Part 4 Torres Strait Pilot Service

PART 4   FRED AND BEV’S TORRES STRAIT ENCOUNTER.

 ESTABLISHMENT of NAVIGATIONAL MARKERS, PILOT SERVICE and FRED’S PILOT BOAT EXPERIENCE.  

In 1837 Commander Wickham in the Beagle carried out an extensive survey of the straits between Cape York and the southern coast of new Guinea.  Work continued with mapping for another thirteen years and once the best possible entrance was determined, Captain Blackwood of H.M.S. Fly erected a stone tower (on Raine Island) thus giving mariners something to aim for.  In 1844 the first beacon was erected on Raine Island, which further assisted mariners in finding the entrance into Torres Strait. The beacon was ‘circular in shape’ and 75 feet high above low water, visible from 15 miles and painted red with white stripes.  Convicts were brought up from Sydney to effect its construction.

This is not Captain Blackwood’s marker but a modern day marker northeast of Thursday Island.

This is not Captain Blackwood’s marker but a modern day marker northeast of Thursday Island.

Mariners read this marker as follows: yellow indicates isolated danger and the two black triangles (cardinal marks) indicate the marker should be passed on the west side. Cardinal marks are used to indicate that deeper water lies in a compass direction away from a danger such as a reef or submerged wreck.

Cardinal markers.

Cardinal markers.

The first rumblings with regards the establishment of a pilot service through Torres Strait were heard around the same time the first beacon was erected. However nothing happened until some years later because to have pilots stationed at the Somerset settlement a garrison was required to protect them from the local inhabitants and this would have incurred much expense.  The coming of the steam ship eventually forced the authorities to think seriously about establishing a pilot service.  Steamship captains preferred to traverse the inner route (between the Queensland coast and the west edge of the Great Barrier Reef) and then turn into Torres Strait.  

During the late 1860s and early 1870s it is believed that seamen with local knowledge were employed to guide ships through the reef.  In Captain John Foley’s book ‘Reef Pilots’ there is a reference to the fact that in the early days pilots were rowed ashore from sailing ships and stayed in the post office cave on Booby Island.

 

MY PILOT BOAT EXPERIENCE FROM PORUMA (Coconut ) ISLAND.

On a flight to Poruma Island  (formerly Coconut Island) I struck up a conversation with a pilot boat captain and asked him was it possible for me to go out with him as an observer when he did a pilot pickup.  Before consenting he asked whether I suffered from seasickness.  My reply was to the negative and after the trip I realised why he asked the question.  The swell was running at around three metres and if one were prone to seasickness there is no doubt the trip would have been far from comfortable.

P.V.Archer, the Torres Pilots vessel at anchor off Poruma Island.

P.V.Archer, the Torres Pilots vessel at anchor off Poruma Island.

Ceramic reproduction of Pilot Vessel Archer.

Ceramic reproduction of Pilot Vessel Archer.

I made this piece and presented it to Captain Mark in appreciation for taking me out for the pilot pick up.  I didn’t glaze it as I thought Mark’s son might like to paint it. Technically, making a piece like this is not easy; it took about ten hours, is made from earthenware clay and fired to 1080 degrees.

Deep water shipping channels through Torres Strait.

Deep water shipping channels through Torres Strait.

My pilot boat experience took place from Coconut Island. We motored to the black triangle and dot point just above Yorke Island.

It took a little over two hours to reach the rendezvous point and on the way we passed Smith’s Cay.  Reefs and cays like Smiths pop up out of nowhere. One minute there is twenty metres of water below the keel and the next moment there can be less than a metre.

Smith’s Cay.

Smith’s Cay.

Reefs suddenly appear. The fishing is great along drop offs such as this.

Reefs suddenly appear. The fishing is great along drop offs such as this.

Along the edge of a drop off.  Son Tim took this photograph of the tiger shark on one of his many undersea forays.

Along the edge of a drop off. Son Tim took this photograph of the tiger shark on one of his many undersea forays.

A ship (speck in the middle of photograph) stuck on a reef. Sorry for the poor quality picture but it was the best I could do under the circumstances.

A ship (speck in the middle of photograph) stuck on a reef. Sorry for the poor quality picture but it was the best I could do under the circumstances.

