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Title: The Pilot Service of Port Jackson
Author: John Arthur Barry
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1302111h.html
Language: English
Date first posted: May 2013
Date most recently May 2013

Produced by: Walter Moore

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(Author of "The Luck of the Native Born," "A Son of the Sea," "In the Great Deep," "Steve Brown's Bunyip," etc )

Published in the Australian Town and Country Jornal (NSW)
Saturday, May 17, 1902

A fine, sunny, clear day, Watson's Bay, and the pilot steamer Captain Cook, in which we are bound for a short cruise, lying quietly at her buoy. In answer to a signal a boat puts off, and in a few more minutes we are on the steamer's deck; in two more, after a cordial welcome from Captain Chudleigh, the "Cook" glides gently out to sea, through the broad gateway of the Port. It is an ideal day; blue water and blue sky; the great, weather-worn rocks that guard the portal of the harbor glow warmly with patches of rich, red color, while around their feet, for there is a swell on, plays a creaming fringe of foam. Coasting steamers and ketches are coming and going; but nothing big in the way of inward-bound ships is as yet in sight, which fact is rather disappointing, inasmuch as we have come to see for ourselves what the routine of pilot-life is like. But later on comes compensation.

The men are busy cleaning and painting, and the skipper takes the wheel and talks—talks well and entertainingly, as one of the "great and noble craft of the seafarer" to his aforetime brethren. Meanwhile, he handles his ship like a top, takes us in and out, to and fro, right to the edge of the white water, round the grim North Head, and back past the "Gap," and the spot where the fated Dunbar went to her doom. Aft, a silent, brown-faced pilot paces, with regular quarter-deck steps, and an expectant eye glancing every now and again towards the signal staff on the South Head.

"Regular picnic work this piloting business," one remarks tentatively, voicing the opinion of "the man in the street."

"So folk seem to think," replies the skipper, with an appreciative smile, backed by another from the pilot, who has just joined us on the bridge. "And so it would be if it were all like this. But what about the pitch-dark nights, with a S.E. gale, blowing big guns, rain driving in thick squalls, and a scared foreigner burning blue lights and sending up rockets for a pilot off Botany, and not knowing where he is any more than the man in the moon. You should come out with us at a time like that to see what piloting really is! It's then that a man wants all his nerve and strength and skill. A false step, a slip between boat and ship rolling and pitching in a heavy sea, and a broken limb is the least one has to look forward to. No, it's not all beer and skittles!"

Just at that moment a three-flag hoist appears on the staff at the Signal Station, and is quickly deciphered to mean that a large steamer is coming in from the north, and is now twenty miles distant.

This means business, so we steam back to the Bay with the signal flying for another pilot. Presently he comes on board, and we make out again to wait for the expected arrival. As showing the amount of work performed, and, incidentally the amount of money earned for the State by its pilot service, it interests us to learn that during the last six months the average number of vessels taking pilots was a little over 100; on one occasion the tally rose to 125 for a single month. A record performance was the serving of 14 ships in 24 hours. It will thus be easily seen that the six pilots on the station must have their hands pretty full. In a busy time they see little of their homes ashore, and the captain very much less. Indeed, not long before our visit he only spent one night at home out of seven. Otherwise there appears nothing to complain of. While tossing about outside waiting for the incoming ship it seems a good time to take a closer look over the Captain Cook. On deck she is as spick and span as paint and elbow-grease can make her—a fine roomy boat, too, with plenty of beam, and evidently from her searchlight to her powerful pumps well adapted for the business she was built for. Her boats are a pleasure to look at, and a greater pleasure still to see put into the water and plucked out of it. Of which, however, more anon. On the after-davit of each is an electric lamp under a shade, an idea of the captain's, by which, on the darkest nights, the space immediately around is rendered as light as day. Below, the vessel is well and plainly fitted, with berths forward for the pilots and officers, and a snug saloon aft—no embroidery or gingerbread work, but just what is wanted for the rough dusting she very often gets, especially during the winter months.

Masters of oversea ships trading to or visiting Port Jackson have ever been warm in their praise of the way the pilot service is conducted, both by the Captain Cook and all connected with her. As for the pilots and the master, they do their duty as a matter of course, and do it well. As for the ship, all she requires to make her perfect, is, one judges, an alteration in her steam steering gear, and twin screws.

Dinner, and no sign of the "large steamer distant twenty miles," at least three hours ago. Soup disposed of quickly in the swell, and with the fiddles on the table, is followed by a round of corned beef, with "trimmings;" a baked currant pie that is a poem in itself, and a credit to the cook. On deck again, and we see close aboard a big lump of a 5000-ton tramp flying light; funnel painted with the red and yellow colors of Spain, but with the British ensign fluttering over her taffrail, and the signals for a pilot between her pole-masts.

She rolls solemnly In the long swell, her lofty sides towering above us like the walls of a warehouse, at times showing her bottom green with trailing sea vegetation. Dark faces on her bridge, and darker ones staring at us from the foc'sle head. Our skipper takes his vessel as close as possible, which is very close indeed—a business requiring a quick eye and steady nerves. A few sharp orders, and men hurl themselves at a boat. Before you can wink she is in the water, the pilot jumps into her, and she is pulling for the big ship to where, adown her precipitous sides, swings a rope ladder. Another wink or two, and we see the pilot, like a Tivoli acrobat, clinging to the swaying ladder. A final wink, and he is on the tramp's bridge and our boat is at her own davits—altogether as smart a bit of work as ever delighted a seaman's heart.

Then the Spanish-Britisher turns slowly on her heel and makes off in between the ocean gate posts of the harbor for Sydney, and the dock that she is so evidently in need of.

"Twenty pounds," says the captain, as we slip in ahead of her, "is what it costs him for pilotage. That's the maximum for any ship. Two pounds ten's the minimum charge. Coasters are exempt; so are some deep-sea men; but when their time expires there will be no more renewals, and all such fish will, perforce, have to come into our net. More work, of course; but also more revenue for the State Treasury." By the way, one of our pilots—it must be remembered that we still have a spare one on board—remarked that, aforetime, when the dues were 4d per ton, he alone had earned for the State nearly £5000 during the year. It should be here mentioned that all these men are passed masters of the mercantile marine, clever, and experienced seamen, and long accustomed to command both in steam and under canvas.

A word as to the ingenious system for night signalling in practice. Warned from the South Head Station that a ship is asking for a pilot somewhere ouitside, the Captain Cook slips her moorings, and puts to sea. A long flash from the station indicates, say, that the vessel is to the southward; this of course is vague, but two lamps in a line give compass bearings; for distance, a light obscured and released so many times will show the number of miles, the whole process furnishing sufficient data to go upon in any weather.

Off Bradleys we meet a "minimum" (a £2 10s ship), a little, grotesque Norwegian steamer, with her funnel stuck right astern, three masts, and a bow like a whaler's. But, all the same, she has to be attended to. So we put a pilot on her, and kept a motherly eye on her down the western channel, which she negotiated at her top speed of some four knots an hour. It seemed absurd that she should require pilotage at all; still, the revenue gained by fifty shillings. Back to the buoy again after taking our pilot off the Norwegian, and, no signals appearing at the station, we made fast in about three minutes—everything connected with the pilot service is nothing if not "quick and lively." The 'Carrington—a smart steam launch attached to the pilot steamer—we found ready to take us up to town; and we took leave of the Captain Cook and her ship's company, thoroughly convinced that both of them are not only the right men and the right ship for their business, but that they both deserve well of the State, the general public, and more particularly of the whole seafaring community.


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