The Pearling Lugger Penguin: Maritime Australia 7

June 2023

The pearling industry was one of northern Australia’s major industries of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The historic vessel Penguin was built in 1907 for for a pearling company based on Thursday Island in the Torres Strait. She is one of the few surviving pearling luggers to retain much of its original construction and layout, and the only Queensland-built lugger in a museum collection. It is also significant for its association with Japanese lugger builder Tsugitaro Furuta, one of Australia’s major lugger builders of the time; for its service during World War II; and finally for its service to the Dauan Island community. While we were recording the interview shipwrights restoring the hull discovered some beautiful oyster shells which were cleaned for us and shined for the first time in over a century.

 

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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. We are now well into our series with numerous episodes covering many centuries of Maritime Historical topics. We’ve covered the Dutch arrival, the pirates and explorer William Dampier, the collections of the Queensland Maritime Museum, the Brisbane drydock and there’s some really fabulous video content to go alongside all of this. So do please check out the mariners mirror podcasts, YouTube channel, Instagram reels and tick tock. There’s a particularly good animated map showing Dampiers route to Australia and the location of the Roebucks wreck. Today we’re talking about a really splendid little vessel one of the loveliest little historical projects I’ve come across in recent years, we’re finding out about the pearling lugger Penguin. The pearling industry was one of northern Australia’s major industries of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Built in 1907 for a pearling company based on Thursday Island, that’s in the southwest of the Torres Strait, so just off the coast of Cape York at the very top of Queenslan., The Penguin is one of the few surviving pearling luggers to retain much of its original construction and layout, and she’s the only Queensland built lugger in the museum collection. It’s also significant for its association with the Japanese luggger builder Tsugitaro Furuta, one of Australia’s major lugger builders of the time. She’s important for the service during World War Two, nd finally, for service to the Dauan Island community. That’s a really fascinating little island in the Torres Strait off the southern coast of Papua New Guinea. Now, this is a particularly wonderful interview because while I was there, the guys who were cleaning out the ships hull appeared with some beautiful oyster shells they had just recovered from the hull, Washing them off in front of us, we saw that lovely iridescent sheen of a pearl oyster shine for the first time in perhaps over a century. Make sure to find the mariners mirror podcast on Instagram, and there’s a society for nautical research on Twitter and Facebook to see those shells but without further ado, here are the welcoming the entertaining the knowledgeable, and the similarly named Russ and Russell. So what is your background in in timber, shipbuilding and survey

    Russ
    1960. I started a timber boat building course with A W Prior and Norman Creek here in Brisbane, worked that until 1965. Then went out and worked for a couple of the foremen and leading hands who broke out on their own in timber. Then I thought I needed a bit of an adventure, so that after that shipwrights and boat builders in Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea. I went there in 1966, and I stayed there till 1985. The nice part about that was is that Steamship Slipway, Burns Phillip, and Carpenters and all the island companies had huge amounts of island traders in timber, and we’re just getting into steel. And so the timber work up there was just brilliant. And then steel came in, and then I saw the opportunity in 1969 to go into self employment. And I’ve been self employed since 1969. To present day.

    Sam Willis
    Fantastic, that’s a bit of an achievement. Well done you and tell me more about shipbuilding in Papua New Guinea. That sounds amazing. Yeah.