Today between 4000 and 5000 ships pass through Torres Strait. All vessels over seventy metres in length are required to have a pilot on board.  There are two pilot companies operating in the Torres Strait and the pilot boat I went out on was owned and operated by Torres Pilots.  T.P. boats are stationed at Thursday Island and Poruma.  The Poruma-based P.V. Archer travels northwest up the Great North Channels where pilots are placed on ships entering Torres Strait from the northwest or retrieving pilots who boarded ships at Booby Island to the west of Thursday Island.

Pilot boat awash.  Passing by the stern of the cargo ship we rendezvoused with.

Pilot boat awash. Passing by the stern of the cargo ship we rendezvoused with.

Captain Mark at the helm of P.V. Archer.

Captain Mark at the helm of P.V. Archer.

Approaching M.V. Gold River

Approaching M.V. Gold River

These huge vessels travel at between 12 and 13 knots and prior to the pilot boat coming alongside their speed is reduced to 8 knots to allow safe transit of the pilot.  To slow a vessel of this size is no easy task, you do not simply slip it into a lower gear.  The procedure is to turn the vessel so the swell engages the side of the vessel; the buffeting swell slows the vessel.

Coming alongside

Coming alongside.

The actual pilot transfer took around five minutes. The sea, as can be seen in the above photograph, is calm and this is because the hulk acts like a breakwater blocking the oncoming swell.

The M.V. Gold River was nowhere fully laden. If it were there would have been very little of the red portion of the hull showing.  The Gold River was steaming from Hong Kong to New Zealand with general cargo.

Alongside and the pilot boat deckhand testing the ladder prior to the pilot coming down.

Alongside and the pilot boat deckhand testing the ladder prior to the pilot coming down.

Pilot coming down.  It is interesting to note that the pilots do not use a safety harness, preferring to take control of their own destiny rather than having a crew member above belaying them.

Pilot coming down. It is interesting to note that the pilots do not use a safety harness, preferring to take control of their own destiny rather than having a crew member above belaying them.

The ‘bad news zone’ of a freighter.

The ‘bad news zone’ of a freighter.

The greatest fear of a pilot boat captain is to get caught in the ‘bad news zone’.  Note how rough the sea is to the stern of the freighter.  I have a friend who owns a small flying boat and he once landed one of his aircraft in the calm area next to a freighter to pick up an ill seaman.

For me the most amazing thing about coming alongside M.V.Gold River was putting my hand on its hull.  Never before have I come in close contact with such a massive manmade object. The experience was overwhelming.

The last major event involving a ship coming to grief in Torres Strait was in 1970 when Oceanic Grandeur, a bulk crude oil tanker, hit an uncharted rock.  The vessel’s hull was fractured and a considerable amount of its cargo leaked into the sea.  A local shipwright patched the fracture using steel plates that stemmed the flow and then the ship steamed off to Singapore where major repairs were carried out.  The uncharted rock that the ship hit is now known as O.G. Rock and is just to the northwest of Wednesday Island.

Oceanic Grandeur.  Reports of the total amount of oil spilled vary, but it has been estimated it was in the vicinity of 1,100 tonnes.   Photo from AMSA web page.

Oceanic Grandeur. Reports of the total amount of oil spilled vary, but it has been estimated it was in the vicinity of 1,100 tonnes. Photo from AMSA web page.

These days the Australian Marine Safety Authority monitors ship movements and their specialised vessel, the Pacific Responder, is on hand to attend to any shipping disasters in the Barrier Reef and Torres Strait region. 

The Pacific Responder.  We came across the Responder when out on a fishing trip to the west of Thursday Island.

The Pacific Responder. We came across the Responder when out on a fishing trip to the west of Thursday Island.

A ceramic reproduction (about 300mm long) of the Pacific Responder I made for Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

A ceramic reproduction (about 300mm long) of the Pacific Responder I made for Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

Eldest son Tim with our grandson Jarrah.  The Pacific Responder at anchor on the horizon.

Eldest son Tim with our grandson Jarrah. The Pacific Responder at anchor on the horizon.

The next posting of our Torres Strait Encounter Part 5 ‘Out and About’ relates to our visit to some of the outer islands and Cape York Peninsula (The Tip).

