Older members will remember the three attractive and smart sister ships built by the Newcastle State Dockyard in the early 60's for the then Commonwealth Lighthouse Service, M.V. Cape Don, M.V. Cape Moreton and M.V. Cape Pillar. Cape Moreton was to service the Queensland and Barrier Reef lights, Cape Pillar the Victorian, South Australian and Tasmanian lights, and Cape Don, the subject of this article, the Northern Territory and West Australian lights.
Cape Don was completed in 1963, of length 243' 7" oa. 2,106 GRT, 1,013 DWT. Her 2 stroke S.A. Polar engine of 2,000 BHP and VP propeller gave her a speed of 12 kts. On the Bridge she had the usual aids which included two radars, which later could be interconnected, VHF radio for ship and shore work, voice short wave for communicating with light stations on our own private frequency and later we carried a radio which included the aircraft distress frequency for communicating with the Orion patrol aircraft and coast watch. There was a fully equipped radio room just abaft the chart room. A searchlight which was operated from the wheelhouse was mounted above the Bridge. She had a generally permanent West Australian crew of 39 and accommodation for 12 passengers. These would include 2 lighthouse mechanics, maybe 2 meteorological bureau technicians when the AWS (Automatic Weather Stations) were being serviced and possibly lighthouse families being transferred. The officers and passengers would have their meals served in the saloon and the crew had their own mess a deck below next to the galley. She was equipped with a 12.5 SWL crane, two lifeboats, two wooden workboats and a DUKW amphibious vehicle and she also had a large, well equipped workshop. She arrived in Fremantle, her home port, in March 1963. Cape Don then settled down to her routine duties of maintaining all the Commonwealth owned navigational aids which included light beacons and isolated danger buoys from Esperance around to the NW as far as Groote Eylandt, and with the development of the iron ore ports, included Port Walcott and Port Hedland channel marker buoys.
I joined the ship in Fremantle in April 1974 after being interviewed and approved of by the Master, Capt. John Marion, as 2nd Mate relieving 3rd Mate. This perhaps needs explaining. In those days the roster worked on 8 weeks on and 4 off, this, of course, required 1½ permanent crew. So for the deck officers there was one Master, one First Mate relieving Master, he received Master's pay when acting Master, one First Mate, one Second Mate and one Second Mate relieving 3rd Mate, he stayed on 2nd Mate's pay and one Third Mate. The engineers followed a similar system. Later it was to change to two crews on equal time.
By the time that I joined the ship the DUKW had been replaced by a LARC 5, a much more seaworthy and capable amphibious vehicle, fitted with a HIAB crane and able to carry 5 tons of cargo. It required a crew of three and at least one would be a trained driver. We tried to ensure that there would always be at least two drivers in the ship's crew as when later we did the annual resupply which involved large quantities of fuel and supplies to the Bass Strait light stations we would carry a second LARC on deck. The AB seamen drivers would do the driving course with the Army and would also carry out routine maintenance. Likewise, the 3rd Engineer also did a more comprehensive maintenance course with the Army. This also worked the other way as when the M.V. Aurora Australis was doing the annual resupply to the Antarctic Bases, her LARCs would be driven by an Army Team, who before they went south, would spend 7 - 10 days with us to gain experience with working cargo from a ship and beaching in sea conditions.
At that time the routine was to do several voyages to the NW and NT lights during autumn, winter and spring, returning to Fremantle before Christmas. Because we had a mostly permanent crew there would be a Christmas social for the crew and their families and a party for the crews' children on the ship, which was funded by the ship's canteen. After Christmas, the first voyage was to do the southern lights by Esperance and Albany and, importantly, do the annual resupply for Eclipse Island.
My first voyage was from Fremantle. We headed for the NW lights on our regular pre-planned itinerary and work programme but, on this occasion, our stop at Troughton Is. was not a re-supply but to salvage what we could as the radio station had recently destroyed in a cyclone. It was not rebuilt.
In those days the light beacons were powered either by batteries or acetylene gas and required regular servicing, and, of course, we carried numerous batteries and a couple of hundred of A250 gas bottles which stowed flat in the lower hold and had to be treated with care. If they received a heavy knock, this could cause a hot spot to develop, which was terminal. I believe that this did happen on one occasion in Darwin and the bottle was hastily dumped over the side. We would also carry any necessary construction materials if we were building a new light and, if I remember correctly, approximately 300 tons of fresh water as, on occasion, if a shore station had not received sufficient rain, their water tanks would require topping up.
