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)