatt. 

The car wreck at Stockyard Creek (photo: The Courier Mail)

Another job we performed was the rescue of crew from the ‘Kaptajn Neilsen’ a dredge that had overturned off Tangalooma in Moreton Bay. I was not involved because I was on leave at the time, but my boss, Ivan Adams, and another diver, Joseph Engwirda, showed extraordinary bravery bringing to the surface 12 survivors, for which they both received awards for bravery.

The Water Police Launch ‘Vedette II’

The police launch was Vedette II. The Water Police Vessel ‘VEDETTE II’ was launched on 15th April 1954 for use in Brisbane.  This image was taken on the Brisbane River, c1964.  Senior Sergeant Alec Powe is standing on the prow, other officers I think are Sergt McIvorRobertson on the helm and Myself. This was on some official occasion going to collect some VIP’s Both this vessel, and the ‘SEYMOUR’ attended the capsized dredge ‘Kaptajn Nielsen’ in September 1964. 

Another task we had to perform was to recover bodies from the water. They might have been derelict/ homeless people who had fallen off a wharf or some such. If they had been in the water for some time, it was a very unpleasant task. Others were people who had accidentally drowned due some mishap.

At that time, we used to be the call point for the Pinkenba pub and we got involved in some of the brawls down there. But people respected men in uniforms then. Our uniforms were very similar to those of the merchant marines so a lot of people didn’t know who we were, which suited us fine. However, a lot of the time we were in overalls.

The water police had powers that the general police did not have: we were deemed to be fishing inspectors, and we also had legal authority on foreign and Australian owned ships, but in most cases, we had to get the duty officer or skipper to come with us. Once we went down to investigate a Swedish ship on which a bloke was causing havoc with a knife. When we went aboard, he had kicked in beautiful wood panels in the rather luxurious crew cabins. 

I was a boat builder, and Senior Constable Sid Marshall was a shipwright (they do the timberwork on a steel boat) and there was another bloke who was a carpenter, Constable Kevin Morahan. We used to do most of the maintenance on boats and during my time there we became good mates and we all earned various marine tickets.  This enabled us to do the odd job crewing on Hayles tourist boats for some extra money. Mainly down to Bishop Island at the mouth of the Brisbane River which had a café and dance floor.  Bishop Island has now disappeared due to the port extension.

Another task we used to deal with in the water police was to be an after-hours VHF relay for the Harbours and Marines. In those days, the pilots were put on board the ships just off Cape Moreton. One day there was a Japanese long liner steaming at 12 to 15 knots up the port and he hadn’t taken a pilot onboard. We were called to deal with it, so with a pilot on board we sailed downriver and met the ship just off the Pile Light at the mouth of the Brisbane River. Seymour was not identified as a police boat but with the pilot standing on top of our cabin, we steamed alongside the Japanese craft. As soon as he got aboard, he slowed the ship down to a legal speed for the river.

After about six years, during which my wife and I had bought a sold a couple of houses, and due to the poor wages of the police compared to that of a tradesman, I resigned from the water police and went back to house building, where I started a small building company.

After I had left the police in 1967, I was doing a bit of work for Joe Enwirda who had designed a type of barge that could be used to remove the anchors from an oil rig that was situated just on the edge of the drop off, about 10 or 12 miles off Cape Moreton. The oil rig it was probably about a 150 foot long catamaran and the actual hulls were pulled down in the water below their normal water line to create a stable drilling platform. This was done by using large very heavy anchors splayed several hundred meters out in all directions. These were then winched down by the drill rig itself. 

Tim’s sketch of the platform anchors

We could see the Cape quite clearly from our barge. We were towed out by tug and pulled the rig’s anchors up one by one. The rig was self-propelled and steamed off after we loaded the last anchor on board. We were there about five days while they were dismantling the rig. As far as I know they failed to find oil there which is probably just as well because any spillages would have polluted the Gold Coast beaches.

Tim Playne, September 2022