Cape Leveque was a very isolated station with no proper road access, which meant that all the supplies for the two families looking after the lighthouse had to come in by sea. At that time they would place their orders with the suppliers in Perth and about every three months we would go into Fremantle to load their supplies and, in the course of our north bound work programme, we would spend about two days at Cape Leveque landing the supplies, including diesel fuel for the station's generators and carrying out any maintenance. Our main method of landing supplies and equipment was with our amphibious vehicle, the LARC. We fitted a large flexible bag with a capacity of 5,000 litres into the cargo section of the LARC for landing the fuel and a similar one for fresh water. They would of course be filled from the ship's own tanks and ashore emptied into the appropriate storage tanks by portable pumps.
Eclipse Island off the south coast of WA was very different but at least the families could get a fortnightly boat from Albany with supplies. There was no landing so supplies and drums of fuel were run in by the work boat to the foot of the high cliff. The work boat would pick up the anchored trot line, running it through a cleat in the boat's transom to check the boat's forward progress until the bow of the boat was inches away from the cliff and it would on occasion touch the cliff as the boat would rise on the swell. The crane on top of the cliff would then swing out to pick up the slings of supplies. Personnel were hoisted up in a basket.
Navigation Lights are there to warn mariners of dangerous reefs etc, but Cape Don, of course, had to enter those waters to service the lights. Great care was naturally taken when, in what were often very poorly charted waters with few, and sometimes no, soundings. The practice was to make our own "mud maps". When building a new light beacon, we would approach the area taking an echo sounding trace, if necessary being led by the work boat which was fitted with an echo sounder and all our communications were by VHF. We then anchored at a safe distance while the work boat would then sound the proposed anchorage being plotted by radar so that we could draw up our "mud map". Great care was of course taken but even so, occasionally after maybe many visits a rock hazard would be discovered and we would have to adjust our approach. I think that we were fortunate that over the many years only two major groundings occurred and, fortunately, I was not involved in either.
I first sailed as relief Master on Cape Don in 1978 becoming her permanent Master in 1982. The ship now had two crews on a 6 on 6 off roster. I believe that it was in about 1980 that Cape Pillar was taken up by National Mapping and equipped to be full time on survey work. From then on, Cape Don took over maintaining the South Australian, Victorian and Tasmanian lights during the summer months and WA and NT lights during the winter. Also, on occasion, we would help out Cape Moreton with the Barrier Reef and Coral Sea lights. The times of Christmas in Fremantle was but a distant memory as the ship was now fully occupied working the Australian coast. One of our main tasks was the conversion of gas powered lights to electric and all the lights converted to solar power. Helipads were also built at each light to facilitate servicing and the manned lighthouses were steadily being de-manned and also converted to solar power where shore power was unavailable. So we were steadily building ourselves out of a job.
On Australia Day in 1988 Cape Don was in the public eye when, in all her white glory, she led the re-enactment of the First Fleet into Port Jackson as part of the Bi-centenary Celebrations.
By now the writing was on the wall and in 1989 I accepted voluntary redundancy. The ship was laid up in 1991 and sold in 1992, renamed Western Express to provide a passenger and cargo service between several islands in the south west Pacific and registered in Honiara. Apparently she had a crew of 18 and carried 155 passengers! She then had a rather checkered career being involved in a failed charter to take nuclear protesters to the Mururoa Atoll in 1995, ending up in the Clarence River in NSW and now reverted to Cape Don and was later reported aground. She was used in the making of a B grade movie during which her propeller was damaged. In 2002 she was laid up in Sydney and advertised for sale by the Federal High Court.
In 2003, a Canberra resident, Derek Emerson-Elliot, with the encouragement of Frank Allis an ex ship's AB, bought the ship and started The Cape Don Society for restoring the ship. He then created the Sea Heritage Foundation and generously donated ownership of Cape Don to them. Society members have working week-ends on board restoring services and equipment and have achieved much. Re-wiring has been done where necessary and steel work replaced. Accommodation is available, two generators, hydraulics and other equipment are operational.
The next aim is to slip the ship, for which a slipway has already been located, but that of course requires a considerable sum. The ship, now berthed at Balls Head (The Old Coal Wharf) Sydney, represents a piece of Australian history in the development of the Iron Ore Ports and a bygone era in ship construction and in 2008 was placed on the Australian Register of Historic Vessels. The Society is a registered Charity so donations are tax deductable and further information and membership is available on the Society's web site www.mvcapedonsociety.org.au
This year we will be holding a re-union dinner in Perth for ex-crew members and their families to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Cape Don arriving in Fremantle
Author: Captain Richard Ireland W.A. Branch Member