- van Gelder, Commander John RAN (Rtd)
- Ship histories and stories
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Queenborough
- March 2003 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
In the final two hours or so before reaching the Island the weather moderated to some extent. This is a relative statement of course, however the wind had backed almost to the south and decreased in strength from 70 knots down to a manageable 20 or 30 knots! When radio contact had been established with the ANARE base we were advised that the most suitable embarkation point would be in Hasselborough Bay. I found this advice to be a little strange since I was aware that supply ships to the Island usually anchored in Buckles Bay. Assuming that the locals knew best we headed for Hasselborough Bay.
On entering Hasselborough Bay at 1530 on Saturday we approached to within about 400 metres of the rocky shore, at which time I decided that the locals did not know best! With a chart almost devoid of soundings, a threatening and obvious lee shore with 20 to 30 knots of wind, it was time for us to be out of there. The ANARE base was informed of our intention to proceed to Buckles Bay. Fortune occasionally favours the good and so it was to be as we entered Buckles Bay. The bay, on the eastern side of the Island, was tranquil enough to attempt a landing. The wind had dropped appreciably, there was a very low ground swell and to our relief there were some breaks in the clouds, through which we could actually see some patches of blue sky.
Now came the phase of the operation for which we had voyaged over 800 ‘lumpy’ miles. It was decided not to anchor the ship, but to stand offshore about 400 metres. Using binoculars from the top of the bridge the outlook was not particularly bright when surveying the likely places on the foreshore where a sick man could be transferred to a seaboat. Firstly, the foreshore was not a beach as such, but a reasonably steep approach to the land strewn with large boulders or rocks and approximately two to three hundred metres long. I must add that the rocks were overlaid by dozens of sea lions (or were they sea elephants?) looking for all the world like giant slugs; sunbaking in the freezing temperature, no doubt. Secondly, the approach to shore was hampered by a heavy growth of kelp covering the entire foreshore, except for a narrow passage towards the southern end. The kelp, which was clearly visible on the surface, extended to about fifty metres offshore, however there was a narrow passage between the kelp and the shore line.
The Executive Officer, who was to take the motor cutter inshore, was directed to enter through the kelp at the southern end and proceed close inshore to the pick up point and, if necessary, kedge the boat inshore to assist the transfer of the sick man from shore to boat.
It was at this stage that I realised that the potential for ‘Murphy’s Law’ to take a heavy hand in proceedings was almost unlimited and maximum precautions should be taken to offset any likely down side to the operation. For example, supposing the propeller of the motor cutter became entangled with kelp, supposing engine failure was experienced for some reason, supposing a plank were to be crunched in on a hidden rock, and so on! To counter these unlikely contingencies the only thing that could be done was to have the second motor cutter fully manned and ready to go. This matter was taken in hand.
Newspaper reports at the time, both before and after the operation, were quite adamant that delivering the ailing man from the Island to the ship would be by way of rubber raft or ‘rubber ducky’. Wrong on both counts. These were the days before the issue of the ubiquitous outboard powered Zodiac type inflatable boats to ships of the RAN.
In Queenborough, we carried two 25 foot motor cutters. These boats were clinker built of timber, of very robust construction and powered with an equally robust and, if well maintained, reliable Dorman Ricardo diesel engine. Although the boats were periodically surveyed by the Dockyard, I always had a niggling doubt about their structural integrity, since they spent most of the time sitting in ship’s davits with their keels becoming noticeably hogged and their garboard strakes becoming increasingly more impregnated with diesel and lubricating oil. The thought that some officer lowering a boat in a moderate seaway might miscalculate by slipping the boat from a great height with the consequence of the diesel engine disappearing clean through the bottom of the boat, had no appeal for me at all. In reality, the motor cutter was the only means by which we could recover our man from the Island.