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The Pilots

(By Petford Allen- circa 1939.)


A short sketch of the Pilot Service of Sydney heads may be of some interest to readers of the "Lawson Post."

Prior to 1877 the deep sea pilot work at Sydney heads was performed by means of magnificent whaleboats manned by experienced fishermen and sailors. It was a very hazardous duty, especially in rough weather, at night. Ultimately. however, it was found that the whaleboats were unable to render towing assistance to vessels in distress, besides which the boats could not venture any great distance from the Heads, sometimes the vessels signalling being as far off as fifteen miles, waiting for a pilot. The steamer "Captain Cook" was launched at Mort's Dock. She was a small wooden craft of about 140 tons, yet one of the most seaworthy ''cockleshells" that ever navigated through Sydney Heads. The "Cook" as the vessel was more often called, was commanded by Captain Joseph Creer, a dashing sea hero whose name is not likely to be forgotten in connection with lifeboat and rescue work at the gate of the port for many years to come.

The vessel, under his able command, was kept as spick and span as the brightest warship in the Navy.

To describe the pilot system: When a ship appears in sight off the Heads, for instance, from London, the vessel, unless the captain has passed the Marine Board of New South Wales' examination for competency to bring his vessel to an anchorage in safety, requires to signal for the services of a pilot, the signal being the well-known Union Jack flying at the foremast in the daytime, and a blue rocket light' (as many as are found necessary to call attention) at night. Should the captain of the ship have passed the examination referred to, then he flies a white exemption flag on the fore-top, in which case a pilot is not required, the vessel simply being towed into port.
When the ship has approached sufficiently close to the Heads, what is called the ''Proceed'' (a blue streamer) is hoisted near the signal station, on a short pole, separate altogether from the flagstaff, and almost at once the Pilot steamer is under way. Two pilots are always in readiness, and as soon as these are taken, others come aboard to fill their places. The system is perfect. When the steamer reaches the vessel signalling, for a pilot a whale boat has to be launched out in the open sea, night or day, the pilot boarding the incoming ship often after great difficulty and exposed to much danger. The plan adopted is to launch the boat on the lee side of the ship, which, of course, meanwhile is hove-to, the boat then having some degree of shelter from the seething break of overwhelming green seas. Occasionally, with very large vessels, particularly those steamships which have discharged the greater part of their inward cargo in Melbourne, the pilot is submerged out of sight in the water, in his effort to get a footing on the rope ladder, clinging on to the last rung. Pilots and sailors have been known to meet with injuries through the boat being dashed against the vessel's side, some losing several fingers, cut off as if by a knife. Then, again, the utmost care has to be exercised in releasing the boat from the davits, the least mistake causing the boat to upset with all its occupants.

Duty calls, even in the very worst weather. Truly, indeed, it is 'a brave and noble work. In ordinary weather the pilot steamer lies moored to a buoy in Camp Cove, a little north of Watson's Bay, but in rough weather to moorings in the latter place. Steam is. always up- morning, noon and night. As soon as the blue flag appears on the South Head flagstaff signalling station- (blue indicates a ship, a red flag a barque, and various other flags denote other rigs)- the steamer drops a floating oil drum overboard, to which a hawser is attached connecting with a sunken anchor below, so that when the steamer returns all that is necessary to be done is to ''pick up'' the oil drum buoy and the vessel is made fast.

 

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