The Brisbane Dry Dock: Maritime Australia 6

June 2023

Our mini-series on Maritime Asutralia continues with an episode dedicated to Brisbane’s fabulous dry dock. The dock now sits in the grounds of the Queensland Maritime Museum on a bend on the south side of the Brisbane River and contains the magnificent historical vessel HMAS Diamantina, a river class frigate built in the 1940s, and the Carpentaria, a lightship built in 1917 which provided a crucial service warning mariners of dangerous shoal waters off Fraser Island and off the western approaches tot he Torres Strait. The dock itself, the third oldest in Australia, and built in 1876, offers a fascinating insight to Australian maritime history, and in particular shipbuilding and maritime trade in Queensland. To find out more Dr Sam Willis spoke with Russell Cobine, a retired shipwright with a lifetime of experience working in dry docks.

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    Sam Willis 

    From the Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis and this is the Mariners Mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history Hello everyone and welcome to the Mariners Mirror Podcast. Today we continue our mini series on maritime Australia to go alongside this we’ve made some really fun animated video content. You can find them all at the Mariners Mirror podcast YouTube page and on our Instagram and also tic toc so please make sure to check all of those out. You will be amazed I promise you. So far in our Australia series, we’ve been to Perth for the first few episodes and now we’re in Brisbane at the Queensland Maritime Museum. The last episode was a short tour of the museum building and its many wonderful objects and artefacts. Today I’m taking you on a tour outside, the dry dock that sits nestled into a bend on the South bank of the Brisbane River. To find out more, I spoke with Russell Cobine, a volunteer shipwright at the museum as ever, I hope you enjoy listening to him as much as I enjoyed talking with him here is the expertly experienced man with expertise oozing from his pores. He’s the shipwrightyest man I’ve ever met. And he’s also good value and great company here is Russell.

     

    Sam Willis 

    So I’m standing here on the decks of a world war two frigate looking at a majestic River and I’m in the middle of Brisbane. I’m here with Russell. Where are we?

     

    Russell Cobine 

    We are at South Brisbane dry dock in Brisbane, which was established prior to World War One, and has been it was in operation as a dry dock through till about 1980 When the Maritime Museum was formed, and they now control the dry dock as it is today.

     

    Sam Willis 

    It seems to be quite an amazing engineering achievement, looking at the way that the dry docks formed, what do we know about how they built it?

     

    Russell Cobine 

    Well, I don’t know a great deal about how they built it, mainly because I wasn’t here. When you look at the structure, I believe that it’s very much a great deal of limestone. And it’s been formed this way, when we go up towards the front of the dry dock, you’ll see the actual stone where they’ve extended the length of it and taken and you can see the stone formation. The idea of the steps is that it was they were used in part of the procedures when docking certain types of vessels, right? If you have a vessel that has a fair amount of shape in the in the frames where it rises quickly. You use when they were Oregon posts that were used to wedge between there and the deck of the boat to hold it up. And it was one every two or three metres apart for the length of the boat. If the boat was flat bottom, like a dredge or something like that, and then we use to build what we call the cradle to sit it in, which was a series of blocks set at specific heights that came in and sat on.

     

    Sam Willis 

    What’s your own experience of the dry dock because you said you were here once many many years ago.

     

    Russell Cobine 

    I actually served my apprenticeship here at the dry dock in 1962. I commenced as a shipwright apprentice, I served and worked in many of the aspects of the shipbuilding here mainly in repair, and in maintenance, assisting with docking, etc., learning my way around the shipyard. It’s interesting to note that my grandfather actually worked here in the dry dock during the war as a what they called in those days a diluting shipwright, he was not qualified, but he knew how to do the job. And he was the one that said to me the best job I ever had was the shipwright, I think you should do that. So being the eldest grandson, I did as I was told

     

    Sam Willis 

    Fantastic so you know your way around this place really well. So I’ve been looking we’re standing on the decks and in the middle of the dry dock. Now looking across onto the side of it and there’s plenty of equipment here as well some really interesting, interesting material. Are these these warehouses as well are they part of the original site,

     

