Murray Geeves

Murray Geeves, of Geeveston, Tasmania, aged 15, served as a cabin boy on the James Craig on her last voyage, from Recherche Bay, Tasmania to Adelaide with timber, returning to Hobart with a cargo of calcines on 8th January, 1922. She awaited cargo but it never came.

Shortly after the salvage of James Craig from Recherche Bay, in this letter dated 31 October 1974 to Captain John Lovell, Executive Director of the Lady Hopetoun and Port Jackson Steam Maritime Museum Limited, he relates with feeling this once in a lifetime experience.

Murray Geeves lived in Sydney and was of great assistance with information about James Craig.

One memorable sunlit afternoon in November 1921, my father informed me that the James Craig had been signalled as entering the Derwent River on a voyage from Melbourne with a cargo of wheat. On the previous voyage the James Craig had loaded a cargo of timber at Port Huon for New Zealand. The master Capt. Purdon had promised to keep in mind my desire to join his ship on her next visit. The Huon River Port was at that time a busy place where a large sawmill supplied timber cargoes for ships both foreign and coastal ports. More of this anon.

Picture of Captain Purdon and son on board James Craig alongside Princes Pier.
Captain Purdon and son on board James Craig alongside Princes Pier.

Next morning bright and early, I caught a bus for Hobart and met Capt. Purdon coming ashore on ship’s business. “Yes”, I could sign on! Overjoyed, I raced aboard reporting to the Mate, Mr Chapman. Silver showed in his hair then, at the age of 24 years. Already he had been an officer in sail for five years. I got the impression the Mate was not really keen on green sea struck boys and on further acquaintance came to the conclusion that first impressions are the best.

Colin Goss, whom I had met on the previous visit to Port Huon, was still aboard and a few years ago retired as senior pilot of the Melbourne Harbour Trust. Colin was sixteen years at sea, I understand, before securing a command. The late twenties and the “hungry thirties” were pretty hard for young ambitious officers seeking a command.

Discharging our cargo completed, one clear starlit night, we set out in tow of a small river steamer, the Cartela for Recherche Bay in southern Tasmania where we were to load timber for Adelaide, SA. Early next morning the tramp of feet on deck, the gruff voice of the Mate calling orders to tie up, brought me topside to find the ship securely moored to the wharf. A farewell hoot from the Cartela and she was on her way back to Hobart.

Recherche Bay was, and still is, I guess a desolate, lonely place. Such places I have always liked. The sawmill from where we were to collect our cargo was on the opposite side of the bay. A small tugboat towed barges heavily laden with timber across the bay. After breakfast, loading commenced.

The captain’s wife and young son were aboard, and the “cabin boy” was busy. Ye Gods, how green was I! We were three weeks loading and the ship’s company enjoyed every moment of it. The crew loaded cargo in those days. The wages were about ten pounds a month on wind ships. Our cook, Karl Walters, was a splendid chef, “full and plenty” and beautifully cooked. We were a happy ship.

Amid the steamers that rendered her obsolete, James Craig laid up in Hobart c.1924.
Amid the steamers that rendered her obsolete, James Craig laid up in Hobart c.1924.

The Captain, quietly spoken, slim and capable was well liked, as were the Mate and Second, Mr Williams. Mr Chapman was rather gruff, but fair. The second mate at 22 was a blond, cheerful bloke, ex RN., a wizard rope worker. At weekends there were rambles on snow white beaches on the opposite side of the bay. On a clear soft moonlit night the boys would pile into a ship’s boat with the genial second mate in charge for a long hard pull, to a good fishing ground. Sometimes a fish fry and billy tea on the beach. Phosphorus gleamed silvery as we hauled in our fishing lines. Someone would start a song and we returned to the ship to sleep soundly until morning light. I wish I could sleep as soundly now. The weather held clear and pleasant.

One Saturday night we attended a dance at the small bush sawmill town and had a mighty time. I still remember the marvellous supper these kind bush women provided. Yards of delectable sandwiches, rich home-made cakes loaded with stacks of cream. How kind they were to us. After fifty years I remember these people, all gone now I guess. Sawmills no longer operate, maybe a small one somewhere. Maybe the remains of a few buildings can be seen. I hope to go home this summer and revisit the old places. I shall have to hurry, for the shadows are closing in.

