- van Gelder, Commander John RAN (Rtd)
- Ship histories and stories
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Queenborough
- March 2003 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
During the forenoon of Wednesday 19 October 1966, the weather could only be described as superb. Since departing North Wharf, Melbourne, on Monday morning the weather had been very kind to us. The sun was brilliant, the swell from the south west and hardly perceptible, the wind a light north westerly and temperature in the low 20s. On the horizon off the port quarter lay the rather forbidding mountains of the south western extremity of Tasmania.
At this time it was my privilege to command HMAS Queenborough, without question the best ship in the Australian Fleet. This assessment could be verified by asking any member of the ship’s company, and I certainly had no doubt about it myself.
Having departed Melbourne on the Monday, we were due to arrive in Hobart on the Thursday for a ceremonial visit, after making passage down the west coast of Tasmania. Visiting the friendly city of Hobart has always been a pleasure, from my first visit whilst serving in HMAS Australia in 1954 to the last visit when I managed to find myself with a fire in the port engine of one of our RAN Dakotas immediately after takeoff from Hobart airport. Now nothing will accelerate the adrenalin flow faster in a pilot than a fire in the air . . . but I digress, that is another story.
On Wednesday morning off Tasmania life was very pleasant indeed. As the man on the TV ad said ‘. . it doesn’t get any better than this . ‘ Actually, he was quite correct. If it can’t get any better then it must stay that way or get worse. As the day progressed there was ample warning that things would get worse with a rapidly approaching mass of cirrus cloud from the south west quadrant.
Later in the day, as the weather really was showing marked signs of deterioration, a most interesting signal was received from Fleet Headquarters at Garden Island. In essence the signal invited us, in no uncertain terms, to get ourselves to Hobart at best speed, top up with fuel and stand by to proceed to Macquarie Island for a possible medical evacuation.
Two questions became immediately apparent. Firstly, what was the shortest passage from our present position to Hobart and, secondly, what do we know about Macquarie Island? The first question was simple to answer. By far the shortest passage to Hobart was through D’Entrecasteaux Channel. The question regarding Macquarie Island could wait until we had studied the charts and books. All I knew was that it was a long way south.
Immediately after receiving the signal, at about 1845, we increased speed to 25 knots and shaped course for D’Entrecasteaux Channel.
Our arrival at the entrance to the Channel seemed to coincide very nicely with the arrival of the full intensity of a cold front. That is, 30 knots of wind, driving rain and a pitch black night. I had great faith in our 978 radar, however, blind pilotage under these weather conditions in an unfamiliar channel was not conducive to a relaxed and pleasant evening at sea. In order to lower the stress level on the bridge personnel, including myself, we reduced speed to 20 knots.
Berthing at the fuelling wharf in Hobart shortly after 0500 was interesting. With a strong southerly wind and flooding tide it was necessary to keep both engines slow ahead until the berthing lines had been secured. Whilst refuelling progressed, phone contact was made with Fleet Headquarters. We were directed to sail for Macquarie Island on completion of fuelling, at economical speed, and await further instructions.
As the Scheme of Complement for Queenborough did not include a medical officer we embarked a civilian Government Medical Officer whilst in Hobart. Unbeknown to him, the doctor, a thoroughly delightful gentleman, was about to spend some of the most uncomfortable days of his life by courtesy of the RAN. At this time I learnt that the person we were likely to evacuate from Macquarie Island was diagnosed as suffering from stones in the kidneys. A condition, I must confess, which meant very little to me at the time.