    Russell Cobine 

    They are part of the original site. The concrete structure you can see here is actually the pump house, and you can go down in there and see the way the pumps operated. And that’s very interesting. This area over here may have been moved, but there used to be a loft for the mould, mould maker. There. That was his little area. And then from here, out alongside there to the left used to be the Boilermaker shop. Because the dry dock when it was owned by harbours marine was self sufficient in its own right. We had painters and dockers who everybody knows why, painters and Dockers shipwrights and the shipwrights that were here were also highly skilled in boatbuilding. Many of them came from England, migrated over here and worked in here. And yeah, so that’s it. And then over on this side where the museum is now there used to be a very large blacksmith shop. Next door to that was a fitting and turning workshop where they could machine or they had machines there that could turn a propshaft if it needed to be. Then alongside that was the shipwrights workshop, where there used to be 12 shipwrights here in the dry dock as well as I think, well. There was only two apprentices. When I started when I finished I think we had about six shipwright apprentices. Along the riverfront were  wharfs, well, we’ll call them wharfs, that were pretty rickety, but there were wharfs.  That’s where we used to tie up the boats for maintenance work outside the dry dock itself.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah. And they’ve all gone now the riverside, is there a walkways to be able to walk long, but there are not there’s not really places for people to tie up large amounts of ships.

     

    Russell Cobine 

    No there isn’t. Basically along here used to be all wharves, etc. With the implementation of the freeway, they limited the size of boats that could come up here. That’s one of the reasons that dry dock closed, but also, this was the centre of Brisbane. So along Grey street here was well known for the wharves and the equipment, etc. And the people that our goods came into here and then well move from here.

     

    Sam Willis 

    What sort of goods are we talking about?

     

    Russell Cobine 

    Oh, you’d be talking about any household goods, materials, building materials, construction materials, wheat flour, wool. A lot of those things would have been dispatched from here as well because Queensland is known for wheat and wool and timber, etc. So it was our main receiving point for Queensland and our distribution point.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Essentially now as we stand on the deck slipping out of the gate of the dry dock, there are two bridges, which effectively seal off the this majestic river so I suppose back in the day, we used to have imagined you know, a huge forest of masks here rather than some busy motorway roads.

     

    Russell Cobine 

    Well, not while I was was here because the distance from the mouth of the river to here made it somewhat difficult for people to want to leave their boat here over the weekend or, you know, to go out weekend sailing because it’s all I can’t remember travelling a couple of hours, two or three hours to get down before you got out into the ocean blue to go sailing. So it was more commercial. Over the other side. There used to be there’s all government buildings. The QUT was Technical College for trades, etc. And behind there of course are the Botanic Gardens, which has been there since I was a kid.

     

    Sam Willis 

    I had a good look around the Botanic Gardens yesterday was fantastic. An important part of Brisbane’s recent history with these terrible floods that you had last year how did this cope with the floods.

     

    Russell Cobine 

    When the floods last year, we actually had the water came in the river rose. And they actually the water, a lot of water came down the sides of the hills there and it did engulf the dry dock. And it the water rose to a point where the Diamantina was just tethering on whether it was going to be floating or sitting on the blocks underneath. So there was quite an anxious time for everybody to you know, because of the way it’s set up. You’ve got to hold its position.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Let me just put this in context. So we’re standing on the depths of a second world war frigate, the Diamantina and she obviously exist in this dry dock and the concern is there was so much water in the dry dock, and she’d start floating. Is that correct?

     

    Russell Cobine 

    That’s correct. Yeah, well, actually, which is right on the edge of floating in the 1971, one of the previous one, she actually did float, and he was floating up above the wall there. So that’s one of the challenges that we face here. When flood comes, and they seem to be more, lot more regular these days,

     

    Sam Willis 

    So you’ve got a historic vessel in a dry dock. But that which might lead to float at any unspecified time? That’s tricky to manage, isn’t it? Well,

     

    Russell Cobine 

    That’s correct. Yes. You know, that’s, that’s, that’s, that’s the reality, because it’s just not a simple process of getting the boat out of the dry dock these days, because the old caisson soon, which is the plug, which holds the water out, it’s been replaced, and it wasn’t built as it was originally, because it was like a small boat, but it used to float, you’d sink it to seal off the water. Because the water level out there is higher than in here. So we’re gonna block it. So they’ve built this new structure, which is not independent of the, the dry dock itself, as you can see, there’s got a number of metal straps, etcetera on both sides, which adding extra support, whereas before it was a self floating vessel that used to you would it had water ballast in it. So what would happen is that when the water when, when the dock was prepared, the water would be allowed to come into the dry dock. And while it was running, until such time as the water on the outside was equivalent to the inside. And then we would pump the balance out of the caisson which would allow it to pop, and then it would be manually handled sort of over here to over against this wall here, like a lock gate. Yeah, but it didn’t lay down, it actually floated away. And then when you were when the boat was in the dry dock, you then the caisson was put back in its place, right and sunk. So that you know filled with water so that it locked into place. And then that allowed the water here to be pumped out at a regulated level. So it can be like the boat could be lowered onto the cradle, or the other shores put in as required.