Finally our sawn timber stowed below and deck cargo of “Blue Gum” piles securely fastened, we moved out in the roadway to await a fair wind to carry us away from this never to be forgotten spot.

One clear cool morning at dawn the seaman on anchor watch called the Master to inform him a light favourable breeze had sprung up. Then came the Mate’s voice loud and clear “All hands on deck!”. quickly the anchor came up. Staysails went on with a rush. Then followed topsails, foresails–finally the youthful crew members raced aloft to cast loose the royals. Sails filled quickly and we moved silently through the now sunlit waters of Recherche Bay. It was a splendid morning. Yards were trimmed. From the mate came the order: Belay there! Everyone aft!

Watches were chosen. With the exception of the second mate, lookout and helmsman, all hands went to breakfast. Soon we were picking up speed. We were on our way.

The passage of the years has not in any way dimmed the feeling of elation of that morning. Soon we were out in the open sea. A school of porpoises leapt ahead and close to the bows of our ship. The graceful manoeuvres of these harmless, interesting creatures is really something to see. Later on in another ship, our Finn Bosun harpooned one in a passage to Adelaide. To me it was a sad sight to see him landed on the deck awaiting death. That such a bonny creature should be butchered.

On the Sunday after leaving Recherche Bay, we lay becalmed off Cape Raoul. The high fluted cliff formation was a fascinating sight. The crew filled in the “stand-down”, washing, mending and dozing in the balmy sunlight. Next day we picked up a fair wind for a day or so until we were battling a head wind and heavy seas. At the end of each watch, all hands were on deck to “go about” or “wear ship”, everyone on board from Captain to cabin boy had a job to do. The Captain had the wheel and at a favourable moment his high clear call was the signal for the seamen to haul on the braces. He put the wheel over to point the ship in a new direction. The men hauled with a will and smartly the yards swung around, speed was picked up again; came the order from the Mate to “belay there” and the off duty watch went below.

How clear is the picture in my mind’s eye. One day when she “was taking them over white”, I had just drawn water from tanks below in the waist of the ship. The tank pipe’s stopper was flush with the deck planks. I committed the unforgivable crime. I left the stopper off!!! Luckily the mate spotted it before damage was done. Now who do you think copped it? Yes, me. The mate bellowed like any angry bull. My parentage was called into doubt, I was useless, stupid — words failed him and very smartly I had a safe distance between me and the mate’s horny hand, otherwise I would have copped it.

Picture of James Craig at the Globe Timber Mills, Inner Harbour, Port Adelaide, November-December 1921, prior loading for her last voyage.
James Craig at the Globe Timber Mills, Inner Harbour, Port Adelaide,
November-December 1921, prior loading for her last voyage.

Some days later we sighted land and in the clear starlit night our ship romped up to an anchorage in Outer Harbour where we dropped anchor and waited until next morning for a lifeboat to take us up the Torrens to our berth at Port Adelaide.

We tied up astern of the four-masted Finnish barque Lawhill. She was a real work horse. Built to carry large cargoes, not a graceful craft like the Craig but still a well formed sturdy barque. Manned by a crew of boys, from 15 to 18, from all accounts they were wonderful young seamen. These ships of Capt. Ericson’s were really the last of the windships in commission. The twenties found most of the sailing ships at anchor in France, Scandinavia, England, we still had the barquentine Thuraka, a brig called, I think, the Woolamie. I remember her later in Stanley, Tasmania. The barque Wild Wave was tied up in Port Adelaide. Trading to Tasmania and mainland ports were the topsail schooners Joseph Sims, the Alma Doepel and a few other schooners.

The graceful, beautiful topsail schooner Huia registered in New Zealand still carried explosives between NZ and Australia. We met her once at sea when I was in Kermandie. We were plugging along with engines in a head wind when Huia met and passed us, with every snow white sail set and drawing; painted all white, she was indeed a sight to behold. Later, years later, I saw her somewhere, minus topmasts and fine yards, fitted with an engine, belching black smoke–it was a sad sight.

In Port Adelaide, we discharged timber and took on a load of calcines, a heavy metal like coarse sand, much heavier though, to carry to Risdon Zinc works up river from Hobart. Two of our crew paid off here and we signed on two men. December around the dock area in Port Adelaide was hot and dusty and we were glad to load up and proceed to sea.