    Russ
    Well, that that’s that’s the wonderful part about this is that most most of the timber boats were built, designed and built in Australia. And they were scales in those sorts of things. And they were coastal trading vessels, and generally though, started about 50 feet and went up to 75 to 80 feet in timber. There are a few leftover from World War Two. And they were the 200 Tanner’s in timber built in Tasmania, and the rest of the boats were in 4045 foot 60 footers, ex Defence Force boats that had been up there in the islands and then had been bought by the the large island groups and turned them into cargo boats. That was a shortfall because the industry up there was copper and rubber plantations, and also the missionaries. And then the missionaries started getting boats built in Australia and Balor in New South Wales. Bundaberg and Queensland north of Brisbane and and they were again that was is another fleet in itself in timber. Now the nice thing about being a boat builder there is that the tropics was just a great place for wood decay. So it was a full time job, Kay out of them and keep them operational. All the boats were in survey. And generally, what was happening is that the master and the engineer were expatriates. And then the rest of them having any crew and as time moved on, if you had to expats or for expats, you had to have a Papua New Guineans, so the line was there, to train these people. Myself in 69, I discovered that there was a great opportunity to go into self enterprise. And I talked to a couple of Papua New Guinea boat builders that are working with I was 22 at the time, and I suggested to them that they join me. And they did, which was very, very nice. And we formed a company, and they then become directors of the company. And because I knew that I was not going to be a Papua New Guinea in for life, I thought to myself, Well, these guys will need a longer activity and a place to train people and to build boats. So we then got in touch with the, the PNG government, and they had an article college on the other side of the island Madang. And they were writing a syllabus, so we helped write the boat building and ship right syllabus, right? Yes, is then we put straight away we put two of our younger guys straight out of the bush. And the nice part about having your Gideons or anyone else that didn’t have any bad habits is that they absorbed knowledge like a sponge. And if you said this is the way to do a dovetail joint or a bat joint or stuff like that, that was the way in my view that they did it and and we never had any failures in that too great one

    Sam Willis
    for what was the access to timber like and copper digging?

    Russ
    Well, in the beginning at steamships, for instance, the big timbers were all brought in from Australia. You know, the spotted gums and the iron box and those things in the Oregon were important those things. Eventually as the species will become known, locally, the equivalent for Spotted gum and Ironbark was a timber for Quila, then we found out the Quila wouldn’t the Teredo worms just used to say, put balkwill below the waterline, and they would choose to jump out of the water to eat it. So we thought that wasn’t a good idea. So we we learned very quickly, there clearly was a wonderful timber above the waterline for decking for beams, or stringers and all those things. Then, of course, the equivalent for Oregon was another species there that we got an equivalent in the species. And as the country developed, we had the baldness and all those things there. And they were just mirror imaging what was imported and said, Hey, we’ve got rosewood, we have Cedar, we have beach and those things in the equivalent in the Papua New Guinea species. So in the end, we really, as long as we sourced it, and booked in advance, the timber was plentiful.

    Sam Willis
    Amazing stuff. So let’s talk about this vessel, your current project. You’re sitting here with it, looming above you the wonderful penguin. How long have you guys been working on this?

    Russ
    Well, I think this group started in September 2020 2020. And that’s right. And now 2021. That’s when we got together. It had been sort of here since 1985. Right when it came on a barge and then put on the hardstand and then we’re sitting here

    Sam Willis
    we’re had it come from you know that?

    Russ
    I believe it came from Thursday Island where where it was actually built hands

    Sam Willis
    up. If you don’t know where Thursday Island live. I never even heard of Thursday. Okay, where is Thursday Island? Imagine

    Russ
    Australia looking at the map. And you go up to the right hand side. You see the Cape York? Yeah. And then just travel your finger to the left and you’ll see Thursday and then you’ll see Pepe again. Yeah, okay. Okay. And night. I haven’t done a lot of inquiries into the design or build a bit I believe it was the Japanese who started up there in the late 1800s. And built started designing and building these onto sale and primarily for purling because the Japanese were already involved in that industry. And I believe from what I’ve been told is that the Japanese guys are designed built 30 of these vessels on Thursday Island. The interesting thing about this is that there’s no timber on Thursday Island, right? So the timber was sourced from Australia, and the aboriginals tried ferried across the sore knees from the mangroves and the tea trees on the mainland and sold it to the Japanese

