This was the scene when the small group of volunteers from Sydney quietly sailed in Recherche Bay on the south coast of Tasmania in 1972 and these were the questions which excited their minds: How did she come to be there? What stories could those weathered old plates tell – of ports, adventures, men and the sea?
For forty years the James Craig lay in the sheltered but cold waters of Recherche Bay. Her bow was high out of the water and fairly close in under the beach. Her stern lay in about five metres of water. The sea surged constantly through the large hole blown in her stern, but she had made herself a comfortable bed and was lying evenly on the bottom with no undue strain on any part of her hull. It was because of this that the underwater areas of the ship, when she was raised, proved to be in almost perfect condition.
Above water, however, it was not the same story. The wind and weather had eroded many of her 100 year old plates into a lacework of rusty holes, while vandals with gelignite in their pockets and an empty rattle in their heads, had blown holes in a dozen more places and reduced even the good plating to a tattered shell. A deliberately set fire had removed the last vestiges of timber on her, including her superb pine decks.
Fishermen and boat owners who had used her as a sort of artificial island had added their bit to the desecration by painting graffiti along the battered and rusty, but still dignified, hull.
Then one day in the bleak, cold bay with the snow-capped mountains frowning down from above, a small boat with a bunch of dedicated men pulled alongside the James Craig, and a new era in her life had begun. This was the advance party whose optimistic survey was to eventually result in the stately old barque being roused from her forty year sleep and restored to a glory that she never achieved, even in her working heyday.
It really all began in San Francisco, California. Karl Kortum, director of the superb San Francisco Maritime Museum–which has one of the finest examples of a restored windjammer in the world–was looking for remaining windjammers that could be retrieved and restored for his museum. Following a letter in the ship lovers’ magazine Sea Breezes, the James Craig came to his notice. Alarmed that the last remaining Australian square rigged ship might be lost to the Americans, the small but enthusiastic Sydney group known as the Lady Hopetoun and Port Jackson Marine Steam Museum began moves to attempt to recover the barque themselves with a view to restoring her and using her as a floating museum in Sydney. A study was carried out and the pros and cons weighed. It would be a mammoth operation and, since funds were not available, would be a labour of love for all involved. But to wait until funds were raised would mean possibly losing the ship to the well financed Americans.
So it was that on that March morning in 1972 the James Craig awakened from her long sleep to the tapping of surveyors’ hammers and the tickles of skin divers scraping at her thick coat of barnacles. Her first examination in over forty years revealed that, by and large, she was in reasonable shape. Much of the damage caused by vandals could be patched. The deterioration of plates and frames by wind and weather was not as extensive as had at first appeared. And, most importantly, she was lying evenly on the bottom and there seemed no wracking or twisting of her iron framework. However, there were tons of silt and coal in her hold, and there was no way of knowing what was underneath it. The bottom of the hull could be intact or it could have disintegrated completely. Only when she was raised would the real truth be known.
Hearts tend to take over from heads in matters like these, and there was not one dissenting voice when the decision was made at a museum meeting…to raise the Craig! But heads must become involved when the facts get down to finance, and it became a question of whether or not funds could be raised, for with all the goodwill in the world and all the enthusiasm there was to offer, such a project had no chance of success without some financial backing. The museum members rallied round.
Though small in numbers, they were giant killers in action and before many months were out sponsors had been found among private citizens and industry to get the project into action. There was still not much money around and there were a lot of cynics. But pump firms lent pumps, airlines offered free travel to Hobart and private individuals dug deep into their pockets. On 31 March 1972 four museum members landed in Tasmania to begin the recovery of the old barque and forestall the Americans. A twelve metre steel boat was chartered as a salvage vessel and in the early hours of that Easter weekend nosed into Recherche Bay and snugged up against the above-water section of the wreck.
To the bemused looks of the occasional passing fisherman, the salvage crew worked non-stop through the weekend pumping and patching and examining the hull in minute details. An extensive survey was carried out in which details of every damaged section were recorded so that a close study of the damage could be made later in Sydney and patches fabricated to cover the major holes.The size and condition of each underwater hole was recorded particularly carefully so that permanent patches could be fabricated and fitted.
In the meantime it was important to try to float the full so that the one big question mark–the condition of the bottom–could be resolved. Temporary patches of plywood and plastic were screwed or bolted in place and the pumps started to suck out the water so that a close examination of the bottom could be made. It was also intended, if she floated, to move the ship farther up the beach to make repair work easier at a later date.
