- Thomson, Max
- RAN operations, Naval technology
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 1988 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
SYDNEY HARBOUR has always presented a racy scene! Yachts thrash about in all manner of class events, Sydney’s ‘Great Ferry Race’ captures the imagination of all who pack vantage points to see it; and the start of the annual Sydney-Hobart yacht classic is the ultimate in yacht race spectacles. But Sydney Harbour knew another race which was quite unique.
Unheralded and most certainly undocumented, it was very much a part of the wartime day by day scene on the harbour. It was the spontaneous race for the boom gate entrance through the heavy steel anti- submarine net that stretched across the harbour from George’s Head near Obelisk Bay to Green Point on Inner South Head near Watson’s Bay.
Returning to the fleet base in Sydney from the battle zones or from long convoy escort assignments during World War 2, warships hoisted their identification flags. By signal lamp, they requested permission from the port War Signal Station to enter the harbour. But immediately those formalities were completed, telescopes and binoculars were feverishly scanning the harbour scene to see what shipping was lined up to pass through the boom gate into or coming out of the harbour. All with special attention to the Manly ferries plying back and forth from Circular Quay and which, even in those days, steamed along at a merry clip.
There were two entrances through the anti-submarine net. One, usually open, was on the east side. The other, known as the west gate, was opened only when big troopships, transport and the larger warships required use of the harbour’s west channel. The courtesies of the sea prevailed but warships, with their fine turn of speed, were never averse to clapping on a few more knots in the race for the boom gate. This sometimes led to fascinating incidents. Like the day harbour commuters were crowding one side of a Manly ferry to catch a view of a submarine sliding out of harbour, when a sleek warship with its eye on the boom gate increased engine revolutions resulting in a bow wave spiralling towards the ferry. The wave hit the rubbing sponson along the ferry’s side. Driven by high wind, it gave the ferry commuters a spectacular, unexpected bathing in salt spray.
Navy men anxious to berth their ship after long weeks at sea, on occasions earned the wrath of their colleagues who manned the boom gate vessel Kuramia anchored to the net alongside the east entrance. There were occasions when warships passed through the boom gate faster than regulations stipulated, leaving the old boom vessel bobbing up and down, its crew shaking fists at their Navy mates.
The regulation speed was five knots. All ships were obliged to cut their engines and glide through the boom gate. This enabled detection equipment on the boom ship to ensure no enemy midget submarine was tucked in behind an incoming ship in manner akin to that used by the Japanese midget submarines which raided Sydney Harbour on the night of May 31 1942, one of which became entangled in the net and self-destructed.
Once inside the boom gate, warships frequently crossed to the west channel for a run past the degaussing station near Bradley’s Head. A check could then be made on the effectiveness of the ship’s degaussing equipment which stretched around the hull to give some form of protection against enemy magnetic mines. Girls of the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service operated much of the equipment at the degaussing station which meant that warship telescopes, binoculars and even gunsights were in heavy use by sailors who had been absent far too long from the delights of city living.
Best-known of the Sydney boom gate vessels was the old 330-tonne ferry Kuramia built back in 1913. She was requisitioned in to the RAN as HMAS Kuramia in 1942. Shackled to the anti-submarine net, Kuramia more than any other vessel, saw the frenzy of activity that was the wartime scene on Sydney Harbour. Great troopships, endless convoys and the allied warships of the world all came to our shores and all had to pass old Kuramia standing watch on the boom gate entrance into the inner harbour. When 40 years old, Kuramia was finally used as a target ship, in 1953, and was sunk by gunfire from aircraft operating from the carrier HMAS Sydney. Kuramia took to its final watery grave the secrets of many a spontaneous race for the boom gate entrance over which it had ‘presided’ for so many of the war years.