Joining INVERELL was both exciting but also daunting as it would be my first experience of the big blue ocean and at the same time would be actually expected to work. As soon as we had our kit on-board we were introduced to the Boiler Room as that is where our watch keeping experience would start.
The Bathurst Class minesweepers were built in Australia during the Second World War. Of some 800 plus tons they were gifted to the RNZN in the early 1950s. Early in the 1960s with the paying off of the Loch Class frigates there was an obvious shortage of dedicated training billets. At that time all four Bathurst Class sweepers were in mothballs and a decision was made to recommission INVERELL and KIAMA to be converted into training ships and also to assist with the fishery protection tasks around the New Zealand coast.
Ship’s Company were billeted in the forward mess and a training mess was created aft just forward of the Tiller Flat. Junior Rates were all in hammocks, which were slung in the dining hall as well as forward of that in the rec spaces. My first hammock space was outside the aft heads on the stbd side. This was not a choice space as you can well imagine as during the night people going to the heads would bang into your hammock thus interrupting your sleep. Also some of the smells drifting out were somewhat challenging to the nasal passages. As people drafted on and off the ship the priority was always to try and improve your sleeping area, I ended up slinging my hammock for most of my time on the ship right forward above the cable locker.
The Boiler Room contained two Admiralty Three Drum boilers mounted side by side. The Boiler Room was pressurised to force the air into the boiler through vents in the boiler front. To maintain this pressure the Boiler Room was accessed through an airlock containing and inner and outer door. The intention was that to access the Boiler Room you opened the outer door, stepped into the airlock and closed the outer door prior to opening the inner door and accessing the Boiler Room.
So straight away we were in three watches as boiler front stokers. The watch was run by a POME whom had the responsibility for maintaining the boiler pressure thus supplying steam at 200psi to the triple expansion reciprocating engines, which were connected as a direct drive to the shafts and propellers. These would drive the ship at a maximum speed of 15.5 knots.
The first trip was a week at sea in the Bay of Plenty. Whilst there we spent time checking Japanese long lines, which were set just outside the 3 mile limit, which was at the time the legal area off the coast. To check these lines we would pull in the long line and remove the first dozen fish for measurement and weight recording. There was a snapper pretty much on every hook. So as not to waste the fish they would end up in the galley for dinner that evening.
The galley contained a large stove, which was heated by diesel dripped into the furnace under the hot plate. The diesel was supplied from a small header tank on the upper deck. A hand pump in the Engine Room manually pumped up this tank. In heavy weather it was a real challenge to produce regular meals and often they would consist of soup.
At the end of the first week we arrived in Tauranga for the weekend. In those days Ship’s Company Junior Rates had to go ashore in uniform. The first thing I noticed on going ashore is the road seemed to be moving under my feet, this was the result of the ship’s motion all week and the bodies adaptation to the motion.
Every time we encountered heavy weather the story would be related around the ship as to how the Australians had lost a couple of these vessels in heavy weather with them rolling over. It was somewhat disconcerting when hearing it for the first time however as time passed it was proven to be just an old sailors tale, however these vessels with their round bilges and small bilge keels did roll around alarmingly at times. As the saying went “These vessels would roll around on wet grass”.
These were the days before helicopters and ships were called on regularly to carry out Search & Rescue missions. Some of them I will recount, as I believe it was the most satisfying reward of my whole time on INVERELL.
One of the earliest missions was to rescue a dismasted yacht. The BLACK DOLPHIN was a participant in the Fiji to Auckland yacht race and was dismasted more than 200 miles north of North Cape. We were dispatched to her aid and towed her back to Auckland.
Radio Hauraki was another notable rescue or should I say rescues. Hauraki was set up as a private radio station and as they couldn’t get a licence to broadcast from land they converted a ship and anchored it in what was at the time International Waters in the middle of the Hauraki Gulf. We had steamed past the ship on our way out of Auckland to the Bay of Plenty. She was anchored peacefully in calm water however later that day the weather turned foul and she broke her mooring and after struggling against the elements ended up beached in an inlet on Gt Barrier Island. We were turned around and steamed back to the Gulf to render support. There was not a lot we could do while she was aground but we went to anchor in the bay and effectively became a radio support vessel for her.
The second time we went to her rescue was more dramatic for us. We had returned from a patrol and were alongside in Auckland. Again the weather was foul and again TIRI got into difficulty and the Navy was requested to help. The call went out on radio stations for the crew to return to their ship. The ship hastily flashed up and when sufficient crewmembers were on-board the ship slipped its berth at 0030 and proceeded out to rendezvous with the TIRI and escort her into port. TIRI was unable to steer to port and taking on water so INVERELL had to plot a course and escort her safely past Tiri Tiri Island, through the Whangaparoa Passage and into clear water. It was a very uncomfortable night as the wind was howling through the rigging and we were so close to TIRI that we could really hear the wind in their large radio mast. It was interesting that when TIRI was towed into a berth in Auckland she was meet by dozens of people and was in the spotlight whilst we arrived back into Devonport almost un-noticed.
For me the two years on INVERELL provided many highlights. As a country boy from Putaruru I had only seen the country from Orewa in the north to Waiouru in the south, so in the two years I visited almost every port on the NZ coast, amongst the best memories are the two weeks we spent in the Sounds. We visited almost every one of the Sounds from Milford Sound south and would spend a whole day steaming up them to the source of them. It was stunning scenery and just an amazing time.
Some of the incidents during my time on INVERELL I will deal with in the next chapter.
To be continued