Friday, 22 February 2002 00:00

Bell? No Bugle!

By Trevor Jackson - Esperance Star

We have saying on board the boat that gets bandied around whenever we are out searching for wrecks. The saying [actually its only just a phrase] is, "Bell Day", and it refers to our never-ending quest to find a god damned Bell on one of these wrecks. Over the years we've found some fantastic souvenirs, sextants, brass lights, compass binnacles and even a beautiful matching pair of ships telegraphs. But never a Bell, never! The reasons for this could be numerous. Perhaps someone got there first, perhaps there was no Bell on that ship, and perhaps it's buried under the rubble. Having said all that you'd have to fancy your chances on a brand new wreck that you've only just discovered and that you know has never been dived by any one before, not counting turtles and dolphins. About midnight last night I lay in my bunk wondering if,' tomorrow would be Bell Day'. We were all primed up to go wreck hunting in the morning and our information was good, our gear was ready and our resolve was firm.

About 20 years ago when I'd first learned to dive I got a call from a trawler friend of mine. He had lost a set of nets in the middle of Moreton Bay on what was colloquially known as 'the barge'. As so often happens in this type of situation no one really knew what 'the barge' was, except that it was there and had a nasty habit of ruining your nights fishing if you weren't careful. The trawler man in question hadn't been watching his sounder to closely and his livelihood was now laid out on the sea floor around this wreck, could I help him out. A day later we were anchored over the site, I dived down, untangled the nets, and we steamed for port. Nothing to dramatic and a week later I'd all but forgotten it had ever happened"¦until yesterday.

I was interviewing a new crewmember and we got onto the subject of the Captain Nielsen and how it had laid unnoticed for 40 years right under everyone's noses. We got to wonder what else lay out there just a few miles away, waiting to be uncovered in the grey shallows of the Bay. "Of course! The Barge", I squealed. The poor girl I was interviewing didn't know what I was on about so I explained it to her and soon after was on the radio trying to gather information about its location. I got a couple of solid leads, rang the crew up one by one and we were set. At 11am the next morning, the ropes would be dropped onto the pontoon and we'd be on the job.

The area we would be searching was 7 miles due east of Redcliffe, more or less smack bang in the middle of the Bay. The Admiralty chart of Moreton Bay has always had a wreck marked in the vicinity but it was common knowledge that no wreck existed anywhere near this mark. In fact, 'the Barge' is nearly two miles away from the charted position so I'm given to wondering whether there still may be something further to discover another day. The steam out took about an hour. Crewman Carl and I were laughing about on the front deck, continuously muttering 'Bell Day' under our breath and ever hopeful that it would finally come to fruition. As we approached the site there was a trawler working almost on top of the position I thought the wreck would be. We idled up beside him dropped our speed to about 2 knots and had a yarn as if we were leaning over the back fence.

"Hey Jamie hows it goin' mate?"
"Good Trev, what ya up ta?"
"Gonna have a look for the Barge?"
"Oh yeah, its just over there, line the southern lead up with the middle of the Gateway Bridge and you'll run right over it"

Trawler men speak shop a lot, and Id been out of the game for so long that I didn't know which lead was 'the southern lead', but I could see the Gateway Bridge clearly enough and guessed the rest. As Jamie predicted, we ran straight over it.

I did a few circles, it was a very low lying debris field, the biggest hit had been on our initial run in so I lined up the Gateway and Southern lead again and as we hit it, Dr Carl dropped the pick and waited for the sound of grating metal.

The Doctor is usually a fairly level headed sought of chap but I couldn't help noticing as we geared up that he was exhibiting a rarely seen facial expression that could only be described as 'Gold Fever' or in this case 'Bell Fever'. As I said it's a rarely seen expression but given the circumstances the Doctor could be forgiven. The last time we'd found a wreck in the Bay it had yielded treasures unimagined, maybe we would get lucky again and at the very least we'd be able to tell my trawler buddies what 'the barge' really was, hopefully. The only thing I could remember about the wreck all those years previous was that there was definitely plenty of metal about, apart from that and its position we knew bugger all. Carl got his fever under control and we hoofed it over the side for our first look. Now I've always been a great supporter of the theory that diving is not necessarily a seeing sport. By that I mean that you can watch Jacques Cousteau on TV and see all the things under the sea, but its not actually like being there. Vision isn't everything, and lucky for me I held that belief because as we descended down into the murk, the clarity closed in, gradually but surely. The first I knew I'd found the bottom was when my torch buried itself into the muddy sea floor. Absolute zero. Actually that's not entirely true, the viz was about 18 inches, but our own movements cause a complete black out. Carl and his buddy Jo [aka Wet One] bailed straight away and it was a good thing that they did, every movement closed the viz in more and more, the ambient light was non-existent, but the green glow of brass under my acute torchlight was unmistakable"¦ A 50 cal machine gun shell"¦. I started to wonder, just like on the Dolphin, "what the hell have we got here?"

I shuffled around the bottom like a crawling baby, picking up green things till my hands were choka! There wasn't much point hanging around for an overview so I bailed myself and joined the others on the surface. Passing the booty up to the guys on the duckboard, I noticed one of the items was a strange pipe shaped object. I give it a smack with the hammer and busted the encrustations away. A four inch cannon shell, live and intact, HOLY $%*#, everyone jumped back 10 paces and I asked crewman Jason to gently place it into the back hold for later identification." On second thoughts bugger that, chuck it over the side quick!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!' He did.

We decided that dropping the anchor onto the wreck hadn't helped matters in the viz department so we picked it up and quickly fashioned a shot line to drop instead. I tried to move the boat around to get the best show on the sounder and drop the shot as best we could into the middle of the site. Jo and Carl hadn't seen a single thing while they'd been down, and the chances of any of us finding the site were at best 'pot luckish'. We got a good hit second time round and dropped the line. Maybe we could find something a little more substantiating this time around. We had some other crew on board and it was their turn for a squiz, 20 minutes later some more artefacts arrived on deck. A bottle marked 'Property of New South Wales Bottling Co. 1943' that was found by Alden was the most intriguing. I was still chomping at the bit for another muck dive so after a quick tank fill I swam over to the down line and went for another feel around. As expected the viz had tidied up slightly and was stretching out for a whopping 2 feet when I got onsite. This time we'd got it right, within minutes I started to find Coal scattered about, then literally head butted a small boiler, ' so she's a steamer then" I thought. The boiler was a small one, about 1.8 metres high and 2 metres long and behind it sat a small steam motor and thousands of rounds of ammo, ranging from 303 right up to the big 4 inchers. There were heaps of rotting crates about suggesting the boat was off to supply some sought of military installation or ship.

I felt about and grabbed a couple of things before claustrophobia set in and the comfort of blue sky beckoned. Back on the duckboard a most intriguing discovery lay afoot. One of the items I'd grabbed in the darkness looked like a giant brass pressed flower. We examined it for a few seconds before realizing it was a trumpet,' no it's a Bugle" someone said. We wondered if it had sounded the last post as the boat went to its en-darkened tomb.

Back on land we washed everything down in fresh water and studied the Bugle. "Well Doctor, there's no Bell to ring, but at least we can blow our own trumpets over this one", I punned."And no doubt there will be some "horn blowing" over this wreck", he countered.

The next day the local media got involved, and before too long the forces that be will want to dispose of what remains out there, but you never know, we might get one more crack at this wreck, one more chance to have our 'Bell Day'