    Sam Willis
    Okay, so already pre prepared to certainly well,

    Russ
    they were. They were the right shape and edged into submission by the Japanese. That’s my belief, the just talking about the timber on tango. And we all know that as 114 or 115 years of age, but being the marine surveyor, and the nice thing about this is to say, well, that’s fine. How old is the timber in it? Yeah. So we saw I made some inquiries into Griffith University, which is all around us here. And we found, we found Heather Haynes, Dr. Heather Haynes, who was who was into the timber. Now, I didn’t know what to call someone that did carbon dating. But I’ve been watching Time Team, the UK show for years and years and years. And I used to see them bringing this guy, and you drill a hole in it. And I took a photograph of his of his professional name. And that’s how I discovered here. If you have a look over here, you’ll see the part there we’ve cut out which had to read over the bottom of the dead wood there. See that hole there? Yes. Okay. Got it. Yeah. Well, once once we talked to Heather, and we found that she wasn’t here, she was actually working on projects in Sydney. And as it turned out, once we said that this is this is what we wanted done. She said, I’ll get some funding, and I’ll get up here. She came up here at John, who’s related to the founding fathers of the band, Gwen, when she turned up, he says, Okay, love, I’ve got a chainsaw. He said, what sort of sampling you want. And she took out a little scalpel. And she said, I think John does not be able to do this. So we’re just suffering. So we’re waiting for the actual carbon dating of the keel and certain other parts of the boat, we think that were original. That’s a pretty exciting part here.

    Sam Willis
    Right? You guys have brought something over? What have you brought for me? What is so they brought some stuff, this is John

    Russell Cobine
    just been taking out the ballast out of out of the hole inside internally and found I had to guess how old these are these mother of pearl eparchial. Wow. Big they would have been harvested for the pearl inside

    Sam Willis
    the meat, it’s about the size of a dinner plate, about the time they

    Russell Cobine
    clean up their beautiful, beautiful entree plates, seafood, whatever, it’s a great idea. But the and these other ones, cone shaped ones here are trackers,

    Russ
    trackers, and

    Russell Cobine
    buttons and shedding the old and jewellery and see how beautiful it is

    Sam Willis
    really shiny. And it’s got a slice kind of pink colour to it as well. Yeah,

    Russell Cobine
    not all of them have this, you know, Southern chi once again, I don’t know how the all these are, but they’ve been around for a while. And

    Sam Willis
    so this could be a significant age, they’ve just been sitting inside the

    Russell Cobine
    head. I mean, we’re caught behind the stringers inside the boat. So then the big pieces of timber run through the, through the hall from bow to stern, and just be taking the ballast out and found them tucked up caught up in there. And obviously, his crew didn’t find them when they were unloading each diamond and all that sort of thing. So

    Russ
    what a great, amazing, I

    Sam Willis
    think what we might do is just give these a bit of a cleanup and take some photos.

    Russell Cobine
    Yeah, we might be able to, might be able to find a little scrubbing brush after the technique, given the rinse wrench and see bringing back bending, and that will take a few days. And my man has

    Sam Willis
    been working, but he can’t move. Right. Good work, John. Thank you. All right, magnificent. What’s exciting. So what are the challenges on looking after a ship this old?