For three days the work went on untiringly as the salvage crew, fighting off weariness and cold, battled to lower the level of water in the hold. Sleep was unheard of–there was nowhere to sleep anyway–and the clanging of the pumps added to the cacophony of noise as patches were hammered home and plugs rammed into the myriad rivet and rust holes that were too small to be patched. But it soon became apparent that they were not going to win. Being volunteers they all had jobs to return to and, sadly, they packed their kitbags and boarded the salvage vessel for the run back to civilisation, tired, grimy, cold and beaten.
The pumps were not adequate to empty the shattered hull. The patches were not sufficient in number or design. And, worst of all, there were still thousands of as yet unseen holes which could not be patched until the hull had been lifted high enough to remove the sludge in the hold. The true dimensions of the salvage job were just becoming apparent and the enormity of it was depressing.
However, once back in Sydney, enthusiasm again whipped up, and in the months that followed the dismay of those three days was forgotten in a surge of determination to get the ship before the rival museum in San Francisco. To their credit, the Americans had stood back to give the local museum a ‘fair go’ at the James Craig, so for that dedicated band it was no longer a question of whether or not the barque could be raised; she simply must be raised. The detailed records obtained on the last visit were computed into requirements and the cost thereof.
A lot of thought went into the question of pumping the flooded hull and even more effort was directed at getting support from manufacturers. By October the homework had been done. It was now or never!On 21 October 1972 a salvage team composed of museum members headed south with the one intention–to refloat the James Craig! The same salvage boat was chartered and loaded with massive pumps, compressors and salvage gear which had been sent down from Sydney. The Tasmanians, as enthusiastic as the Sydney team, offered voluntary assistance and, on 22 October, the James Craig once again felt the bumping and banging of hammers and drills and pumps.
The biggest problem–patching the holes in the hull–took two forms. The gaping hole in the stern, about three metres across, could not be patched. The greatest inrush of water was through this hole so it had to be somehow sealed off.
Tools were primitive and skilled labour non-existent so normal methods could not be adopted. The solution seemed to lie in sealing off the entire stern section of the ship–which took care of many major leak areas as well–and pumping the rest of the hull dry. A sandbag cofferdam, similar to those used to repair river banks breached by flood waters, proved the answer and, with a huge 60,000 gph pump hooked up through the stern and the major holes in the hull covered with prefabricated patches, the salvage operation began. Divers swam constantly under the hull plugging new holes as they came to light while smaller pumps were started to assist the big pump.
Gradually–so very gradually–the water level in the hull started to go down. By now excitement was at fever pitch and for the next day sleep was forgotten as every man in the team rushed around the drying hull plugging leaks with anything that could be pressed into service.
At 5 am on 24 October the James Craig stirred gently and lifted herself from her sandy bed. For the first time in over forty years she was afloat again! The exuberance of the salvage team was quickly controlled as she swung her bow round and started to drift towards the entrance to the bay, seemingly anxious to get back out to sea again. But there was much to be done before that could be achieved and, wistfully, the team turned her back and beached her again.
It was essential now to raise her higher and higher up the beach so that her hull could be examined properly. This would mean days of hard slogging getting the sludge out of the hold and getting her cleaned and patched. Indeed, there were months of work ahead before she could be towed back to her home port of Hobart, but nothing could now dampen the excitement that ran high through the salvage crew, for the refloating had proved one thing–her hull was intact under water. In fact it was May 1973 before the ship was ready for tow.
Apart from cleaning out the remainder of her hold a considerable amount of strengthening work had to be done or there would be a risk of the old ship breaking up as she fronted once again into the ocean swell. A professional steel fabrication firm from Melbourne was called in and, despite the ravages of the typical ‘Roaring Forties’ weather experienced in this part of Tasmania, the work was completed on schedule for the tow. At 7 am on 26 May 1973 the tug Sirius Cove nudged the James Craig out of Recherche Bay and into the ocean she had sailed so many times. At the end of a 350 metre tow line she was towed jubilantly up through the magnificent autumn colours of the D’Entrecasteau Channel to her home port of Hobart. The old lady was home….
Following the tow to Hobart the James Craig had a chequered life for the next few years. Now that her recovery had been achieved, the museum had run finally and completely out of funds. So desperate was the situation that, for want of maintenance, she was many times in danger of sinking again. An estimated $500,000 was needed to restore her and such funds were not easy to find, particularly as an economic recession was looming. Governments, both State and Federal, did not want to know of her existence and, with economic problems besetting industry, the commercial world could offer little help. Indeed, but for the Hobart Marine Board who offered her a permanent berth at the old Powder Wharf, the old barque may well have been lost for want of finance and care. With the berthing taken care of, attention could be directed to getting her on her feet again, but it was to be some years–during which she sank once at her berth–before her restoration became a reality.
