- Book reviewer
- History - general, Ship histories and stories, Book reviews
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Wyatt Earp
- September 2020 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Wyatt Earp: The Little Ship with Many Names. By Trish Burgess. Connorcourt Publishing, Cleveland, Queensland. Paperback, 124 pages. rrp $29.95
This book review follows closely in the wake of the article HMAS Wyatt Earp and the Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition 1937 – 1948 published in the June edition of the NHS Review. The article, which initially appeared in the December 1978 edition of the Review, is a personal account of the historic and eventful fifth Antarctic expedition written by the late Captain W.F. Cook MVO RAN Rtd. It is fitting then that the complete story of the life of Wyatt Earphas now been released. While it complements Bill Cook’s colourful account, the book puts a finishing touch to the extraordinary life of this little ship with many names.
This book punches above its weight. It has been compiled assiduously by its author Trish Burgess who has written not only an account of the life of a small ship but also a fascinating story. It is not surprising that she has chosen to research the history of this polar exploration ship Wyatt Earp as the first Commanding Officer of HMAS Wyatt Earp had been a family friend.
Raised in a Navy family, including a grandfather who had been Manager of Williamstown Naval Dockyard, Trish Burgess has had a varied career. Early in her life her enterprising nature was evident when she entered the fledging wine industry in the Canberra region. Indeed, she was the first to open a cellar door and has been an avid writer on travel and wine.
The author’s interest in the Antarctic has been such that she has visited the area on four occasions. Moreover, she married Dr James Burgess, an Antarctic scientist and geomorphologist who has conducted extensive research in the Larsemann Hills. With that background it is no wonder that Trish Burgess has developed a keen interest in research and writing and in the process has acquired a considerable knowledge of exploratory expeditions to our southern polar region.
Built in Norway in 1919, the motor vessel Wyatt Earp was originally named M/S Fanefjiord. Thereafter she had three other names and her designated role was changed on at least seven occasions during the ship’s long life. Built of woodand fitted with sails, the cargo vessel’s seaworthiness would have been proven after operating in the North Sea for more than a decade. Yet when she was renamed Wyatt Earp in 1933 and became the focal point for Antarctic exploration, greater challenges lay ahead.
Why name a ship Wyatt Earp you may ask? Readers of American history will recall that Wyatt Earp was a legendary frontiersman of questionable fame. To the seventh owner of Fanefjiord, Lincoln Ellsworth, he was a hero! Ellsworth’s name and many other intrepid polar explorers, including the Australian Hubert Wilkins, were associated with Wyatt Earpfor the next six years. Incidentally Wilkins had already achieved much fame through his adventures in the Arctic and Antarctic. For his service in WWI he was awarded the Military Cross and Bar and was knighted in 1928. He was also honoured by the Royal Geographical Society and the American Geographical Society.
The author’s account of Wyatt Earp’s five voyages to the Antarctic, four of which were undertaken by Ellsworth and Wilkins, is illuminating. In fact, the whole narrative is well constructed, interlaced as it is with extracts of personal voyage accounts, copious end notes and a variety of illustrations. There is no index but it is questionable as to whether one is justified. Some readers may detect minor errors but they do not detract from the flow of the storyline.
It is clear from the author’s research that neither the pre-war voyages of the former cargo vessel or those that followed were plain sailing. While Wyatt Earp had been extensively refitted and modernised for her new Antarctic exploration role, she was small, not built for icebreaking and prone to roll heavily in rough seas. Indeed, she was yet to experience the savagery of the roaring forties and beyond. Moreover, the ship had embarked aircraft adapted for use in the Antarctic. Not only was there much to learn about polar exploration but seaworthiness and adaptability to the unique environment of the deep south were also in play.
It is interesting to note that on the last voyage undertaken by Ellsworth and Wilkins land claims became a major mission for the American. Here the author alludes to deceit and conspiracy whereby Wilkins was not informed of Ellsworth’s intentions. Similarly, Wilkins was intent on making claims for Australia. Almost a century later it seems that echoes of the past are now reality, especially observing the establishment of Chinese bases in Australian Antarctic Territory!
Trials and tribulations marked Wyatt Earp’s 1948 Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition. Yet, as the author points out, it did raise the profile of Australia’s territorial claims and important scientific objectives were achieved. Nevertheless, the Antarctic workhorse was adjudged to be unsuitable for further trips to the deep south and spent the rest of her life in more temperate zones on the Australian coast and in adjacent waters.
All credit is due to Trish Burgess for putting together this comprehensive study of a little ship with many names. Wyatt Earp’s long life of forty years performing multifarious tasks is narrated adroitly. The book is a valuable contribution to the ever-developing compendium of maritime history. It is recommended reading.
Reviewed by James (Jo) Morrice