- Stevens, Cliff
- Early warships, RAN operations
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Brisbane I, HMAS Sydney I
- March 1982 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
COALING SHIP is now a thing of the past, a forgotten evolution, but fifty years ago it was a much too frequent task. In this story, Cliff Stevens recalls the routine of filling the bunkers in one of the old Town class cruisers of the RAN with great clarity. The ship in question was Brisbane, the last of the coal burning light cruisers.
Sleep is shattered! Through the nettles of my hammock – at point blank range – the bugle’s ‘Reveille’. Ignoring the suggestions coming from within the hammocks as to what he should do with his bugle, Sticks continues through the mess decks collecting the wrath of the sleepers as he goes. The time is 0400.
Now the Quarter Master – ‘All watches of the hands, Daymen and Stokers, will coal ship at 0430. Dress of the day – Optional’. One tries to ignore this rude disturbance, but in the distance comes the gravel voice of the ‘Jaunty’ – ‘All hands, all hands, heave ho, lash up and stow. Come on now. Show a leg. Rise and shine!’ What’s the good! Swing out, lash up and stow the hammock in the bin. Don one’s most tattered clothes, which will be discarded at the end of the day’s work. Time for a quick mug of ‘Kye’ and a wash.
Again the bugle, and the pipe – ‘All watches of the hands fall in. Stokers muster on the Quarter Deck, Daymen in the starboard waist.’
Quickly detailed by our Captains of the Tops we double away to our stations. Some bearing shovels to the mountain of coal 150 yards way beyond Suva’s coaling wharf, others to man the running gear of the derricks, davits, booms, etc., rigged to get the ‘black diamonds’ aboard. Soon light tramlines are run from the various shipside embarking points to the coal dump. Stoker POs stand by capstans and winches.
Below in the claustrophobic bunkers wait the stokers. A babble of voices and orders from the scores of men engaged. At first it seems chaos, but suddenly everything is going like clockwork – filled baskets being raced on the trolleys at breakneck speed to the ship’s side, hoisted on deck and their contents tipped and shovelled down the chutes, threatening to engulf the trimmers as they shovel frantically to stow it. All hands sweat and toil as slaves never did – yet cheerfully, enthusiastically. Much good humoured banter. Officers and petty officers concern themselves only with the control and safety of the evolution. These men need no driving.
From time to time we glance up at the pennants at the starboard yardarm – Numeral 15. Then a little later Numeral 25 as the tons of coal come in. A glance about at the rigs worn – tattered shorts and shirts, overalls, ancient No. 3s, over their padded brassieres and scanties, a Snotty with a dirk and a battered cocked hat, a brawny AB with a wig of tow and an O/S floral dress, the Leading seaman at the for’ard triatic stay whip wearing a grass skirt and a cutlass, a tattered pirate, a seductive Squarie with red lips, bobbed hair, skirt above the knees (SHE is the ship’s featherweight champion). A day for sweating and skylarking.
0700 – Numeral 140. ‘Hands to breakfast on the upper deck.’ None of us wishes to carry this coal dust to the mess decks. The cooks bring hardboiled eggs, bread and butter and hot tea. We brush the coal from our hands and put ourselves outside the scran.
0715 – ‘Out pipes,’ then five minutes later – ‘Hands coal ship’.
We gather speed. Clouds of black dust hang in the still air. Enthusiasm the keynote. ‘Hurry up down there, Spike. Hook the bugger on, Shiner.” Down slack on the whip. Hoist handsomely. Roundly. High enough! Lower away roundly. Light to, and so the job goes on. Numeral 305. The day warms up. Must be 90° now.
At the coal dump, working from the face on the level is too uninteresting. ‘Dusty,’ ‘Ocker,’ ‘Spud’ and ‘Hec’ run their rails to the top of the coal to make a ‘Big Dipper.’ The other parties follow suit. The trollies, each jockeyed by two sailors, scream down the dump, round the curves on two wheels, somehow remaining on the rails.