Australian National Maritime Museum: Week 199

Stern of the HMB Endeavour: Sydney, Australia

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.

Crew's hammocks aboard the HMB Endeavour: Sydney, Australia

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.

Crew's toilet aboard the HMB Endeavour: Sydney, Australia

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.

Mural inside the dining room of the HMAS Vampire: Sydney, Australia

Officer's dining room aboard the HMAS Vampire: Sydney, Australia

The surfaced HMAS Onslow inside the Darling Harbour: Sydney, Australia

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.

Officer's quarters on the HMAS Onslow: Sydney, Australia

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 Captain's bathroom on the James Craig: Sydney, Australia

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).

Operation room of the HMAS Vampire: Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney

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.

Operation Room of the HMAS Vampire: Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney

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

International Fleet Review: Week 134

A page from the Sydney Mail, published on 8 October 1913, shows crowds watching HMAS Australia at her moorings. (Royal Australian Navy)

One hundred years ago the HMAS Australia sailed into the Sydney Harbour. It was a momentous occasion for the fledgling country and thousands of people gathered to see the new Australian Fleet Unit.

In order to mark the 100th anniversary of that occasion, the navy orchestrated an International Fleet Review with helicopter displays, 21-gun salutes, and a military band rendition of current pop songs.

“WHO LIKES PINK?” the singer caterwauled as she stomped her feet and clapped her hands. She was the rare kind of artist that could transform a bad song into an overwrought opera.

“Oh YEAH,” a female audience member replied, her enthusiasm captured on a stranger’s iPad. She was in her mid 20s and dancing in front of the stage in baggy clothes and a baseball cap. I wondered if she really did like the music or if she was the singer’s friend in civilian clothes.

The Opera House steps were packed and all the best views had been claimed for hours with tripods and cameras. Barret and I had an hour to kill, but the food and bathroom lines were so ridiculously long that it just wasn’t worth leaving our cramped spot- besides, the band was now covering the best of Justin Beiber.

While the pebbly texture of the steps pressed into my ankles and my feet lost circulation, I reflected upon the simpler times when one could rock up to the quay on a horse and buggy ten minutes before the ships entered the harbour. Not that I knew what it was like to find a good spot so easily, but I can imagine. How different these public events must have been when people didn’t need plastic wrist bands to get close to the action.

The only reason I was even allowed to enter the cordoned off zone around the Opera House was because I had won tickets to a graphic novel festival. Once the lecture ended, I was urgently ushered out of the Opera House but allowed to stay in the area with the military band (now covering Miley Cyrus).

International Fleet Review 2013: Sydney Harbour, Australia

My spot wasn’t worth that kind of auditory torture until a bunch of disgruntled tourists and amateur photographers decided to break past a barricade. With minutes until the start of the fireworks there was suddenly a void of people right up front on the balcony railing- the part of the steps that people were allowed to watch the show. Sensing my opportunity, I rushed forward and set my tripod up right behind the balding head of a 5’7” man. A few minutes later the gate crashers were kicked out of the restricted area and stuck at the back of the crowd.

Yes I had a better view, but halfway through the show I noticed a dark dome-shaped smudge in the bottom corner of every image.  That’s when I hoisted my camera above the crowd and produced my next series of pictures at crooked angles. It wasn’t my finest hour of photography, but the night wasn’t really about my photos or anybody else’s. It was about Australia, how much the country has matured within the last century, and about how much better fireworks look in the Sydney Harbour than they do anywhere else in the world. Not even Prince Harry could distract the crowd from that.

About: the International Fleet Review

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