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MV Babinda – a Coastal Trader

WILLIAM BOURKE

In the magazine Australian Sea Heritage No.102, the author chronicled the World War II Merchant Navy service of his father-in-law Captain Ronald Charles Pratt with the Australasian United Steam Navigation Company (A.U.S.N.) His favourite vessel was the MV Babinda which he affectionately called the “Babs”. In his words she was a “true” ship. His personal records show he was first appointed to take command of the vessel on 26 October 1940 and on three subsequent occasions for a total sea time of 585 days during the war.

During the course of his research on Captain Pratt’s “Life at Sea”, the author unearthed significant information of the Babinda’s history which provides an interesting account of both Australian interstate and intrastate coastal trade in the 1930s through the 1950s and particularly during that fateful period 1939-1945 when sea transport played a vital role in supplying the nation’s needs and men and equipment for its fighting forces.

Before moving onto Captain Pratt’s Babinda, it is interesting to know that she was not the first vessel to carry that name in Australian waters. A wooden vessel of 3099 gross tons and powered by twin oil burning engines was built by Patterson McDonald in Seattle Washington USA in 1919 for the Commonwealth Government Line of steamers. This ship spent only a short time in Australia, being sold in1919 to J E Chilberg of Seattle USA (Chilberg Line) and then in 1921 to the Pacific Motor Ship Co. in San Francisco. She caught fire and sank off Santa Cruz California on 3 March 1923.

The second Babinda was built at the shipyards of Scott and Sons located at Bowling on the northern bank of the River Clyde to the west of Glasgow, Scotland. Shipbuilding at this site commenced around 1800 when the McGill brothers established the yard and subsequently formed a partnership with James Scott in the late 1840s. Following several mergers in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Company’s activities ended in 1979 – a familiar outcome for many shipbuilding businesses on the Clyde and elsewhere in the UK.

Scott & Sons Shipyard at Bowling, Glasgow (University of Glasgow archives)

Scott & Sons Shipyard at Bowling, Glasgow (University of Glasgow archives)

The keel of the Babinda (yard number 337) – she was named after the sugar town in northern Queensland, 60 kilometres south of Cairns – was laid down on 20 September 1935 for owners the A.U.S.N. The company had specified a cargo vessel designed for its Townsville service and for trade from the major capital city ports. The A.U.S. N. had been closely identified with Queensland shipping since the mid-19th century when the steamer Shamrock arrived in Moreton Bay in December 1841 under the flag of the Northern Rivers Steam Navigation Company. This company was later reconstituted with the Australian Steam Navigation Company under the A.U.S.N. Company in 1887.The vessel was financed in the main by a bank advance. An Australian Customs document dated 18 May 1936 (sighted amongst A.U.S.N. records at the NSW Mitchell Library) showed the import value of the vessel as a total of £40,358 (pounds sterling) including engines and spares; the basic price of the vessel was £30,121.

Launch of MV 'Babinda' (University of Glasgow archives)

Launch of MV ‘Babinda’ (University of Glasgow archives)

Framing and plating of the vessel was completed on 12 October and 4 December 1935 respectively with launching on 5 February 1936.

Sea trials commenced at 9am on 7 April 1936. The report on her trials was quite brief: “Proceeded slowly down river where compasses were adjusted. Anchor trials were also carried out and both anchors dropped to the 30 fathom mark. Cables became jammed when heaving up. It was decided a few days later to scrap the cables and get a complete new outfit sent on to Australia. Vessel then proceeded to the measured mile where four double runs were made between 12 noon and 2pm. Trial was entirely satisfactory, only mishap was an air lock in fuel supply to the generator. Vessel then carried out steering gear trials and proceeded back up river arriving Bowling 5.30pm.”

MV 'Babinda' on sea trials

MV ‘Babinda’ on sea trials

On sea trials, painted by the author

On sea trials, painted by the author

Three representatives of the A.U.S.N., three from Scott and Sons and one from the engine manufacturer were on board for the trials. The handover of the vessel occurred on 11 April 1936.

