On 10th February 1964 the Search and Rescue (SAR) crews arrived at the Marine Section at the usual time, 0750, to have their coffee and prepare for another day’s work. Twenty four hours later two of those crews had saved the lives of seventy men from HMAS Voyager. Their experiences that night have never been publicly documented. This is the story of Air Nymph, one of the boats involved in the rescue operations that fateful night.
The Marine Section, HMAS Creswell was a rather unique organisation, because although it was located in, and administered by, Creswell, it was under the operational control of the Naval Air Station HMAS Albatross. As such, it worked the same hours as Albatross. When flying operations were being carried out in the Jervis Bay area by Albatross or HMAS Melbourne, it remained operationally ready until Albatross reported that fixed wing air operations had ceased for the day. Only then would the duty SAR crew stand down until the following day. This meant that, during squadron workup periods prior to embarkation in Melbourne, or during major naval exercises, the duty crew were often on duty in the Marine Section from 0600. until approximately midnight.
A ‘hot line’, which was directly connected to the Air Traffic Control tower (ATC) in Albatross, was located in the Marine Section Officers’ office. This ‘hot line’ was tested at 0900 every morning between the two stations to ensure that instant communications were available between the ATC and the Marine Section. Alongside the ‘hot line’ was an Emergency button. When pushed it activated an Air Raid siren which sounded throughout the whole of Creswell to recall off duty SAR crew members and also warn Creswell staff of an emergency taking place. It was an operational requirement that the duty SAR crew left within 10 minutes of any emergency being sounded.
Although the Marine Section operated four SARs, the complement allowed for three crews to man the boats as one SAR was usually undergoing refit in Garden Island Dockyard. Three of the vessels, Air Nymph, Air Faith and Air Chief were all wooden hulled American built ex-World War II air sea rescue craft. The fourth, Air Sprite, was built to the same design, in the 1950s, by Halvorsen’s Shipyard. They were powered by two Hall Scott Defender 630 HP V12 engines, with two fuel tanks holding 1200 gallons of super petrol, and during World War II operated at 33.5 knots. However, because of their high fuel consumption they were governed down to a maximum speed of 28 knots. A searchlight was fitted outboard each side of the bridge for communications or search purposes. Although only two officers were borne in the Marine Section complement, Sub Lieutenant Tony Vodic and myself, each crew consisted of an officer (Lieutenant/Sub Lieutenant) in command, a seaman Petty Officer, a radio operator, a Leading Seaman (LS)/Able Seaman (AB) electrical sailor, three AB Seamen branch, an LME (leading mechanical engineer),and two MEs (MTPs),
On 10th February 1964 only two SARs were based in Creswell, Air Sprite and Air Nymph. Both Air Chief and Air Faith were undergoing maintenance or refit in Garden Island Dockyard. The two boats were taken out for their usual morning run in Jervis Bay to ensure that they were fully operational. It was likely to be a busy day; Melbourne was carrying out flying operations with Voyager, the consort and rescue destroyer. Three minesweepers (MCMVs) were also due in Jervis Bay to carry out mine countermeasure (MCM) exercises.
The two SARs returned to the Marine Section wharf where they were refueled, and the crews then carried on with their normal ship husbandry and maintenance routines. At 1600 the standby crews departed at the end of the day’s work, leaving the duty crew led by Petty Officer Ron Budd in the Marine Section. Air Nymph was the duty boat and I was the Duty Officer for that night. The routine was as normal, the duty crew having dinner in the Marine Section galley while they waited for the cessation of flying operations.
It was anticipated it would be a quiet night so everyone relaxed in the mess facilities. About 2000 that evening noise was heard in the vicinity of the Creswell swimming pool on the waterfront. Several of the duty crew went out to the Marine Section wharf to see what was going on. It turned out to be an initiation ceremony for new entry Cadet Midshipmen so they returned to the mess, advising me accordingly.
The ‘hot line’
But it was not to be a quiet night! At 2057 the ‘hot line’ suddenly rang. I immediately answered the phone to hear the Albatross duty ATC officer say ‘Melbourne and Voyager have collided in a position 20 miles from Point Perpendicular, on a bearing of 120 degrees, scramble the SARs’. I instantly hit the Emergency button, sounding the siren, and rushed downstairs to the crew mess where I told the duty crew that Melbourne and Voyager had collided and to prepare the duty boat, Air Nymph, to get underway immediately. The crew quickly responded, boarded the boat, started the engines and made preparations to sail. Fortunately, a Surgeon Lieutenant was in the vicinity of the Marine Section at that time, so I requested he board Air Nymph to provide medical assistance if required.