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About tbeartravels

It's been said that I know a little bit about a lot of things and a lot about little things. I hope I can share some of this knowledge with you as we travel.
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7 Responses to Part 4 Torres Strait Pilot Service

  1. Dr Derek Rogers says:

    Hi Fred, hopefully you can see my email with this post, I’m just enquiring about including the picture (with suitable credit to yourselves / website) in a technical presentation I have to give. I need to talk about choke points in the Torres Strait and think you have a nice and very simple to understand diagram above. Kind regards, Derek.

    • tbeartravels says:

      Dear Dr Derek

      Pleased to hear from you re Torres Strait choke points. I assume a choke point is where the tide rushes through? Of course you can use the diagram and image. Which ones are they exactly.

      If I can gather more info for you please let me know, I will be on the water off Thursday island next August/Sept and I can talk with pilots and others when there. There is a tide gauging station near TI and I went to it with my son one year and the force of the tide was unbelievable in fact it was scary.

      Hope I have been of some help.

      Regards Fred

  2. Hiya, I am really glad I have found this information. Nowadays bloggers publish just about gossips and net and this is really irritating. A good website with exciting content, thats what I need. Thanks for keeping this web site, Ill be visiting it. Do you do newsletters? Cant find it.

    • tbeartravels says:

      Thanks for the positive comment. I’m not sure about a newsletter, it sounds like more time in front of the screen and I’m not sure I want that. However maybe we could put news on Facebook. I will ask Bev.

      Regards Fred and bev

    • tbeartravels says:

      Never been into gossip as I want not to fill my mind with unless stuff. Re newsletter not sure what I have to do to produce one, I will try to find out.

      Thanks for the positive comments, hope you continue with the readings. Part 2 of our odyssey starts early march, we are heading for Greece,

      Regards Fred and Bev

  3. Simon Meyjes says:

    Hi Fred and Bev

    Your photos of your experience in Torres Strair are amazing, particularly those ones of you meeting that enormous ship. I’m gobsmacked that the pilot has to do that job without any safety harness from such a height! What brave prople they are! Do they have a harness when they are on the pilot boat or is the whole operation done like that? I’d love to see any more of your pics of this operation since I’ve always been really interested in how pilots do their work but never hadt he opportunity to see it the way you have.

    Keep up the blog, it’s a wonderful insight.

    Simon

    • tbeartravels says:

      Dear Simon
      Thankyou for your comment re Torres Strait pilots. I like you was amazed that the pilot did not use a safety harness when descending the ladder, when I quizzed the pilot about the fact his reply indicated that pilots generally prefer to have their destiny in their own hands and not in the hands of maybe deck hands who do not speak English. I’m not sure if all pilots employed by the various companies in the region are of the same opinion. The deck hand on the actual pilot boat did have a safety harness on at all times when on the forward deck.

      The amazing thing about the pilots is that they are fly in fly out, I heard of one chap that lives in Tasmania and commutes all the way to Thursday Island. Most of the pilots are not Australian born they come from European seafaring nations.

      The experience for me was as I said in the blog an event I will never forget, looking back I can’t believe I actually did it. The captain of the pilot boat that took me out to meet the monster was very accommodating, he allowed me out on the rear deck to take the photos but I had to wear a life jacket, it was one of those flash affairs that self inflates when they come in contact with water. There was no risk of falling overboard from the rear deck as an enclosed rail enclosed the whole deck, and in any event the sea on the side we did the pick up was dead calm.

      Bev and I are returning to Europe in March to continue or Encountering the Past Odyssey, we are heading for Greece to start with. We hope to buy a couple of ebikes (push bikes with an electric motor) and island hop (bikes go free on ferries). From Greece we will head north to Switzerland, Germany and finish our trip in Sweden. I’m looking at maybe riding down the Rhine and if we knock up or get tired of sitting on the saddle we will board working barges something few people do (they usually go on cruise boats). You might be interested in the barge activities. Another thing you might be interested in is that in a museum in Stockholm the ship the Vasa housed. Search the web for details, we hope to visit the Vasa for a second time and if I do I will make a report on the blog.

      Thanks again for your comments, I expect the first posting for the up and coming trip will be early March.

      Regards Fred and Bev.

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