    Russ
    Well, the challenges have been really good, considering the what we’ve got, we’ve got good bones, and the fact that it’s operated in salt water most of its life. So the salt has been preserving most of the timber. And I think most of the damage and cause right is from 1985 when it came ashore, you know, and the rainwater went through the decks. Because in the olden days, and guys that taught me my trade used to build a couple of these in Brisbane, back in the 40s. And they said they put salt boxes down under the roof deck. So when the deck sort of started to leak, the rainwater go down and go into the salt and the salt has a little cutout in it. So the water went down there and then the soul penetrated from the counter all the way down. And that preserved the boat. And then of course the rest of the place when they put in the trocar shells and the and the pearls, or everything salt came in over the top of the hatch and into the builders. So and this is these never had an engine until the 50s. Right, they all sailed. All of them sailed. And as you can see the propeller and where the propeller shaft goes that’s been modified from a sailing boat, which which just had a keel and they’ve had to put a hole through it and into those bits and things and we’ve just recently taken out an engine which supposedly didn’t belong to it. But we’re convinced that it had an engine in there, similar like a four LW gardener. At the, my job primarily was that I promised the penguin volunteers that I would I get historical vessel, that we’d have a unique vessel identification with Australian Maritime Safety Authority, that we would give it a class of class one day, which would be passengers around Moreton Bay, or 35 plus two crew. I’ve done all that paperwork and paid the fees on it. The second thing I said that, because we had no drawings, and the Japanese had no drawings, they all did this boy line, I inline that we got 3d imaging. And we got the 3d imaging guy in and he’s done a 3d imaging, the wonderful company of about 108 years old or more Norman Wrightson. Son, they put their hand up and said, you get the 3d imaging, we’ll give you the drawings. Okay, so that’s in process. The other thing that I promised I’d do, we need to knock out a few keelboats to make sure that they haven’t got corrosion in them. And that’s yet to be done, we’ve identified which ones will take out, the rest will do through non destructive testing, with thrown from the inside on the top of the bolt and knocked down. There’s lots with nuts on top of them. But the original ones have just been burned over like a washer that no threads, or washer and bull paint over. And that’s been the holding the structure together. The fastening through the planking, and the the frames are all sewn frame timbers, not steam bent, all cut by an ad saw no electrical equipment. And they’ve all got bronze dumps cast bronze dumps, and they’ve been driven in with a mole and a punch and punched in. Well, you know, if you look at the modern time they went through fastenings. And my argon would be to say, Well, how do I go against about this hole? And we made a device now that when we take out a rotten plane, we save that out, we’re going to put the same fastings back in it.

    Sam Willis
    That’s amazing. That’s good stuff. Yeah, that’s the kind of level of conservation that I admire. And I like, well, we

    Russ
    are saving it as we take planks off to its sales story. They’re worn on the top for when you roll them over. So we say well, let’s not cut them into short pieces. Let’s try and save them as long as they as we can get them because we’ve got to redecorate at some stage. And so every bit of timber that comes out it gets got to pass Russell who’s the shipwright, project manager, and myself and we just say yes, or no, it’s not. And you can see some spars over here, which are additionally I said, every bit of paint on the vessel has to come off so we can identify where we’ve got a fungus spore in Woodward of some degree. And we’ve managed to take the paint off that and they found a bit of rot. So they put a graving piece in which there’s another small piece of timber, and it’s glued, and we’ve saved the spars. So that’s what we’re doing there. And you’ll notice here that the paint has been taken off. And when we look at and say, Oh, well, there’s some planks there that are suspicious they are. But But all that has got to pack epoxy Wood Preserver on it. So every time we take the paint off that day, it gets Wood Preserver on it. Yep, now the plank may take off, but we need to know what quantities of timber we need to do in the future. Because timber scares, and because it’s such a boat, we’ve got to get long links so that we don’t have all the butts. You can see the butts of sort of married up together. Well, I think that was a band aid system back in Tuesday, all and when they might have had a thing. And they’ve said, well just throw a plank in there. It’s not gonna matter. Yeah, that matters to us. Now.

    Sam Willis
    What do we know about the rig of this kind of vessel?

    Russ
    I don’t know much about the rig at all. Except that it’s it’s a catch, get catch. And it’s called dead eyes. And it’s it all the traditional sort of stuff that you would think you know, with that type of stuff, no, no sophisticated. You know, Harken FICO blocks, all those things. It was all hijack compulsory dead eyes tied off on cleats and things like that.

    Sam Willis
    You mentioned it’s gonna be for 30 your passengers and two crews. Would this have been operated by two people?

    Russ
    No, no, sorry. I meant to say we’ve got I put down for five. Okay. 55555

    Sam Willis
    We have a little wander around. Yeah.

    Russ
    This this is something that part of the historian stuff like that. You noticed that this is a water. We weren’t looking at the runner. That’s right, a rat a blade. The stock is timber. And that goes all the way up through to the top to a tiller, and that was a steering device. Now in 1966, when I went to Papua New Guinea, there was 40k, boats, scales, they all had timber riders, timber, rubber posts, and they had a quadrant on the top that had chains attached to Wednesday pulleys to like an anchor windlass in the wheelhouse around the wheel. Yeah. So I come here, you know, and 108 years ago, this is what they put on it. And I went there in 1966. So all this to me is, I understand that. Yeah. And I’ve been working with it and the big hole through there with a Roger Stone goes up. And we’ll see that when we walk into

    Sam Willis
    real living traditions.