     

    Sam Willis 

    So how far below water level is the bottom of this dry dock? As we look at it now.

     

    Russell Cobine 

    You got me caught there’s no it’s probably about depending on the tide, but 12 to 12 to 15 feet, I would imagine below the initial level. Now, from what I can remember, I actually did go down to the bottom of the dock on the outside there on one occasion and it was about that about 12 to 15.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Wonderful engineering achievement, Lets nose around the dock a bit more shall we?

     

    Russell Cobine 

    If  go down here we can actually walk down into the dock.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Oh let’s do that, walking into the dock. Sounds fun. Best way to get a good, good view of it.

     

    Russell Cobine 

    Well, yes, see them the process. While the process even our day was a lot different.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Reminds me the historic dock in Barrow in Furness, where I was recently, the dockyard Museum is built over that historic dock. Probably the similar period actually.

     

    Russell Cobine 

    Probably designed from there. I don’t know much about the designers and such like but I think one of the amazing things that I find is that if you were to run around the volunteers here, you probably wouldn’t find very many people qualified to shipwright. served their apprenticeship here at the dry dock.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Shall we climb down to the bottom? There are some old Marker buoys here. Yes. Black and white one, red and white one, huge green one.

     

    Russell Cobine 

    Yes, they’ve all got been used or donated to the Maritime Museum and other bigger one right up at the bow.

     

    Sam Willis 

    it’s a very busy place. There’s all sorts of work going on maintaining a number of historic vessels here. So we’re just passing one which I believe was used for collecting pearls and another one here is a yacht. This is the one that was Jessica Watson, tell me about her.

     

    Russell Cobine 

    So Jessica Watson was a young lady about 16 years of age I think she was when she circumnavigated the world. Is that right circumnavigated the world? In this boat single handed.

     

    Sam Willis 

    16 years old.

     

    Russell Cobine 

    Yeah, that’s incredible. Yeah, Jessica Watson’s her name and she’s well known for the for that achievement. Yeah.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Fastening lovely looking yacht painted in pink right, let’s go down the dry dock. Just moving some wheels out the way there’s some wires, we’ve got to step over. It’s still very busy working yard this.

     

    Russell Cobine 

    The boys are just doing a little bit of maintenance to the Pink Lady.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Pink Lady. That’s the yacht we were just talking about.

     

    Russell Cobine 

    Because we understand there will be a reception with Jessica Watson next week, at the museum.

     

    Sam Willis 

    We should get Jessica Watson on the podcast, have a nice chat with her about her experiences. Okay, so we’re on some stairs and are walking down to the bottom of the dry dock.

     

    Russell Cobine 

    I think if I remember correctly, there’s 110 stairs in the old stairs from the top of the dock to the bottom. As an apprentice it was always great fun when you were setting up a cradle, if there was a box of nails, or something else needed. Guess who was the person who had to navigate the 110 steps

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, we probably asked to go and collect things like Sky hooks as well. Tools that don’t exist.

     

    Russell Cobine 

    Sky hooks, the classic one here was they’d send you down to the store for a long wait.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Oh, yeah. And then you’re staying at the store for some time. Yeah.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Brilliant.

     

    Russell Cobine 

    So we’re now we’re now on the floor of the dry dock. And you can see the basic principle here of of how it operated. You got to bear in mind that back in 1960s, we didn’t have concrete structures such as this.

     

    Sam Willis 

    So I should say that the this enormous Second World War frigate is standing on top of I don’t know 100 concrete blocks. But before it would have been resting on timber blocks.

