After the ‘Kaptajn Neilsen’ Disaster

Following on from my blog of 29.01.2022, here is a photo of the ‘Kaptajn Neilsen’ dredge before the disaster of September 18, 1964:

‘Kaptajn Neilsen’ at work (photo courtesy Brian McGrath)

After the disaster, and her righting and refloating following patching and essential work in Cairncross Dry Dock, she departed Brisbane under tow by the powerful Dutch salvage tug ‘Tasman Zee’ for repairs in Holland, after which she was put back into service by her owners.

‘Kaptajn Neilsen’ in Cairnscross Dry Dock (photo courtesy Brian McGrath)

The ‘Good Neighbour’ Tues 1 February 1966 further reported:

Diver Joe Wins George Medal

Diver Joe Engwirda, from Sittard, the Netherlands, who rescued ten Danish seamen from a sunken, capsized dredge off the Queensland coast received the George Medal from the Governor of Queensland, Sir Henry Abel Smith, at an investiture at Government House, Brisbane, last month.

The George Medal, one of the highest decorations in the British Commonwealth for civilian bravery, was also awarded to two other men concerned in the rescue of the Danish seamen. They were Constable Ivan James Adams of the Queensland Police diving squad, and Erik Viktor Poulsen, 22, of Copenhagen, a member of the crew of the dredge. Seven other Australians who helped in the rescue work also received awards.

Said Joe of his George Medal: “I am surprised at receiving the award. Naturally, I am delighted, and am pleased that those who worked alongside me have also been honoured”.

The dredge, the 3,000-ton “Kaptajn Nielsen”, capsized suddenly when fully laden as its suction equipment was being lifted. Fifteen of the crew of 24 survived.

After the sinking, Erik Poulsen dived down to escape through a hatch, rested on the upturned hull which was awash, and then swam four miles across Moreton Bay to Moreton Island to raise the alarm three and a half hours after the disaster. Joe, awakened by police at his Brisbane home, took Constable Adams with him in his 16-foot speedboat 25 miles down-river to the scene. Joe, who concentrated on the crew’s quarters in the bow, rescued ten. The rescue of two of these was accomplished with help from Constable Adams.

Joe with his main souvenir of the dredge – its barnacle encrusted wheel from the bridge.

Trevor Jackson, master of the Brisbane dive boat ‘Esperance Star’, discovered the ship’s wheelhouse on the seabed in 13 metres of water off Tangalooma in 2001. He surmised that when the dredge rolled over, the wheelhouse was sheared off in the shallow water. Looking at the photo at the top of this page, you can see that the tall bridge would have been included in the shear.

Since that time, many dive boats have visited the wreckage. You may have a virtual dive there too if you click on the link below:

Neil McMillan Todkill – Deep Sea Diver

Val Knox writes…

Neil McMillan Todkill was born on June 8th 1921 in Maryborough, to Norman and Mary Todkill, the fourth of eight children, Mina, Alexander, Bon (William Norman), Neil, Ronald, Ashleigh, Robert and Beverley. The family moved to Brisbane in 1924 living at 50 Coutts Street, Bulimba.  Along with his brothers and sisters he attended the Bulimba State School until 7th Grade and had his first job at a Sweet Factory near the Bulimba Avro Picture Theatre and then obtained a job at Hardie Brothers at Newstead.  While growing up he and his brothers spent their spare time swimming, fishing and sailing in the Brisbane River. 

He married Valma Ruth Thompson in 1939 (the youngest daughter of Les Thompson) and they lived at 47 Love Street, Bulimba.  They had eight children, Valma, Mary, Neil, Stanley, Donald, Suzanne, Phillip and Amanda.  In 1962 the family moved to Barton Road, Hawthorne and in 1986 Neil and Ruth retired to their house at Bribie Island which he had bought in the 1950’s.  In July 1991, they returned to live in Brisbane at Tarragindi.  He lost Ruth, his partner of 59 years, on the 2nd March 1998.