During those years she was gradually stripped and her gear stored by a small team working as cash flow would allow. She was too far from Sydney for museum volunteers to be able to help much, and the restoration dropped into limbo other than for basic maintenance to keep her afloat. The original intention of berthing her at Circular Quay as an attraction of the Sydney Cove Redevelopment program was also running into trouble and the museum, now renamed the Sydney Cove Waterfront Museum, was having difficulty financing the three old steamships in its fleet, as well as press forward with the plans for the James Craig.
But the cloud’s silver lining was just around the corner and, as the economic depression took an upturn, so the sky lightened for the museum. D.J. Properties Ltd, a Sydney based company, had shown excellent forethought and awareness in converting an old waterfront factory into a retail centre, combining the old buildings with the modern business facility. It was natural that the old ships of the waterfront museum should become involved and the company offered to help finance the relocation of the museum on this site. Finance was also available for the restoration of the James Craig and work was recommenced almost immediately. In the meantime, the museum was getting back onto its feet and,
by virtue of dedicated work on the part of members, was beginning to look like a museum. Art Unions brought in a steady cash flow and donations from commercial organisations increased to help with the restoration of the old ships. The museum now had a home, two steamships in restored or nearly restored condition and another under restoration. The James Craig was slipped and thoroughly checked prior to being towed to Sydney to form the major attraction of the new waterfront museum.
Birkenhead Point, with its superbly restored old buildings and central location, became the new home of both the museum and the James Craig. Here she could be seen in the process of restoration for, although much of the major hull structure was renovated in Hobart prior to the tow to Sydney, there are many years of work ahead completing the restoration of her masts, spars, rigging and accommodation. Sydneysiders could now board their superb old windjammer and watch the progress of the work as the James Craig, slowly but surely, regains her former glory.
1978 to now
Following a generous gift from the Federal Government, through the NSW Council of the Australian Bicentennial Authority, we were able to construct the purpose-built Sea Heritage Pontoon Dock. In October 1985, the James Craig was placed on it and the vessel, safely ensconced on the dock, was re-sited to Darling Harbour where work continued.
Restoration and then conservation were now able to begin in earnest. Original plans were to restore the vessel up to the status of a static museum display. It soon became evident however that her importance to maritime heritage, not only that of Australia but also to the rest of the world, made it imperative that she be fully conserved so that she could sail again.
With the lifting of the ship onto the dock substantial repair work on the hull structure was possible. The hull was effectively taken apart and rebuilt using as much of the original plating as possible.
Soon though Darling Harbour proved to be a less than desirable restoration site as organisations such as surrounding hotels and tour operators began to complain about noise. Restoration work became incredibly slow and inefficient and, by 1994, it was decided to move the Sea Heritage Dock, with the James Craig, back to the Waterways Wharf in Rozelle Bay.
On Sunday 23rd February 1997 the James Craig once again floated on her own bottom after she was officially relaunched by the Premier of NSW, Mr. Bob Carr. In officiating at the ceremony Mr Carr said, “The James Craig is important simply because she exists. There are remarkably few living relics of that era; some wrecks and hulks, some replicas and a few restored, static, displays. Only two (sic) other 19th century ships have been restored to be operational under sail and both of these are in the United States.”
In 1995, the Sydney Maritime Museum, determined that the project must not fail, established a separate James Craig Restoration Division to oversee the project’s completion.
In order to comply with modern navigation and safety requirements, some modern equipment had to be installed to gain certification for sailing into and out of Sydney harbour with passengers. The James Craig is now fitted with engines (donated by MTU), gearboxes (donated by ZF Australia), controllers (donated by Mannesmann Rexroth), sullage tanks, modern fire-fighting equipment and 21st Century navigation and safety devices. However these have been integrated into the ship in such a way as to not significantly interfere with her 19th century ambience.
A feature of the ship is the captain’s and officer’s quarters, immediately below the poop deck, which have been fitted out with wood paneling, carvings, period furniture and the like, as they would have been in their heyday.
She is now sailing regularly, and is the only 19th century barque in the world that can give members of the general public the experience of sailing on such a ship on the open ocean.
Why not book a sail?
©Jeff Toghill, 1981 (Jeff Toghill was part of the salvage team)?
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