     

    Russell Cobine 

    Shear blocks, there was at least one every metre they were fastened down onto these pieces of timber. So every 1200 roughly, there’s a there’s a piece of timber which has been moulded into the hull. And that’s where you would fasten, you would fasten the wooden blocks. And what they are basically equated to that you used to have, if I can use 1962 language, 12 inch by 12 inch hardwood block, possibly about four foot long, that would sit on the base. And then you would have a couple of smaller ones, there may be six inches, four inches, they come in varied sizes, because you had to have different heights. And then we would have a couple of hardwood wedges, which were about three foot long, and they went from four inches to eight inches, and they’d sit on top of each other, which allowed you to adjust. Then on top of that you would have a line of packing. And then you’d have another small blocks. And then on the top was a piece of pine, which is usually about 18 inches wide by three foot long by about four inches thick. That was to take the compression. Yeah, the idea of having the different. The structure like that was that there were the occasions where you were required to remove a block to do repair to the hull or whatever. So what that would entail, then is it you’d pull the battens off that we’re tying it all together. And then you’d get eight shipwrights down on the job. And we had a Ram.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Sounds incredibly dangerous.

     

    Russell Cobine 

    Around about six by four, all right, with ropes through it every so often,  a steel band on the end. And the leading hand did get there and they swing it back and forth and hit the block

     

    Sam Willis 

    Cross your fingers, lower your head.

     

    Russell Cobine 

    Well, yeah, that well, there was a block every every 1200. But the and if that if that wasn’t sufficient to remove, to take the pressure off the block. The job then was to split out the piece of pine on top. And I can tell you some stories about that. Because basically to split it out, we had like big splitting chisels, which were about two foot long and about two inches in diameter and they had a point on the end of them. And the concept was that somebody held the pin, the chisel where it had to be hit, and the mate behind your swung a seven pound hammer and hit the the the end of the thing and we split the material out. And you we talked about long waits, etc. But also, there are always lots of shenanigans that went on. And you got to realise that the people that I served my apprenticeship, they were very seasoned tradesmen, they’d been involved in this for 15 and 20 years, they were the same team. They all knew what they had to do. And you as an apprentice, of course, would always land the good job, you’d be holding on. And then every so often, we used to use what was called mauls. And that was a seven pound hammer that had a normal hammer head on one end, but had a pointed end on the other end. And you’d be standing there concentrating and the bloke and then somebody after the bang, did you use the right end Tom? You’d look around and hear he’s got the pointed end which has got a diameter of about half an inch. You’re driving this. But really and truly they they were so good at it. They could do it. Now the thing you used to do with your following a bit of differences. We used to have nail driving competitions.

     

    Russell Cobine 

    Right. Okay. Wow. Well, wherever it was, some of those are going upwards.

     

    Russell Cobine 

    Yeah, well, basic. Well usually it was going downwards. Because see, each block had to be tied together. Yeah. So it was tied together with a piece of four by two, hardwood. All right, and they’d be nailed off. And they were also tied. As the blocks went up, they all had to be tied together. So they will four battens on each block, which went from the top to the bottom. And then you had these longitudinal ones, because timbers got a bad habit of floating. So when the wall before the boat went on, you had to make sure it was secure, you’d have to prop the end as well, so that when the keel came down, and the pressure went back when there was something to stop it from tumbling over. So it was not unusual for us. It was day went on. And if you spent eight hours down here, levelling blocks and putting them in place and nailing them off. You will tend to get a little, you know, needed a bit of relaxation, so they’d line the nails up and say, how well can you drive a four inch nail through that timber there? The tradesmen could do it in one and a half strikes

     

    Sam Willis 

    No way that’s unbelievable. Yeah,

     

    Russell Cobine 

    They just had that knack of the flick of the wrist of timing and the timing and everything that they just bang straight through. The timber was almost like pine because it was pretty wet, but still pretty miraculous.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah. Now how many hits will it take me? Do you reckon?

     

    Russell Cobine 

    Well, depends how times you miss.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Very good. Tell me about  health and safety down here. Was it?

     

    Russell Cobine 

    Health and who?

     

    Sam Willis 

    What happened there? Was it was there anyone looking out for you? Did you feel that there was supervisors keeping an eye on what was going on?

