Tuesday, 20 November 2001 00:00

Dead Slow

By Trevor Jackson - Esperance Star

In the chart drawer of the Esperance Star is a little black book full of marks. These marks have been collected over many years. When I was a fisherman I used to write down the GPS position of anything unusual I observed on the sounder. My fellow trawler men and I would share this information so that we could minimize the chances of snagging our gear and possibly losing it, the boat, or both. It is a very long list of marks, some with names, some just numbers with nothing to identify them by but a fading memory. One of these marks is simply titled 'Steel Trawler'.

The position is very close to Curtin Artificial Reef inside Moreton Bay, and, just for a laugh, last weekend we decided to go and see if it was worth a dive or two. Actually to tell the truth we had three marks to look at. Two of them were supposed to be scuttled army barges out in the centre of the bay. I wasted an hour or two on Friday night doing circles on the spot but we came up with zilch, so I turned the boat towards the Steel Trawler mark and we steamed over for a quick look before heading in behind the Tangalooma wrecks for the night. After a couple of quick turns she booted up on the sounder nicely and crewman Carl and I decided we'd have a quick dive on it over the course of the weekend if time permitted. It wasn't really high on the agenda.

We spent all day Saturday offshore and really didn't give the site much thought. On Sunday however the weather had turned to shite and big seas forced us into the relative calm on the lee side of the Island. We did our first dive on Curtin Reef and I told Carl to get his gear together and we'd go for a look at the 'Trawler'. There was a fair bit of current running as the tide had begun to ebb by the time we dropped the anchor. Carl shuffled up the line to the anchor chain and pulled himself hand over hand down to the wreck. Now anyone that knows Carl will tell you he is a 'no nonsense bloke', so it seemed unusual to me that what was supposed to be a quick look on 'just another Trawler' seemed to be taking him bloody ages. Normally he'd go down and be back on deck in less than 10 minutes, but as we watched his bubble trail he seemed to be covering a fair bit of ground slowly and in some sort of search pattern. I wondered if we had skipped off the wreck and had dragged away, and Carl was trying to actually find the damn thing. A storm was coming through and I was starting to get a little anxious that we should get out of the place. "Come on Carl get the f****n' lead out", I remember muttering. Finally he came back to the boat, clutching a lump of brass, with the now familiar "I've just found a new wreck" look on his face. "Its not a Trawler", he said through his reg, "it's a tram, or a train or some bloody thing".

Carl got changed and came down to the bridge, but we didn't get any chance to talk it over. The storm had reached us and the wind was over thirty knots. We got the anchor up and made a run for the Island. We were side on to the seas and at one point a big wave smacked the side of the boat, pouring through a window that had been left open, drenching a 240-volt socket. Carl quickly cut the ships power until we could isolate the socket and get things sorted. An hour or two later we were lying in calm water, new power point installed, we sat down to discuss the wreck. Carl drew a map, he said he thought it was a train carriage, it had a large row of windows along one side and seemed to have two axles on the top, but the shape wasn't quite right, it wasn't a rectangular shape. It was like two rectangles shoved together to form like a tee piece. The fact that it was half buried in the sand didn't help matters either, but we managed to establish some rough dimensions, 12mx7mx4m. I suggested we have another look on another day, but couldn't help commenting that what Carl had drawn looked more like the wheelhouse of a big ship than a train. "Buggered if I know", said Carl, "you should check it out next time yourself".

That weekend came and went but on the Wednesday morning following we had a trip on with a group of Brisbane Coppers. They are regulars on the boat and are always keen to check out whatever new has come up in the dive site department. We spent the first two days offshore doing some deep wrecks then on the Friday morning they were enthusiastic about looking at our Train Carriage. I had shown them Carl's drawing and we were all scratching our heads with anticipation. We got to the site an hour before the high tide. There was still plenty of current running but a couple of the guys, Tony Cole and Dave Giddons, were too jumpy to sit around and wait. The three of us geared up, a line was run up the side of the boat to the anchor chain, and we repeated Carl's hand over hand efforts from the previous weekend. When we got to the anchor there was nothing to be seen. The anchor had dragged through the sand but even following the drag mark up to its origin produced no wreck. I had a rebreather on. A little known idiosyncrasy about rebreathers is that when you speak underwater the words are quite audible and easy to understand. Needless to say the boys were treated to some choice examples of 'colourful' language whilst we hung on at the anchor trying to figure out in which direction to start looking.