MV Babinda was listed in Lloyds Register as class 100 A1, tonnage was 659 gross and 325 net and Port of Registry as Maryborough, Queensland. Her dimensions in feet were length 175.2, beam 30.1 and depth 10.8. She had a cruiser stern and a single screw powered by one aft fitted oil burning engine -2 stroke cycle, single acting-manufactured by British Auxiliaries Ltd. of Glasgow. She was eminently suitable for cargo handling with 3 masts and two large hatches served by 3 sets of cargo handling gear. This allowed an excellent rate of loading and unloading bagged sugar of 140 tons per hour. The distance between the two hatches suited the conveyor chutes at the Bundaberg sugar shed. In addition, her number 2 hold was 60 feet long, which made her very useful for timber carriage. With a shallow draught of only 12 feet, the Babinda was ideal for safe navigation in Queensland’s coastal rivers. It is interesting to note that her excellent design was used as a template for the Australian National Line’s five “E” ships built at Walkers’ Ltd. Maryborough shipyards between 1948 and 1950.

MV 'Babinda' General Arrangement drawings (University of Glasgow archives)

MV ‘Babinda’ General Arrangement drawings (University of Glasgow archives)

The delivery voyage commenced from the ferry port town of Gourock on the southern bank of the Clyde River, 28 miles west of Glasgow. She passed Gibraltar early on 18 April, departed Port Said on 26 April and arrived at Brisbane on 11 June 1936. The voyage was reported in local newspapers such as Rockhampton’s Morning Bulletin on Friday 8 May 1936 – vessel left Glasgow on 11 April under the command of Captain J H Galgy (who was aboard during its sea trials).

(There are contradictory dates for the delivery voyage arrival in Brisbane. Two sources say 9 June 1936; the sea trials report and a press article in the Rockhampton Morning Bulletin dated 8 May 1936. This article adopts the date of 11 June 1936 published in Norman L McKellar’s history of the A.U.S.N.)

MV Babinda departed from Brisbane on 20 June 1936 on her first commercial service under the command of Captain Bright, a veteran A.U.S.N. master mariner, with a load of timber and general cargo. The local press in Rockhampton reported on her arrival there on 24 June, noting that:

  • she had two large hatches with 3 sets of special cargo gear for rapid cargo handling to discharge 720 tons of sugar in about 5 hours and electrically powered winches, steering and anchor gear
  • she was fitted with a new type of radio (made by AWA) for automatic distress signal transmission which also provided communication between the ship and the Company.

Following a second voyage calling at Maryborough and Bundaberg, she left Brisbane on 4 July to join the larger A.U.S.N. ship the MV Bingera (900 tons gross and 200 feet in length) on the Townsville run, the original purpose for its purchase.

MV 'Babinda' under tow

MV ‘Babinda’ under tow (Nambour Chronicle)

Within six months the Babinda’s new type radio was put to the test on 18 February 1937, whilst on a voyage from Maryborough to Brisbane. After sheltering near Fraser Island during severe cyclonic conditions she was disabled by a broken intermediate shaft and began to drift helplessly off Double Island Point. Following transmission and receipt of an S.O.S. signal (her call sign was VLFQ) at 140pm when she was only 8 miles off the coast, several ships in the vicinity proceeded to her assistance. The first vessel to arrive was the A.U.S.N.’s passenger ship the SS Orungal which took her in tow. The steam tug Carlock completed the tow to Brisbane. Several months later in June she experienced steering gear trouble whilst departing Brisbane and had to be towed back to the Company’s wharf at the City Reach.

The vessel was again in difficulty on 18 May 1939 after becoming stranded on a sandbank at the southern end of Stewart Island (just west of Fraser Island) whilst on a voyage from Maryborough to Brisbane. She was re-floated after several attempts.

World War II service

At the outbreak of the war Babinda was still employed on the Townsville trade with occasional extensions to Newcastle and Sydney with cargoes of timber from Maryborough. On 1 December 1939, the A.U.S.N.’s Bingera was handed over to the Navy for war related duties and Babinda was placed on the shuttle service between Bundaberg and Brisbane, clearing a backlog of sugar shipments due to Bingera’s departure. In January she returned to the Outports trade.

Digitised records of Merchant Ship movements between September 1939 and September 1945, held by the RAN’S Sea Power Centre in Canberra, provide an extraordinary detailed account of the Babinda’s voyages during WWII.