     

    Russell Cobine 

    Now being have having spent the last six years before retired as a health and safety officer, I’m just about ready to dam itself. No there was no health and safety. We used to have a first aid officer. But apart from that, there was no inductions. No, no training, you know, common sense prevailed. I guess we all knew our limitations. And well, I think in my history there that we only ever had, we had one one serious accident in the five years I was here and that was on a circular saw made a bit of a mess of a guy but his arm but normally most things we did have with this. You can cut the bits out you don’t. We did have an apprentice that had been in a car accident. And he had a wooden leg, right. And the foot of his wooden leg was bolted with a stainless steel bolt. And I can still remember the day I was he was working on the deck they were removing some of the deck with scrapers and the bolt on his foot broke. And I’m on the other side and they said hey Russ, can you go and get the first aid officer because, forget his name, let’s say Merv’s foot just fell off. I didn’t know, I knew he had a wooden leg, but I didn’t know how his foot was held. It’s kidding. He goes, hold the shoe up. I was sent up to get his car brought him back, he went come back four hours later, they put a new bolt in his wooden leg. But he was able to work. He worked alongside us. And, man, I still remember. I’m talking 60 years ago, I still vividly remember this guy, foot fell off.

     

    Russell Cobine 

    It’s a wonderful story. I tell you what, though, I’m pretty pleased. I’ve got two feet being a bit topperly would not be good here,

     

    Russell Cobine 

    Unfortunately, safety was never something which was promoted to the level it is today. And I do believe that there are some people today that they’ve taken it to the other extreme, I think some of the best safety officers I’ve worked with, and what I tried to put my spin on it was that were people who had actually done the job, and then moved on to that position. Yeah, they understood some of the tolerances and some of the things sure, that you could get away with, if you like, for the sake of a better terminology. But you know, the effects of the lack of safety domination is very relevant, even in myself today. All right, if you look closely, you’ll see that I wear glasses. That’s because I had one too many welding flashes, right? I wear hearing aids. I wonder why. Because one of the days in those days, they used to clean the outside of a boat rust with raffle guns, right? A rattle gun battle gun is an air compressor with a hammer that goes at rapid speed against the metal hull. You’d be inside the boat working. And they’d be 20 or 30 blokes outside rattling? Oh, my goodness. So therefore, you suffer from industrial deafness. And I think one of the other interesting things about the shipbuilding industry is that just as I say to people these days, and I’m talking to them, if you’re going to build a boat, don’t bring me a square. Because nothing square. Nothing’s really level, you’re on a boat. It’s all got curves, shapes, etc. So you’ve got to learn how to do without these modern conveniences. And also, if you’ve ever tried to stand up in a small boat, it’s practically impossible. And you’ve got one leg up here, and you’ve got an another leg there. And he says, can you just move that engine bed another three inches this way? And that piece of 12×12, Six, seven foot long. Yeah. So therefore, you’ll find most people that worked in this trade got back trouble, they can’t see, and they can’t hear.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Amazing, you still hear us? Well. Listen, thank you very much indeed for this little tour. I really appreciate it.

     

    Russell Cobine 

    Okay, thank you very much. And we’re always like to share industry, you know, sort of I know my grandson thinks nothing better if his grandmother says I’ll go and pick grandad up from the boat. He’s down and he’s all over it.. His last time he said, I want to go down the dry dock. I said you can’t it’s closed. Surely you can take me down. And he run around here and just thoroughly enjoyed. When he went home, he said to his mother, I’m going to build boats like Pa.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Hey, good lad. Good lad. Good luck. Well, I wish him all the best. And it’s really running of how hugely inspirational it is being in the bottom of dry dock because you’ve got this enormous vessel above you got these remarkable step sides of the curves the stairs. And I mean, it just makes you wonder how on earth they built it, why on earth they built it and the majestic history of the entire place. So very kind of you’d bring me down. Thank you.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Now my turn to ask of you a favour. If you’re listening on iTunes, please leave us a review. If you do so I promise I’ll read it out. It helps a huge deal as the more reviews we get the easier it is for people to find us. And therefore, the more we can teach people about our maritime past. Don’t forget that this podcast comes from both the Society for Nautical Research and the Lloyd’s Register Foundation. And please check out what both of those institutions are up to. You can find the history and education centre of the Lloyd’s Register foundation at hec.lr .foundation.org.uk, and make sure to check out their latest project maritime innovation in miniature just Google it ‘maritime innovation in miniature’. You’ll find videos of the world’s greatest ship models filmed with the very latest camera equipment. There’s some fabulous more material on its way soon. Got a little trip to the maritime museums Stockholm and their extraordinary collection of ship models coming up. The Society for Nautical Research, you can find that at snr.org.uk And that is where you go to join up. It’s a brilliant way to meet people and to find out all about the maritime past from their very best in the business. And if you’re a full member, you get to come to our annual dinner on board HMS Victory or this year HMS Warrior and that is something you will never, ever Forget.

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