Neil was well known to the sailing fraternity on the Brisbane River and raced in the 22-foot restricted yachts, 16-foot skiffs and 18-foot skiffs.  He was a Life Member of the Brisbane Sailing Squadron and a Life Member and Vice-Patron of the Brisbane Eighteen Footers’ Sailing Club.  After his retirement, Neil enjoyed playing bowls and when he lived on Bribie Island, looked after the greens for a period at the Bribie Island Bowls Club where he became a Life Member. He was also a member of the Wellers Hill Bowls Club and the Colmslie RSL.

Salvaging Wrecks

His salvage career began in July 1942 when the “Rufus King” ran aground on South Passage Bar near Point Lookout.  The salvage team on the “Rufus King”, which included Neil Todkill, was under the control of Captain Jim Herd, Master of the tug, “Tambar”.  Neil rejoined the vessel when it sailed to Darwin to salvage the ships sunk by the Japanese and he worked as a diver with The Marine Salvage Board over a period from 1942-1946 working on the wreck of the “Koolama” off the coast of Western Australia, and also on the “Portmar”, “Kelat”, “Meigs” and “Mauna Loa” in Darwin Harbour.

During the war, he walked from the Edward Street Ferry to the Story Bridge underwater clearing debris from the area to be ready for dredging.

In 1946 he formed a partnership in wharf construction and diving with Harry Fennimore who died shortly afterwards while diving in the Brisbane River.  He carried on as a Marine Contractor and the business was known as N Todkill and Sons changing to Todkills’ Marine Services when his sons Stanley and Donald joined the business.  Many of the pipelines crossing the Brisbane River and marine constructions in the Brisbane River, Moreton Bay, and in ports up and down the coast of Queensland, were the result of work carried out by him.  His son, Donald, carries on the business as Todkill Marine Services.

The stricken ‘Marietta Dal” on Smith’s Rock. Behind can be seen Les Thompson’s “Warrior” (Photo courtesy Val Knox)

When the “Marietta Dal” ran aground on Smith Rock off Cape Moreton in June 1950, Neil formed a syndicate with Norm Wright and Bill Morgan and bought a tug to salvage the cargo.

In 1951, a three-engined Drover plane crashed in the Huon Gulf, New Guinea, and Neil established the fate of the crew and worked to salvage gold from the wreck over a period in 1951/52.

Some of the notable shipwrecks he has worked on are the “River Burnett” – Port Phillip Bay; the “Palana” – holed off Townsville; and the “Eifuku Maru” on Wreck Reef, East of Mackay in 1957.

When the Whaling Station was established at Tangalooma, he built the Slipway for the Whaling Station and was there when the first whale was pulled up to the flensing deck.  He later dismantled the deck when the Whaling Station became a tourist resort.

He carried out a survey of the Queensland Coast from the coastline to the Continental Shelf, from 1963 to 1965 for the Commonwealth Government with his vessel, “Pacifique”.

Neil skippered the “Olive R” for fishing charters in the early 1960’s before it went to the Gippsland Lakes in Victoria and was renamed “Tambo Lady”. He bought the “Tambo Lady” in May 1965 and sailed her back to Brisbane where he was contracted to run the Ferry Service to Tangalooma on Moreton Island from 1965 to 1972.  He was Manager of the Tangalooma Tourist Resort for three years during that period.

He took part in many Brisbane to Gladstone Yacht Races and skippered various boats up and down the Queensland Coast as well as doing delivery trips along the eastern Australian seaboard.  He also skippered the Game Fishing Mother Ships, “Melita” and “South Pacific II” in North Queensland.

In 1997, Neil was awarded a Certificate of Appreciation and plaque in recognition of valuable diving assistance provided to the Queensland Police Service from 1944 to 1964.

Sadly, his last few years were marred by ill health.  He is remembered for his many daring diving exploits in helmet and suit, his fine seamanship and his great love of the sea.

Neil Todkill with his diving gear, 1952 (photo courtesy Val Knox)

(Extract from ‘Moreton Bay Letters’ Peter Ludlow 2003)