  • An analysis of these records shows from September thru the end of December 1939, she voyaged to Brisbane 7 times, Maryborough 5 times, Bundaberg 4 times, Rockhampton 3 times, Mackay, Bowen and Townsville twice, with two extensions to Sydney including a visit to Port Kembla and Newcastle.
  • The 1940 records show she called into Brisbane 30 times, Bundaberg 18 times, Maryborough 23 times, Rockhampton 6 times, Mackay 9 times, Bowen 13 times and Townsville 10 times. Interstate extensions involved 8 trips to Sydney, four including calls at Port Kembla and Newcastle.
  • By March 1941 Babinda was busily engaged in timber carriage from Maryborough to Sydney. The A.U.S.N. service to Townsville was suspended in June, and she was moved to the Sydney-Brisbane-Rockhampton service. Records for this year showed considerable Queensland coastal activity, interspersed with numerous southern extensions. She visited Brisbane 25 times, Maryborough 26 times and Bundaberg, Rockhampton, Mackay, Bowen and Townsville 5 times, 8 times, 3 times, 5 times and 10 times respectively. The importance of Sydney coverage increased with 21 calls including Port Kembla 9 times and Newcastle 8 times. The ship came under Government control in Sydney on 23 October 1941 whilst Captain Pratt was in command. German merchant raiders had been laying mines in Australian coastal waters and these were already causing casualties. The Babinda en-route from Maryborough to Sydney was in the vicinity of the MV Nimbin’s sinking on 29 November off Port Stephens.
  • With Australia’s declaration of war against Japan on 8 December 1941 and then the first bombing of the mainland occurring on Darwin on 19 February 1942, the role of Babinda, now a part of Australia’s merchant navy fleet, was destined to change dramatically. She was painted grey, fitted with armour plate particularly around the bridge and wheel house area and a 4 inch low angle gun installed. Gunners trained by the RAN to man Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships (D.E.M.S.) would have joined her to supplement her normal crew of 18. Prior to April she was still engaged in Queensland coastal service calling at Brisbane 9 times, Bundaberg twice, Maryborough 6 times, Rockhampton and Mackay 3 times with one voyage south in January to Port Kembla, Sydney and Newcastle. She was not to venture south again until nearly two years later in February 1944. Babinda’s vital role in carrying war supplies to our northern ports commenced on 26 March when she departed from Brisbane with Captain Pratt in command for Thursday Island, leaving the island on 3 April to become one of a number of merchant navy ships engaged in the “Darwin Shuttle”. The dock facilities at Darwin had been almost completely destroyed and only small ships could get in and out with vitally needed supplies. For Babinda this involved round trips between Cairns, Thursday Island and Darwin. Between April and the end of 1942 she had operated 13 of these shuttles. Because of her excellent cargo gear she was described officially by the Navy as “outstanding among this fleet of miscellaneous ships”. At one stage in the latter part of 1942 the US Government
    'Babinda' in Milne Bay with Burns Philp's MV 'Muliama' (Australian Merchant Navy)

    ‘Babinda’ in Milne Bay with Burns Philp’s MV ‘Muliama’ (Australian Merchant Navy)

    had inspected the vessel for a potential role in forward areas as part of its United States Small Ships Command. However the Australian Government declined to release her from the “Darwin Shuttle” service. Records show that Babinda was under naval escort, HMAS Townsville between 4 and 10 July, HMAS Kalgoorlie between 18 and 20 August and HMAS Wilcannia between 10 and 23 December. She made one trip to the Milne Bay area after the failed Japanese invasion, unloading war supplies for the northern New Guinea campaigns at the Gili Gili wharf between 15 and 26 September.

This voyage was in convoy from Cairns with Burns Philip’s MV Muliama under the escort of HMAS Arunta. Whilst merchant shipping casualties were still occurring along the eastern seaboard due to Japanese submarine attacks, Babinda was equally exposed to potential enemy action in northern waters during its “Darwin Shuttle” service. There were 49 bombing raids on Darwin and 9 attacks on the airfield on Horn Island nearby to Thursday Island during 1942. Babinda was in Darwin Harbour during the attacks of 26 April, 16 June and 30 August.

