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:

Hugh Smith – “The story of one seaman who lived and died for Moreton Bay”

Lyn Kathwrites…

My Father Hugh Smith was born in the small coastal town of Nambucca Heads in New South Wales and was the third youngest of nine children. His love of the water came early in life with his Father taking an active role on a vessel conveying logs in and around the Clarence River area. His older brothers owning fishing boats encouraged the process. As a teenager he joined the Nambucca Heads Life Saving Movement and, according to his siblings, he was never too far away from the sea.

In the War Years he joined the Merchant Navy serving on a small vessel called the S.S. “Dilga”. He then joined the American Small Ships and became Master on one of their vessels serving in Port Moresby, Milne Bay, Finschaven, Lae and surrounding areas of conflict in New Guinea. The men who served in all Merchant shipping have never really been recognised for their heroism which included shuttling between areas of very high conflict, in unarmed vessels, sometimes carrying dangerous cargo, provisions, and on secret missions to enable the war effort to continue. Merchant shipping has been vital to all theatres of war, yet in my opinion, they still have not received the recognition they so rightly deserve.

Hugh Smith in ‘Echeneis’ (photo courtesy Lyn Kath)

In 1945 he returned to his family in Australia and made his home in Brisbane joining up with the Harbours & Marine Department and soon became Captain of the small vessel “Koala” which was heavily involved in attending to the wrecked Pile Light in Moreton Bay. In the early 1950’s he became Captain of the 1100-ton Suction Dredge “Echeneis” where he remained until the year 1964. It was the Suction Dredge “Echeneis” and “Groper” that were largely involved in dredging the Hamilton Reach as large shipping had to negotiate the river as far as Bretts Wharf and ANL at Newstead because these were pre-Fisherman Island days. It was the “Echeneis” that was largely responsible for reclaiming unused swampy land at Pinkenba which is today a highly sought-after industrial complex at the base of the Gateway Bridge. It was on the “Echeneis” that my father, as Captain, reclaimed 9 acres of tidal mud flats for the BP Oil Refinery in Gladstone. In 1958 the “Echeneis” together with the vessel “Groper” dredged the outer bar of the Bundaberg Port and the Bundaberg Deep Water and Sugar Terminal was opened on the 20th September 1958.

In late 1964 and with the “Echeneis” in Dry Dock for much needed maintenance the Queensland Government contracted the help of the 1599-ton Suction Dredge “Kaptajn Neilsen” to help with the heavy workload at that time maintaining the safety of our waterways and reclaiming land. Although Dad was officially contracted on board as the pilot, he was to Captain one of the crews as the ship had to operate 24 hours a day, with two crews to keep the heavy workload under control. It was totally manned by an all-Danish crew except for my father, the lone Australian on board. At approximately 11.25 p.m. on the night of Friday 18th September, 1964 the Dredge capsized killing nine of the innocent crew including my Father. In his last conversation to home, he made mention of the fact that he was eagerly waiting to return to the “Echeneis” and his crew who he held in high esteem. I do not wish to elaborate further, but I believe the “Kaptajn Neilsen” was an accident waiting to happen and it was only a matter of time before that vessel came to grief Unfortunately when it did, it took with it nine innocent men. However, a very happy note to the story is the fact that due to the very courageous efforts of our Water Police Divers and recreational divers who apparently put their own lives at risk, they were able to save 11 of the trapped and very frightened men in an air pocket in the hull of the Ship. It was a remarkable feat of heroism in its day – the rescue of 11 trapped men from the hull of an up turned ship.

The upturned hull of the ‘Kaptajn Nielsen’ off Tangalooma (photo courtesy Rob Poulton)

The years went by, some 38 in fact, when fate took a strange twist. In approximately November 2001 another generation of sea-lovers unaware of the events of 1964 were to come across the upturned sunken 12 metre by 7 by 4 wheelhouse. I can just imagine the excitement of Trevor Jackson, Master of the Dive boat “Esperance Star” when he tried to unravel the mystery and put all the pieces together which were all played out before his time. In fact, it was Trevor’s discovery that was the catalyst for me to record Dad’s marine history for his three grandchildren, Jason, Cameron and Leisha Kath. Trevor and I have made contact and plan to meet shortly to discuss the finding of the upturned wheelhouse of the “Kaptajn Neilsen” in Moreton Bay.