    Russ
    Yes, it is.

    Sam Willis
    So walking round here now onto the starboard side. Got a nice collection of timbers here. This was some of the spoils we’re talking about what you’ve stripped back gear, that’s

    Russ
    right, get get the penguin volunteers, we’ve got this, you can see these ones have taken right back to bare timber, they’ve scraped it all back, any any rot, they’ve put a little bit of filler in, but only big pieces, they put a new piece on the end. So that’s now called wood preserving. So it it stays there because we’ve taken off the vessel. And we’re keeping that that’s not going into the tip.

    Sam Willis
    And you’ve got some of these of these planks that have been taken off here

    Russ
    that now these are called the ceilings, and and all the vessels had thinking on the inside on the swan frames. So and we need to take all these out. But to see the condition of the Swan frames and the timbers on planking on the inside, these have all been numbered. And part of these also a bulkhead we had two bulkheads in there, partially not not not complete, I would have thought in the day they would have been fully watertight. But we’ve inherited something which has had a gap in the middle of it. So we’re keeping what we can, as you can see here, where it’s come up, p three. So we’ve labelled all these things, Russell and as you see it was rotten. So that’s come out that goes up above and listable workers on the side of that

    Sam Willis
    amazing ring here that either

    Russ
    block without a shave is and so we’re keeping all of this stuff to clean up and where it can be refurbished we put back

    Sam Willis
    on the battle. Well, let’s get up on deck and have like, I have

    Russ
    to leave you because I’ve got a job to gauge you. Better take on Russell,

    Sam Willis
    listen, thank you so much for your time. That was just fantastic.

    Russell Cobine
    We look forward to the story. Okay, so

    Sam Willis
    where are we swapped over Now Ross has gone but I’m with Russell. So basically, it doesn’t make much difference to anyone. We’re not going to be climbing up on deck.

    Russell Cobine
    He’s a survivor on the ship, right? Let’s keep that let’s get it right.

    Sam Willis
    And which is the most important the ship

    Russell Cobine
    because he takes all the surveyors, all the marine architects mistakes and fixes and I’ve actually done ship right lofting as well. So I’ve taken boat, I’ve taken plans from naval architects, and then develop them out full time on a big more like a big dance floor and then make templates for every part of the steel ship.

    Sam Willis
    Amazing. So here we are up on deck of the penguin. And there’s a some work needs to be done. There are some big open hatches and holes everywhere. But there’s enough of it of the original vessel here to be turned into something very special.

    Russell Cobine
    Yeah, well, that’s, that’s correct. And the process that we have encompassed is the fact that all the work that we do will be to amsu, which is Australian Maritime Services Association, I think, to their accreditation, and to their survey requirement. Because our aim is is that what we do when we’re finished here will be a lasting and a fitting tribute to what the vote really was, you know, we’re, we’re using many of the old techniques, who’ve actually made some of the frames and chop them out with an edge. Brilliant. Yeah, so So that’s the basic concept. So what happens is that Ross, our surveyor goes through. And he gives me a list of says, this needs attention, and then we’ve put together a programme, and we’ve developed the skills so of all these guys. The unique part about this project is that the only people that are really qualified in it experience in both building or surveying, Ross, the two Russell’s. So basically, not only is our job the case of fix it, we’ve also got to develop the skills of the people that here, and they’ve responded very well. And they’ve now after six months, we’ll come to the stage where I can say, just go and do that. And know that it’s going to be done. How many people are on your team is only five people on to five or six people on the team. They’re all volunteers, and they all come we had two days a week. I’m here Tuesdays and Thursdays, and some come Tuesday, sometimes Thursday. So probably what you saw today would be four or five people, including this afternoon plus myself, and what we’ve achieved thus far.