  • The ship’s service in 1943 was again confined mostly to northern waters with only one visit to Brisbane, 3 to Townsville, one to Cooktown and one south to Sydney. Three “Darwin Shuttles” were conducted in January and in early February she returned to Darwin in convoy with Burns Philps’ MV Tulagi escorted by HMAS Kalgoorlie. The Babinda extended its supply operations escorted by HMAS Castlemaine to Wyndham and Drysdale in the north of Western Australia and Port Keats and Peron Island in the Northern Territory on the return voyage to Darwin. A supply voyage to the advanced RAAF base at Millingimbi 500 nm to the east of Darwin in Arnhem Land was made on 19 March with another voyage to Drysdale and Wyndham in early April, again under escort by HMAS Castlemaine. On 15 March she was in Darwin Harbour on the 53rd raid on the city. During her only visit to Sydney that year, she arrived at the A.U.S.N.’s wharf on 22 April. A waterfront dispute prevented her departure for northern waters until 1 June. On 12 June she left Cairns for Thursday Island on the first of 11 return voyages that year to Merauke located in the then Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesian West Papua) with supplies for RAAF units and the Merauke Force. These forces had been established in late 1942 to defend its strategic airfield from Japanese attack. During its return trip from Merauke on 6 August she was in the vicinity of the location where the A.US.N.’s SS Macumba was sunk by a Japanese float plane.
  • Babinda’s movement records for 1944 show a marked decline in activity with only 40 port visits compared with 90 in 1943 and a return to normal commercial cargo carriage. During the first 6 months she called at Thursday Island on 7 occasions, Cairns 5 times, Darwin 3 times, with single visits to Kurumba in the Gulf of Carpentaria, Melville Island to the north of Darwin, Drysdale River and Millingimbi in January. She came off the Merauke run on 28 March and made her final war time voyage to Darwin on 8 May. There were two voyages to Brisbane and Sydney by mid- year. However after arriving in Brisbane from Sydney on 19 June she was tied up in port until 7 September before returning to east coast service and in particular sugar shipments. During the war, the A.U.S.N. had faced significant competition from the Queensland railways in the carriage of sugar. However, with the tide of battle against the Japanese having turned and the lesser need for movement of war material within Queensland and northern waters, Babinda was now deployed to her original role of sugar and interstate general cargo. This is reflected in her movements for the second half of the year – 7 visits to Sydney, Port Kembla twice, Newcastle once, Brisbane 3 times, Maryborough 6 times and Bundaberg 6 times.
  • The Merchant Navy movement records for Babinda terminated on 9 November 1945 with the ship’s arrival at Bundaberg. These show a continuation of activity similar to the last six months of 1944 with mostly intrastate voyages between Brisbane (24 arrivals) and Bundaberg (22 arrivals) with 2 trips extending to Rockhampton and 4 trips to Gladstone. There were 6 calls to Sydney, 2 to Port Kembla and one to Newcastle.

Post WWII service

By the end of the war, the A.U.S.N. had nine ships including the Babinda, of which she and two others, Corinda (1937) and Bingera (1935), were the only vessels considered as providing any real confidence for the Company’s future. The other six were steam powered, badly run down and requiring significant expenditure for overhaul and retaining in survey.

On 4 March 1949 Babinda went aground in the Burnett River whilst sheltering from a cyclone. By the early 1950’s, rail and road transport were beginning to make competitive in-roads into both intrastate and interstate cargo carriage. A severe blow to the Brisbane-Maryborough-Bundaberg sugar trade occurred in February 1950 with the Burnett River (to the port of Bundaberg) being closed due to flooding and rail transport to Maryborough becoming too competitive. In fact one of Babinda’s major features, of shipping bagged sugar efficiently, would have rendered her obsolete in the coming decade with the gradual introduction of bulk sugar handling terminals in the 1950’s. The A.U.S.N. therefore decided to deploy her on the Sydney–Maryborough–Rockhampton run. By September 1952 however, she was back on the Bundaberg run after deep water port works had been undertaken at the mouth of the Burnett River. Despite the above, Babinda returned more debits than credits in 1951 and 1952, with labour shortages, industrial disputes and numerous closures of the Mary and Burnett rivers which often resulted in her being held in Brisbane before proceeding north.

MV 'Babinda' – October 1954

MV ‘Babinda’ – October 1954 (SHF Davidson Collection)

In 1953 the Babinda’s trading loss was £18,500. She had been overhauled in Sydney between March and June at a cost of more than £30,000, more than her original building price. With the termination of the Outports trade from Brisbane (i.e. to the other major capital cities), the A.U.S.N. contemplated putting her up for sale. Her handy size however meant she was retained for general cargo carriage. In 1954 she was doing fairly well for the A.U.S.N. in general cargo work operating between Sydney and Newcastle at one end of the range and the Brisbane Outports, often to Rockhampton and once even to Cairns on 2 February 1954 at the other end. This was her first visit to Cairns since 1945. Bundaberg though had to be omitted for most of the year, the port having been closed again following the siltation of the channels in the Burnett River. However, despite this she returned a credit of £6,400 for the year. The owners were content with this result but by mid-1955 she was £6,000 in the red, Bundaberg remained closed and with no Maryborough trade available, she was being used in other areas where she was not really suited.