Meanwhile the “Echeneis”, meaning ‘sucking fish’, and built by Walkers Maryborough at a cost of 750,000 pounds now forms part of the artificial reef in Moreton Bay off Tangalooma and now gives pleasure to the numerous recreational divers who use our beautiful Moreton Bay.

Lyn Kath

November 2002.

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

The Powder Monkey (by Alex King)

Tangalooma Wrecks, Moreton Island (photo courtesy Ishara Udawela, Wikipedia Creative Commons)

I had a fair bit to do with the scuttling of the vessels at Tangalooma to form the artificial reef there. I was master of the Echeneis at the time and I was given the job of taking many of the old dredges and barges to Tangalooma and scuttling them. They were more or less scuttled at the same time except the Echeneis and the Groper, which were the last of them. All the dredges had reached the end of their working days and had been replaced by the Sir Thomas Hiley. When the Sir Thomas Hiley arrived on the scene, it was like a big jump forward out of the 1930s or even earlier for us, right up into the sophisticated world of dredging as it was overseas. She was built at Walkers (Maryborough) and was one of the most modern in the world. It made a lot of the other dredges redundant. I was dredging Superintendent then. We did keep the Groper on because there was always work for bucket dredges and because some work can only be done by bucket dredges. Of course, they are much more sophisticated now as far as their controls are concerned. They are still being used all over the world but not in Brisbane. They have a clam dredge that does a lot of the wharves and they have a small cutter suction dredge, but the Brisbane is the main dredge now, which took over from the Sir Thomas Hiley.

As far as the scuttling at Tangalooma went, our powder monkey was a fellow called Digger Poole. He had been in charge of the rock blasting at the Kangaroo Point quarry. He was an interesting character and had a habit of using twice the amount of charge required for a job. He was on a couple of jobs with me – at Tangalooma, at the Fisherman Islands development, and at Arcadia on Magnetic Island. His job was to make up and detonate the charges. We’d give him the OK and away he’d go. He had been in the army and came back into Harbours and Marine right after the war. When we started the development at Fisherman Islands there were a lot of old pipes left there from the old dredges and Digger blew them up too.

At Arcadia on Magnetic Island we gave him the job of blasting out the coral outcrops (bomby) to clear a boat passage. When we went down to inspect the area where the coral bomby had been, the bomby was gone and there was a crater almost as deep as the bomby had been high. How we didn’t disturb some of the large boulders that seem precariously balanced on the waterfront in that area I don’t know.

(Extract from ‘The Port of Brisbane, Its People and Its Personalities’)

Working the Dredges (by Vern Dinden)

I started out as a deckboy on the dredger Morwong. It did three 8-hour working shifts per 24 hours. Then I went to the larger dredges RemoraPlatypus etc. I worked on the dredges all the time. When one dredge went into dock, they’d send me down to another if it were short of a crewmember. Altogether I was 46.5 years on the dredges StingareeBreamSeal, Dugong, Grouper, Nautilus, Cowrie, Trochus, and Sir Thomas Hiley, but eventually had to give it up because of ill health.

I also worked on the tug Koala. We used to go up to the Port of Brisbane and collect the stores and take them down to the dredges. We also took stores to the supply vessel Matthew Flinders when she came in from outside for the changeover. We transferred the crew down to Pinkenba. On one occasion we had one chap fall over the side accidentally. We got him out of the water, put a blanket round him, and took him back to the Matthew Flinders where they put his clothes in the washing machine, dried them and he was good as new. At that stage, I was based with Harbours and Marine when Cecil Fison was in charge.

I later worked from the Port of Brisbane at Whyte Island where the tugs were eventually moved to. We used to board the new dredge Sir Thomas Hiley from there.

‘Sir Thomas Hiley’ (photo courtesy Alex King)

The dredges used to tie up at whatever berth they could get into, sometimes it would be the grain wharf, or the coal wharf, or Patrick’s, or whatever wharf was unoccupied.

At Fisherman Islands, when they started to expand the bund wall out, I saw one truck run off into the water. They built the wall first, then filled it in behind later. I was a deckie on the Hiley that did a fair bit of the filling. They first started pumping the sand ashore up near the coal berth. They had a pipeline down near Patrick’s where they had a little pumping station. Every time they shifted the pipeline, the dozers would move the sand around. 

