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We Chose the Reef!

I read the contribution from Captain David Richardson concerning his time as a Barrier Reef pilot with great interest.  I travelled the inner route in 1949 on the Shell tanker Cymbala.  Part of the Dutch side of the Anglo Saxon Petroleum fleet, she had been managed by the British side during the war and by 1949 had not yet been handed back.  She had a crew of 51 – 14 Brits (Captain, 3 mates, 2 apprentices, 5 engineers and 3 radio officers) and 37 Chinese from Hainan Island in the South China Sea – port of  Haiphong.  They were splendid seamen.

We had come out east in ballast to Miri in Sarawak from refitting in Falmouth to exchange the Chinese crew at Singapore as their time was up.  We loaded a cargo of crude at Miri for Singapore, where we off-loaded both oil and crew at Pulau Bukom and took on a fresh crew and cargo of more spirit for Australia.

Down through the Sunda Strait between Sumatra and Java, down the west coast of Australia and across the Great Australian Bight to Port Pirie at the head of the Spencer Gulf – railhead for the Broken Hill mines.  Offloaded one third of the cargo and on to Adelaide – another third and then to Melbourne for the final third.

At that point the Captain got his mates together (I was third) and said “we are to return to Miri and we have a choice – to return whence we came, into the weather most of the way – or we can go on round Australia, the distances are much the same – and I have decided to go on round.  The reef pilot is on his way to join us to avoid our having to put in to Brisbane”.

I shall always remember the passage inside the reef.  We had only magnetic compass and no echo sounder.  We were two days and three nights inside the reef, and we did not anchor at night.  There was no development on the coral islands.  There was no moon and the night sky was ablaze with stars, and they were reflected in the sea which was mirror smooth.  The bridge was midships and we put our engine exhaust through a waste heat boiler so there was no sound from the funnel.  The experience was like gliding silently through a gigantic bubble with a myriad of stars – whether one looked up or down.

Dropped the pilot at Thursday Island where the Japanese pearl fishers were at work and on through the Arafura Sea and so back to Miri.

Although that was 63 years ago, I can remember it as though it were yesterday.

John Burston
Guildford, Surrey