In June 1955 the South Pacific Shipping Co (based in Suva, Fiji) made an unexpected offer of £50,000 for the ship. At the time she was working in the Newcastle-Port Kembla-Maryborough steel trade. She was due for survey in 1957 at an estimated cost of £38,000. Her crew quarters were below current standards and would have required, due to a recent court judgement, to be rebuilt. On 23 August 1955 she completed cargo discharge at Port Kembla and arrived in Sydney late that night. The crew, except for a few officers, signed off the next day and she moved to Mort’s Dock Balmain for examination. Even then she was reluctant to leave Australian ownership as a union ban was placed on her by the Maritime Transport Council until an assurance was given that an Australian crew would take her to Fiji. The matter was resolved with the A.U.S.N. conceding to the union demands. The Babinda after nearly 20 years in Australian ownership was handed over on 10 September 1955. Proceeds from the sale after tax adjustments amounted to a little over £25,000.

Post A.U.S.N. service

MV 'Babinda' off the mouth of the Clarence River (Port of Yamba Historical Society)

MV ‘Babinda’ off the mouth of the Clarence River (Port of Yamba Historical Society)

MV Babinda remained in service flying the Fijian flag with the South Pacific Shipping Co. for about 7 years. The author’s research found very little information on her during that period but indications are she was employed carrying timber in both directions across the Tasman Sea, sawn pine from Nelson, New Zealand to Sydney and hardwood for railway sleepers and telegraph poles from Grafton to New Zealand. An image of her is shown off the entrance to the Clarence River, circa 1950’s. As mentioned previously, she was eminently suitable for timber carriage.

From Sydney Harbour Bridge, 'Babinda' in June 1962 (John Mathieson)

From Sydney Harbour Bridge, ‘Babinda’ in June 1962 (John Mathieson)

In November 1962 she was sold to Singapore interests and registered under the Panamanian flag to Transportes Malayos S.A. The following month the vessel was sold on hire purchase to Indonesia’s state-owned oil company P.N.Permina of Jakarta. After delivery in February 1964 she was most likely used in Indonesian waters carrying oil products. In September 1966, the contract of sale was paid out and she was renamed Tamiang after the river district on the border of the provinces of Aceh and North Sumatra where she was operating. In 1969 the vessel was transferred to the newly formed subsidiary P.T.Pertamina Tongkang (barge)’s oil carrying fleet.

MV 'Babinda' in Singapore Roads (Dr Howard Dick)

MV ‘Babinda’ in Singapore Roads (Dr Howard Dick)

In April 1972, being now surplus to Pertamina’s requirements, she was sold to P.T.Pelayaran Nusantara Putra Samudra (Ocean Prince Interisland Shipping Co. Ltd.), a firm established by a family of Palembang rubber traders to operate ships out of Palembang to Java and Singapore. In January 1974, when the purchase price was paid out, she was renamed Bintang Samudra IV (Ocean Star IV). Her duties then would have been to transport rubber from Palembang to Singapore on a weekly shuttle with all kinds of imported goods on the return trip.

By 1980 the vessel being 44 years old, she was still very active in Indonesia’s interisland fleet. However by January 1982, the Indonesian National Shipowners Association records indicated she was now inactive and remained so thru 1983. In January 1984 the Indonesian Department of Sea Communications announced a new regulation (effective 1 May 1984) that all ships older than 30 years would have to be laid up and sold for scrap. At that time the vessel was most probably laid up in the river at Palembang. It is thought that she ended her days sometime in the mid-1980’s either being broken up in situ or in a Javanese scrapyard.

Postscript

Tug 'Babinda', built 1979

Tug ‘Babinda’, built 1979

The name Babinda still lives on in Australian waters. In 1979 the tug Babinda of 108 tons was built at the slipways of Stannard Bros. Shipping and Engineering Pty. Ltd. Her owners have been Moreton Bay Tug and Lighter Co 1979-1984, North Queensland Marine Towage 1984-2001, Adsteam Marine 2001-2007 and, since 2007, Svitzer Australia. Babinda operates out of the Port of Cairns, very familiar waters for the old Babinda and those crucial days of the “Darwin Shuttle”.

Acknowledgements

The author is indebted to the following:

  • The University of Glasgow Archives for images of the Babinda’s launching, general arrangement plans of the vessel, image of the shipyards at Bowling and written report of the vessel’s sea trials, all from their collection of records of Scott and Sons.
  • The Royal Australian Navy’s Sea Power Centre, Canberra, for the digitised records of Merchant Shipping movements during WWII
  • Norman L McKellar’s definitive history of the A.U.S.N. “From Derby to Burketown”
  • Dr Howard Dick, noted maritime historian and authority on Indonesian shipping

Information

This entry was posted on 04/01/2016 by in People, Ships.
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