We had the Pearl River, a Danish dredge, working at the Spitfire Channel in Moreton Bay, and she used to bring the sand in from out there. She had a floating pipeline, drop her stern anchor, and pump the spoil ashore. She could move along, too, and her dredge hopper was twice as big as the one on the Hiley.

One skipper on the Hiley reckoned we were eating too much ice cream so he ordered a smaller scoop, but the cooks used to pile it on just as much. Then the small scoops gradually disappeared and they went back to using the big ones.

We crew used to steer the Hiley until they put in an automatic pilot. Then they started axing the crew. There were 33 on board. They were thinking of getting rid of all the older ones and keeping the younger ones. But someone in the office must have thought that we’d better hang on to the old ones because they understood what goes on better.  We had two crews A and B which they used alternately and which enabled the Hiley to work continuously. We lost six on one crew and six on another. It started off as 8 hours ON and 8 hours OFF, then one day we came back to work at 4pm and found that we were not to start until 6pm because our shifts had been changed to 12 hours.

We had two crews worked a fortnight each. When our fortnight was up, we’d come in and we’d change crews. We’d talk to the other blokes and tell them what goes on and all that, and that was it. This enabled the dredge to operate 24 hours a day. During the day, they had three day-workers who used to perform maintenance work, which could be noisy and interfere with our sleep in the forward quarters. When the A crew had finished their fortnight shift, they’d come in and be replaced by the B crew. 

I used to drive my car down to Whyte Island and leave it there. It would be there for a fortnight until my duty was over. We used to work it with the other watch so that when we knocked off, we would finish early and go up home, and the same with the other watch when they finished, so they could go off early too. The skipper knew all about it.

We also used to do the northern ports on the Hiley – Townsville, Cairns, and Weipa. We also did a job in Western Australia for a month. We flew over there and had been working for about a week when the airline pilots pulled the plug out, went on strike, and left us high and dry. We eventually got back when they got light aircraft to bring us back. One lot went off early in the morning on a Lear Jet, but we copped a Cessna. We had to land at Alice Springs to take on fuel and provisions and go to the toilet (none on board!)  Later in the flight, we had a scare when the fuel line iced up and the engine began spluttering. We had to fly lower to avoid this reoccurring.

One time we were working at Weipa. The phone rang on the bridge where I was at the wheel and the skipper was told that there was a fire on board. They had overhauled one of the engines and when they fired it up there must have been some oil, which ignited. If they hadn’t got the fire out, she might have been a burnt-out shell and everyone might have been out of a job. When they pushed the fire alarm some of the crew slept through it. They had to knock on the doors to wake them.

I was a deckhand, but I used to relieve the operator for his cup of tea etc. I was a temporary leading hand there for a while when the operator went away on long service leave. I was operating for a fortnight up in Gladstone. It’s a difficult harbour to work in especially if there is a good south-easter blowing side on to the ship. On another occasion, one of the dredges turned over in Mourilyan Harbour. She was working in the entrance and took in water as she bounced up and down on the swell. A couple of blokes got drowned. 

The Hiley also had her share of accidents. One night she knocked the outer beacon over. I had just been relieved at the wheel. It was 5 pm at teatime, and as the dredge slowed while the Captain got the pipes over the side, the wind blew us sideways and onto the beacon. We couldn’t do much to avoid it. Dredges aren’t as maneuverable as other vessels.

There was another time the Hiley ran over the Government launch Boyne on a Friday night. I was in bed and one chap came along and said we’d run over a fishing boat. Fishing boats used to go out Friday night.  However, it turned out to be the Boyne. We weren’t told about the boat being in the area – they were testing a new light at Bulwer Island to see how far out they could pick the light up. We’d just come back from the dumping ground, and the Hiley had been lit up like a Christmas tree, but as soon as they’d finished dumping and got the doors up, they switched the light’s off, so when we turned into the channel that was when we clobbered her. Sadly, one chap was drowned.

After I left on sick leave, the Hiley was replaced by the dredge Brisbane.

Dredger ‘Brisbane’ (painting courtesy of Marine Artist Don Braben)

Vern Dinden

Coolum Beach

(Extract from Peter Ludlow’s book ‘Moreton Bay People 2012’ (now out of print)