The viz was about 6 metres so it was pot luck that we would find anything, or find our way back to the anchor even if we did. "F**k this", I mumbled, "follow me boys". We skirted off ahead of the anchor then did a slow arc around to the left and started to come across some scattered debris. We scooted over a few sand ridges then there it was in a recess between two of the ridges. Coming onto a new wreck in shit viz always gives me the willies. I don't know why, it just does and today was no exception. The first thing I saw was a massive Qld Groper. Carl had seen him on his original dive so I guessed he was the resident bossman. The wreck was covered with Estuary Cod and Mangrove Jack, some of my fishing friends would be shouting the beers to get this mark!

I left the Tony and Dave to themselves and started trying to figure out what it was we were dealing with. I swam the length and breadth of the thing and all I could think of was that it was beginning to look more and more like a wheelhouse, a very big wheelhouse. "But that's stupid", I thought, "what would a wheelhouse be doing here, where's the rest of the ship?" I swam back over to the boys. They were looking at the long row of windows that Carl had described and we decided to duck inside one of them, push a few Cod out of the way, and see what was lurking in the shadows. There was wire and steel and mangled crap everywhere, nothing had any shape to it. Just then we spotted what looked like a barstool hanging from the roof, I swam over and just behind it, another shape lay suspended from the ceiling. This time I knew what I was looking at. It had fine edges. It was bolted to a solid circular piece of steel on the ceiling. It came away from the ceiling as a long solid cylinder, attached to the bottom end of the cylinder was a glass sided drum with two hand levers. I scraped away some of the grime to reveal the unmistakable gleam of solid Brass. Brushing away some sand revealed the levers some more. At the bottom of each lever was a kind of indicating arrow. The arrows on both sides of the drum were stopped in the same position, and inside the glass where the arrows had stopped I could read the words "DEAD SLOW". A steam engine telegraph. A steam engine telegraph in the middle of Moreton Bay? In a wheelhouse with no ship???? What the bloody hell was going on?

Unfortunately I was again forced into a position of having to recover artefacts in order to identify a ship [ha!]. A few days later we were steaming into the bay after doing a night dive out at Flinders Reef. We had a few Dive-Oz regulars on board and I felt that with their help there was no time like the present to get the telegraph onto the boat. I went into the lounge room and asked the boys if they fancied another dive a little later on that night, "something a little out of the ordinary", I suggested. The high tide that night was at about 10.50pm. We arrived on site at about 10 and were soon busy getting our dive gear and tools ready. Five of us, Lars, Geoff, Robert, Mick and myself, would do the dive. The plan was to go down and first clear the sand away from the area using an Apollo Scooter, then we would start undoing the 5 bolts that held the Telegraph in place using a 3 pound hammer, a cold chisel and a screwdriver. Secondly we would have to cut the chains that would have connected the telegraph to its counterpart in the engine room. And finally we would manhandle the telegraph to the outside of the wreck, and lift bag it to the surface.

At 10.45pm we jumped in, met at the anchor and descended down to the site. I shoved the scooter through one of the windows and started blasting the sand away from the area around the telegraph to allow us to get it out once it was unbolted. The boys and I had a look around the wreck for a few minutes while we let the silt settle, then we went in and started the unbolting process. This took about 30 minutes and once we had loosened the artefact, silt began to pour into the room from the hole we had made in the ceiling. In seconds the whole room was a blackout and there were a few tense moments whilst everyone found their way out and bailed to the surface. A brief headcount before we left the wreck and we were away. All the tools had been left behind because we couldn't locate anything in the darkness and silt. Back on the surface it was time for a quick cuppa before whipping down with the bolt cutters to finish of the job. Only three of us went on the second dive and half of our bottom time was spent trying to unravel ourselves from fishing line that had found its way across one of the entrances. With the telegraph cut free it was a quick and easy process to connect the lift bag and blast the lot to the surface. Job done!!

The boys and I were all stoked that we had been successful but the question on our minds was of course what ship is this and where is the other 7/8ths of it? The serial numbers on the base of the Telegraph were to provide the answer. On September 18, 1964 a steam powered suction hopper dredge called "Kaptajn Nielsen", 1599 gross tons capsized in the middle of Moreton Bay Of the 24 crew on board, 9 lost their lives. The authorities were quickly into action however and were able to save 11 of the 16 men trapped inside the hull. This was a world record for the number of lives saved from within a capsized hull. The boat was later raised and repaired and taken back to its home in Holland. Its wheelhouse and some other deck structures remained at the bottom of Moreton Bay.

Postscript: The telegraph was manufactured by Kwant Brothers Ltd in Holland. They have confirmed that this particular unit was fitted aboard the "Kaptajn Nielsen", in Denmark in 1961.