On the 24th December 1921 a big boat towed us down the river to the sea again. A light, fair wind got us on the move and we headed for Hobart. It was then we were privileged to see something never to be seen again. Five square riggers of, I think, all of Ericson’s fleet, beating around the coast to coastal ports of South Australia to load wheat. They were, as I remember, the barque Lawhill, the ship Archibold Russel, the four masted barquentine Mozart (the slug they called her), the four-masted Bellhouse and another barque. I may have some names wrong, 54 years is a long time to remember.

I have, since childhood, been a nomad, never amassed much of the world’s goods, or amounted to much, but ah — the memories — of seas, bush and rolling plains, of mountains, rivers and birds, of animals and glorious sunsets and the breathless moments of the glorious dawn just before the first bird calls — and the glory of the sunrise as old sun pops straight up out of the waters of the Coral Sea — all these and more, but I shall never be rich in worldly goods. But I digress.

Christmas day dawned fine and sunny. Crew were given a stand-by and there were tales of many other Christmas Days in other lands. The most delicious smells stole from the galley, where Karl as High Priest presided over the simmering pots. Christmas dinner was worth waiting for. Karl had really turned it on. There were crisp baked seasoned chickens, tender assortment of beef and pork, sugar cured ham with green peas, potatoes, and other vegetables. A monster Christmas pudding with brandy sauce, fruit and nuts to follow, whether any grog was turned on I do not know. I heard nothing of that. Karl, a fervent evangelist, gave everyone a cake of soap, a sweat rag and a New Testament. Poor old Karl — he meant well.

Boxing Day came in with high winds and rough seas. We were “;taking them over white” as the head wind forced us to tack to starboard and then back to port again. The cargo of calcine turned out to be a “proper bitch”. Just a dead weight in one heap in the hold with no give to it. all day and night at change of watch the cry “about ship” was heard, but next day we picked up a wind to take us south of Tasmania until on the morning of the 29th of December we picked up a spanking southerly breeze to send us on our way.

Picture of James Craig in 1921. The only photograph of her under sail so far uncovered. (Photo: Capt. Collin Goss)
James Craig in 1921. The only photograph of her under sail
so far uncovered. (Photo: Capt. Collin Goss)

New Year’s morning, the second mate called me to see land — Tasmania. We passed the “Iron Pot” at the mouth of the Derwent. The boisterous southerly behind us, we fairly flew up the river. It must have been a Sunday in the New Year. Crowds of people were gathered on the Hobart Domain to see for the last time a square rigged ship pass this point. Later I believe the occasional French ship would call at Hobart for supplies. That was when the French Government, desperately trying to save the sailing ships, paid the owner so much a nautical mile to carry on. But the “moving finger having writ” it was all in vain.

For the folk looking on, we must have presented a splendid picture. Every sail set, the James Craig stormed past the Domain under a cloud of snowy canvas tossing her head, not knowing this was her Swan Song.

As we neared Risdon, sail was being taken in until we reached the mooring point. With Capt. Purdon at the wheel, topsails were backed and slowly and gracefully, the James Craig turned in the river and settled alongside the pier, not knowing her work days were over.

There is little more to tell. The Master was sick and admitted to hospital. There were rumours we were set for a voyage to South Africa. Nothing came of it. Our cargo unloaded, we dropped down the river to Hobart, cleaned ship and then we were told she was to be taken to Recherche Bay “to go into moth balls”. We younger ones were very disappointed.

Mr Chapman was now in charge, of course. One morning a tugboat took us in tow and it seemed to me the ship had lost heart and took no more interest as to her destination. Some time in late afternoon, we reached Recherche Bay, gathered our gear and left her. We were sad to leave her, deserted and forsaken. It was the end of an era.

For a long time, I would awaken in the close darkness and wonder how she was. I would think of her tugging fretfully at her anchorage, the incoming tide lapping softly at her sides, dozing in the warmth of those glorious summer mornings such as southern Tasmania enjoys. In the stillness of the night growing restless, for she could not rest. The savage roaring in the rigging of a boisterous Antarctic southerly would only intensify the restless longing as she lay there; to once again ride high and wide on a restless sea. For years she lay there in lonely tragic Recherche Bay, forgotten by all but a few.

Now she may live again, to float on Sydney harbour –“A thing of beauty and a joy forever.”
Murray Geeves