Barret and I have been working on a graphic novel together and when I decided a few chapters would take place on a ship, I realized that I don’t know very much at all about life at sea. It also didn’t help that the kind of visual information I needed was very specific and very elusive.
At Barret’s suggestion I made a research appointment at the library of the Australian National Maritime Museum and mentioned to the librarian in advance that I was researching diagrams for a 300-tonne merchant ship from the 1820s. While she did not find info on that specific kind of ship, she had pulled a lot of great material for me. I was very happy with the information, but I was still having a hard time visualizing what that kind of ship looked like.
How did people move through it? How was it set up? What was the scale of the interior? If I wasn’t sure about these answers, how could I write the storyline and how would Barret be able to illustrate it?
While a library is a great place to start a project, sometimes the only way to nut things out is to get into the field. That’s why I went back a few days later to visit the tall ships at the Australian National Maritime Museum.
The one I was most interested in, the HMB Endeavour, is also one of the most historically accurate maritime vessels. It is set up as if the crew had just anchored and gone ashore. While the ship predates the period I was researching by about 50 years, there was still a lot to gain from walking the deck and through the confined quarters.
One of the things that struck me was just how much rope was needed to operate the ship. It draped around every protrusion on the deck and I imagine it presented quite a tricky work environment- especially in bad weather. Being from the digital age, it was quite easy to romanticize this kind of travel when viewing the ship in the calm waters of Darling Harbour.
However, once you look a little bit closer you notice things like the crew’s toilet. I’m not sure if there was another located within the ship, but the one at the bow of the deck was a wooden platform with a hole. Aside from absolutely no privacy, a shared tasseled rope served in place of toilet paper.
Then, with the help of the stationed tour guides, you come to realize the things that would be impossible to accurately recreate: the sweaty stench of a 56-strong crew, the rudimentary healthcare, and the disappointing taste of stale food and stale water.
The crew of the HMAS Vampire, an Australian destroyer ship commissioned in 1959, might not have contended with the same issues as the crew of the Endeavour, but it feels a bit different to romanticize about laminate tables and commissaries stocked with Crunchie Nuggets and Dunhill cigarettes.
When it came to the HMAS Onslow, a submarine commissioned in 1969, the first thing a visitor noticed when stepping aboard was the lack of space. Bunk beds lined the hall and the lowest bed looked more suited to store shoes than a sleeping man.
The quarters of the ranking officers were not much to get excited over, unless of course you were sleeping on one of the aforementioned bunk beds. The one thought that kept crossing my mind was how much work it would have taken to draft the construction plans- every square inch of space had to be accounted for.
The other thought that crossed my mind was that I’d much rather deal with rats and damp bedding than with the claustrophobic nature of a submarine. Especially if I could have a bathroom like those of a Captain’s wife (circa 1874).
After viewing the utilitarian style of 1768 and the 1960s, it’s easy to see why the HMB Endeavour captures people’s hearts- the creaking floorboards, the skylights, the excitement of traveling by the whim of nature. Paying passengers today can even sail aboard it to places like Tasmania.
You just don’t feel the exhilaration of being out at sea inside the Bat Cave of the HMAS Vampire. Seeing the inside of the operation room also made me glad that I am not writing a military thriller- you really need to have a background in the Navy to even begin to understand the complex operations on board a ship like that. I’ll stick to describing poop platforms and toilet paper tassels.
How to get to the Australian National Maritime Museum: Darling Harbour- 2 Murray Street, Sydney 2000
About: The HMB Endeavour
About: The HMAS Vampire
About: The HMAS Onslow