The Truckie Who Developed the Concept of Containerisation

One day in the US in 1937 while sitting in his truck waiting in a line of other trucks to unload his bales of cotton onto a ship, Malcolm Mclean first began to think of improving the efficiency of this transport process. It was not until nearly twenty years later, when increased road trailer charges began to bite that it became economically feasible to do something about it. With sea transport becoming cheaper than road haulage, Mclean envisaged trucks feeding centralized sea terminals rather than traversing the entire east coast of America by road. In other words, making the ship responsible for the majority of the travel.

Malcolm McLean at railing, Port Newark in 1957)

Although the concept of containers was already being used by Seatrain with its roll-on-roll-off containers on wheels, McLean redesigned his trucks as a truck bed on wheels on which could be carried an independent container. But further than this, he thought that the containers should be of a standard size and design so that they could be stacked aboard ships.

To this end McLean acquired the Pan-Atlantic Steamship Company that had shipping and docking rights in prime eastern US ports, and immediately began construction of special ships to carry his containers. The first voyage took place in 1956 from Port Newark to Houston. The cost savings proved spectacular and McLean had little trouble finding new customers.

Persuading Port Authorities to redesign their ports to accommodate the new intermodal transport operation was a bigger task. In spite of the backing of the New York Port Authority chairman, other port authorities were slow to come to the party – until the huge cost savings became apparent. The other threat was to the livelihood of the waterside workers because many of them would no longer be required. However, the very existence of seaboard shipping was being threatened by road and rail transport, and port officials thought it better to have fewer workers in a prosperous enterprise than many workers in a declining one.

In less than fifteen years Malcolm McLean had built the largest cargo-carrying business – SeaLand – in the world. Although the idea of containers was not his, McLean’s efforts to standardize their design, and his courage to put it into practice lead to a revolution in the world’s cargo trade.

Ship loading containers at Port of Brisbane (photo Karen Ludlow)

(Extract from ‘The Port of Brisbane – Its People and Its Personalities’ Peter Ludlow 2012)

On the Other Side – 1

All things are relative – even where we like to spend our holidays. This has been brought home to us all when, thanks to the Covid 19 virus, we are forced to holiday at home rather than jet off overseas to anywhere in the world that we choose.

I like this observation from Brian McGrath in ‘The Port of Brisbane, Its People and Its Personalities’: ‘During the port development days, we had a series of tide gauges near where we were doing our work, and one of them was on the jetty at Bishop Island. I was down there one day and was putting a new chart on the tide gauge and there was a dear old lady fishing there. I got talking to her and she told me how much she enjoyed coming to Bishop Island every year for her holiday. When I asked her where she came from, I was expecting her to say something like Western Queensland, but she pointed across the river and said, ‘From over there at Cribb Island.’

(Cribb Island, nicknamed ‘Cribbie’, was once an isolated, tight knit community of Aussie battlers who found refuge and cheaper living during The Great Depression. ‘Cribbie’ was demolished to make way for the Brisbane Airport in the early 1980s.)

(Bishop Island, a manmade island formed from spoil after the deepening of the mouth of the Brisbane River, has now been engulfed by the development of the Port of Brisbane and now resides under the area taken up by berth 9.)

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)

Stories From Peel Island – 8 – Quarantine – Throwing Down the Gauntlet (1)

A major concern of any Government is to protect the health of its citizens. Of most concern, perhaps, is an outbreak of infectious disease amongst its general populace. When the colony of Moreton Bay ceased to be used for penal purposes in 1839 and was subsequently thrown open for free settlement, foreign immigrants flooded in. With them came their families, their possessions, their skills, their hopes…and their diseases. Many of these, such as cholera, typhus, smallpox, scarlet fever, consumption, measles, and whooping cough were highly infectious, and an outbreak of any could decimate whole communities. The decision to place a ship in quarantine was not an easy one to make. It was an exercise in expense and inconvenience to the ship’s owners, the ship’s passengers, and to the community in general. However, such costs were justifiable when weighed against those which could occur should a serious infection be introduced into the community. When a vessel made port, a ship’s medical officer had first to furnish a medical report to the Health Officer of that port.  If everything was in order, pratique would be granted and the vessel would be allowed to berth.  If, on the other hand, a case of serious infection was present, the Health Officer could order the vessel and her passengers and crew into quarantine until the danger was over. 2

Moreton Bay map showing Cape Moreton, the Bar at the mouth of the Brisbane River, and Peel Island (all underlined)

Such was the case with the iron clipper ship Gauntletof 677 tons which left England from Gravesend on 18 September 1875 with 272 passengers. During the voyage of three months enteric (typhoid) fever had broken out on board. The first case of fever had broken out about forty days out of London, a boy being the first noticeable case. There were twelve deaths up to 21 December. The Gauntletarrived at Cape Moreton on 20 December, and remained there a day ( take the pilot aboard). It arrived at the Bar at the mouth of the Brisbane River on 21 December and remained there two days while the ship’s medical officer reported to the Port’s Health Officer. Because of the contagious nature of enteric fever aboard, the ship, was placed under quarantine and on 23 December it was towed to Peel Island by the Government tug Kate.