    Sam Willis
    Yeah, I just had John’s has turned up and John, were up here and put down with CMC and the minute he’s returned with it with the pearls. Yeah, John

    Russell Cobine
    is deaf too. So basically, this refit is probably number three, when it came down from Thursday Island, so showing your photos or the main order was in a pretty poor state. So for Expo 8899 88, they they too, divided it up because of the museum because Expo was at Southbank. And then it was moved to this location. And unfortunately, because of the lack of volunteers and possibly the lack of understanding, it was just allowed to sit here. And fresh water and boats don’t mix. And I’m sure rustled

    Sam Willis
    about the rainwater was the problem. Yeah.

    Russell Cobine
    So basically, when we came on board, we had to, we made a decision that we would start working on the port bow initially, because on the port side, the deck had been was totally gone. And there was a big planks in the side were totally gone as well. So we’ve worked through we’ve removed the damaged planks. And if we go down inside to take some photos, you can see where here we’ve made new frames. Now the interesting thing about this boat is that when you talk about a frame on a boat, you normally think of one piece of timber frame on this boat is three pieces of timber, right, so the frame is actually 210 mil wide by 80 mil thick. All right, and they’re all bolted together to form one thing. It’s called Double planking, double framing. The idea is that the two outer ones pass. The joints are elongated, so they’re not in the same place. So the you go the centre one that goes down, then you put two on the outside to secure the three of them together to get it straight. And people need to, and one thing people don’t understand is when you build a boat, it’s a simple process. You lay the keel, you put the frames on, you put the stringers on, and then you put the plank on them everything ups, everything’s got a process. Hang on. We’re not replacing the keel. So it’s got to stay there. We’re not replacing the stringers inside is good. But we’ve got to replace that frame. Yeah, tricky. And it’s got to come out of a piece of timber. Some of this has come out of pieces of timber that’s up to 300 mil wide to give 100 mil plain because of the shape. So we’ve had to make templates of each shape. And that’s pretty imaginative when you can’t just pull the line off the floor. There’s no lines plans for this boat, and you cut them out and you fit them in. You learn the tolerances, and then they go in. So that’s what we’ve done. And so we replace something like 20 individual planks, which you can take 20 divided by three, and probably only seven, seven frames there that we’ve replaced, but we’ve had the heck out of seasoned hardwood, and if you’ve no Queensland hardwoods, they’re like steel. All right, and we’ll now go through the process of now that we Got this to a certain stage, some would like to see it all look nice and pretty, but it doesn’t work like that, we will now move down to the stern. And we’re going to run into even greater challenges under there because I’ll give you an example across here. The crowd across here, there’s a beam to be replaced that beam down the bottom there. It’s 190 mil. Deep by 100 mil wide, by 3.6 metres long. We’ve got to fit in the middle. We’ve got another one up the other end, you can see the little bit of dry rot there just after the mouth. I can see. And it’s got all these other pieces notched into it. Yeah,

    Sam Willis
    it’s like a hideous three dimensional jigsaw. It’s been put together by someone else, and you’ve got to kind of replace it. Well, it’s wonderful seeing this vessel and listen, thank you very much for showing me around.

    Russell Cobine
    No, you’re welcome.

    Sam Willis
    Now, thank you all for listening. It’s 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 because the more reviews we get, the easier it is for people to find us and therefore the more we can teach people about the maritime past. Please don’t forget that this podcast comes from both the Society for nautical research and the Lloyd’s Register foundation, you can find the history and education centre of the Lloyd’s Register foundation at h e c.lr foundation.org.uk. And please make certain that you check out their latest project maritime innovation in miniature google it maritime innovation in miniature. And you will see the world’s greatest ship models filmed with the very latest camera equipment. We’ve already got a handful of bottles up and they’re going to be many more coming soon. This society for North cool research, you can find an s nr.org.uk. And that is where you go to join up. It’s a fabulous way to meet people to find out all about the maritime past from the 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 HMS Warrior and that is something you will never forget

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