Tuesday, 6 November 2007

My Short Career as A Servant Of The Crown


In 1956, MV Doma was only a few years out of her wartime origin, but was already showing signs of a hard life as the tropical climate ate away at thin steel hull-plating when I assumed command, as the youngest ship's master on the Papuan Coast.

A voyage across the Papuan Gulf into the Northwest monsoon, the last of many such operations was abandoned when the Chief Engineer dropped a heavy steel bar in the engine room. It penetrated Doma's single-skinned bottom and produced a fountain of salt water which he temporarily smothered with a cement patch over a hastily riveted metal plate.

The ship's owners were not unduly concerned and suggested that the patch would serve as a permanent repair. I disagreed and was ordered to "Get on with it and stop nit-picking." but the thought of another hull failure in the single skin of this rusting survivor of who knew how many wartime stresses and strains made resignation of my command an easy decision.
Her previous master had found another job as crash-boat skipper with The Department of Civil Aviation at the Flying-Boat Base on Port Moresby Harbour, and I followed, exchanging a slow-moving eight knot coastal freighter for a 30 knot crashboat.

The Port Moresby Marine Base was equipped with high-speed launches powered by twin V-12 Dorman-Ricardo diesels. They were there to guard and control the flying boat landing area used by RAAF PBY Catalina amphibians, now owned by Qantas. These slow-flying aircraft made a leisurely circuit of several thousand miles twice a week from Port Moresby, covering all of coastal Papua and New Guinea and most of the Solomon Islands as far as Honiara. The Catalinas carried less than a dozen passengers perched uncomfortably on canvas seats down both sides of the hull, with their feet in bilge water which sloshed from one end of the aircraft to the other after most take-offs. The launches, ( "crashboats,") would sweep the harbour for floating logs and debris and the occasional native canoe before every take-off and landing. The rest of the time was spent on standby, waiting for an emergency of any kind, with the crew busily cleaning paintwork and polishing and re-polishing the brass fittings, which were liberally fitted throughout the vessel.

I had been with DCA in Port Moresby for only a few months. Unaware of the traps laid for unwary newcomers by long entrenched government employees, I treated my transfer to Rabaul as Officer in Charge. New Guinea Islands as a welcome promotion and we left immediately for my new posting. The Rabaul Marine Base had its crashboat lying to a mooring a few yards offshore from two ex-wartime buildings. One had been converted into living quarters for the boss, while the other was a workshop and store with accommodation for the boats crew.

At Rabaul, the weekly Catalina arrived on Mondays from Port Moresby via Lae, Madang, Manus and Kavieng, and departed the following morning for a flight to Honiara in The Solomon Islands, returning to Port Moresby by the same roundabout route on Wednesdays after an overnight stop. This left half the week free. The only other task was a short trip down-harbour with the town's resident vulcanologist for an inspection of Matupi Volcano which smoked away day and night and contributed the occasional earth tremor: these were ignored by blasé Rabaul residents as something of no particular concern.

My short career as a public servant came to an abrupt halt when the decision to close the Marine Base and replace Catalinas with DC3 'Gooney-birds'; a decision made before I left Port Moresby, was conveyed to me for the first time in a brief official telegram.

The crashboat was sold; the base was closed; and I was unemployed with a wife and new baby daughter to provide for and a grand total of twentyfive pounds in the bank.

To be continued

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