Buildings on Peel Island were provided for single women capable of accommodating one hundred, but which contained ‘no beds or other convenience’. There was a hospital for females and another for males. There was also ‘a small shed for the quarters of the Surgeon-Superintendent’. Male immigrants and families were compelled by the shortage of shelter to live in tents. However, within a few days of the arrival of the Gauntlet the first instalment of beds arrived.

An enquiry was set up to investigate complaints from those quarantined at Peel Island: many concerned the issuing of rations. It was, however, not the quantity or quality of the rations, but the lateness of the issuing on some days. There were also complaints regarding accommodation on Peel Island. Immigrants were placed under canvas, which proved to be inadequate to protect them from the sun or from rain.

Fresh provisions, including live sheep to provide fresh meat, were sent to Peel Island on 21 December and on the following two days. The Gauntletremained in quarantine for forty days.  There were some complaints about the distribution of food on Christmas Day, though there was a view that some complaints were not justified.  There were some men who were too lazy to do any necessary work regarding the tents.  Two hospitals were established on Peel Island, one for males and the other for females.  There were up to ten patients in each.

On 4 February 1976 the Brisbane Courier published a letter to the Editor from the ship’s Medical Officer, Dr J.A. Hearne, in which he challenged some aspects of the enquiry into the condition of the Gauntletimmigrants during the voyage and while in quarantine on Peel Island. In particular he challenged Brisbane’s Health Officer, Dr O’Doherty’s view that he (Dr Hearne) was incapable of preserving order amongst his people. Dr Hearne claimed that order and discipline on the Gauntletwere as well preserved as on any immigrant ship to Queensland.  He also objected to the arrival of two officers of the law, an implication that Dr Hearne needed their presence to maintain order, and to ‘save us from annihilating one another’.  Dr Hearne enclosed two letters he had received from agents for whom he had worked previously, verifying that he had ‘performed his responsible duties to our satisfaction’, including occasions when he had ‘repeatedly over 1000 immigrants under my charge’.

The passengers were taken to Brisbane on 7 February 1876.

The enquiry continued spasmodically until mid-March.


[1]A brief extract from material supplied by Brian Hedges who writes that ‘most of this information has been gleaned from Pennie Manderson and Colleen Bosel, The Voyages to Queensland of the Gauntlet, Maryborough, c.1997, and from the newspaper editions of the Brisbane Courier.’

2 Ludlow, Peter ‘Exiles of Peel Island – Quarantine’

Piloting the Ronald Reagan into Brisbane

USS Ronald Reagan conducting rudder check in 2007 (photo by M. Jeremie Yoder)

The USS Ronald Reagan visited Brisbane again this week. Getting her into our port requires much planning. On a previous visit in 2007, Captain Steve Pelecanos had this to say about piloting her into Brisbane:

‘There are some episodes that stand out as highlights in one’s career. In 2007 I piloted the USS Ronald Reagan into Brisbane. At 343 metres long and about 78 metres wide, it is the biggest ship ever to come into Brisbane. The preparation for it involved going to the United States and working with the American Navy.

‘The channels in Brisbane aren’t really designed to accommodate ships of that length, so as part our briefing with the US Navy, the Brisbane harbour master requested that the pilotage be done on a simulator first to validate what we thought was possible, and to develop and agree to a methodology for bringing the ship in safely.

‘We identified the most difficult and challenging aspects of the pilotage and worked on those until we got them right. We then worked out where and at what stage of the tide we would be at each stage of the passage. There were other issues we had to deal with. For example, there was the vessel’s sewage capacity which, with 6,500 bodies on board, would be reached in about 4.5 hours – the duration of the pilotage. One of the priorities then, was to get the ship alongside ASAP to plug into a facility that could accept its sewage.

‘The morning the Ronald Reagan was due to enter we went on board to do our pre-passage briefing. Normally on merchant ships this is done with one or two people, but on the Ronald Reagan we were taken into this room and there were about three hundred people there. I nearly fell over. I couldn’t believe it. Every man and his dog were involved.

‘The briefing went on and on and on and everyone seemed to be asking more and more questions. I couldn’t see an end to it. We had worked out that we had to get the first line ashore at 16.30 to plug into the shore sewerage tanks and to do this we had to pass the Fairway Buoy at noon and time was slipping away. I kept telling the captain that we really had to get going. He said ‘Don’t worry we have plenty of time,’ and I said ‘No we haven’t.’ For security reasons, they won’t tell us what their top speed is. It’s all classified. In the end he said, ‘what speed do we need to get to the Fairway Buoy on time’ and I said, ‘we now need 40 knots captain and he said ‘No problem.’ ‘‘No problem?’ I was stunned.

‘The ship just came up on his command. I have never been on a ship displacing 100,000 tons doing a speed of 40 knots before. It was so smooth and silent. It was unbelievable. The ship itself was more manoeuvrable in real life than she had been in the simulator. The entire pilotage – the movement of the biggest ship ever to enter Brisbane, 6,500 soles and eighty aeroplanes on board – went like clockwork. I guess it’s the sort of legacy one can expect from careful and detailed planning.

‘Although at the time I didn’t think it was a big deal, on reflection it was probably the highlight of my pilotage career.’

Captain Steve Pelecanos

Chairman, Brisbane Marine Pilots

February 2008

(Extract from Peter Ludlow’s book ‘The Port of Brisbane, Its People and Its Personalities’)