What might there be at the bottom of the sea? Oceans galore for you to explore; A shipwreck’s sunken treasure, a fearsome colossal squid, a stealthy submarine or a deep sea diver, out to explore the ocean’s floor.
What might there be at the bottom of the sea? Oceans galore for you to explore; A shipwreck’s sunken treasure, a fearsome colossal squid, a stealthy submarine or a deep sea diver, out to explore the ocean’s floor.
I’ve walked through our Oberon-class submarine many times. Before the visitors arrive, it’s quiet. You can hear the creaking of the ropes that secure the sub to the wharf, and sometimes the far away voices of people in Darling Harbour. Remnants of life onboard remain – the boardgames in the mess, the roster on the wall and the ingredients in the kitchen – settled and silent. I’ve also been onboard the patrol boat Advance and climbed up and down from the bridge to the kitchen, avoiding its sharp corners and examining the menacing-looking Bofors guns on deck. I’ve walked onboard our destroyer HMAS Vampire many times before too. It smells like the 70s. There’s linoleum throughout, a faint scent of oil and what might be the remaining tendrils of thousands of cooked dinners served in the mess. There’s a sense of chasing someone else’s long-forgotten memories down the lengthy corridors and through the maze of tunnels and ladders.
In the past nine months, in the course of researching these three vessels, I’ve also spent many hours speaking with naval personnel about their time serving on HMAS Onslow, Advance and Vampire. Through their stories, photographs and records, I got glimpses of three very alive, very dangerous and very exciting worlds. One submariner described to me the sounds that the ocean makes when it wakes in the morning, how you can hear the animals stir and react to the sun the same way that birds do at dawn. Another described the feeling, through your feet, of the submarine dashing away from the surface and diving beneath the waves. It sounded to me like the feeling of taking off in a small airplane – just going in the other direction. One ex-submarine commander talked sparingly of his involvement in covert operations onboard Oberon submarines, responding to our questions with silence and a smile.
Inventor of the first navigable submarine, Cornelius Drebbel died 7 November 1633. Drebbel was born in the Netherlands in 1572 and while working with the English Royal Navy, became well known for his work in chemistry, optics, measurement and even dabbled in the dye industry.
Drebbel had a basic education and was originally a painter and engravers apprentice, until his interest in inventions attracted the attention of King James I, who invited him to England. During his time there he presented many of his ideas and inventions to the court, including his famous perpetual motion machine that told the time, date and season.
It was around this time that Drebbel began working on his submarine. The vessel appears to have been based on a row boat design, and had a wooden frame completely covered in waterproof leather. Pigskin bladders connected to pipes leading out of the cabin controlled depth; to dive the bladders were filled with water by releasing a rope that controlled the opening and closing of the pipes. In order to surface, the rowers squeezed all the water out of the bladders and tied them off with rope again. This enabled the submarine to safely dive to depths of 4 to 5 metres.
The vessel was steered by a rudder, and powered by four oars which were fed into the water through leather seals. Air tubes led from the cabin to the waters surface and were kept in place by the use of floats – submarine was able to be underwater for several hours at a time.
Drebbel’s submarine was tested several times, and it was reported that even King James I was on board during one of the tests, becoming the first monarch to travel under water! However, the submarine appears to have been well ahead of its time and was not of any interest to the English Royal Navy.
This design and the capabilities of Drebbel’s submarine are a far cry from that of the Oberon-class submarine, HMAS Onslow, which is permanently on display to the public at the museum. She was commissioned during the cold war (1968) and served Australia for 30 years before coming to the Australian National Maritime Museum in 1999.
The Onslow is 90 metres long and powered by V16 diesel generators. Her motor provides 3,500 brake horsepower and 4,500 shaft horsepower, which allows speeds of up to 12 knots (22km per hour) on the surface and 17 knots (31km per hour) when submerged. Onslow’s maximum range was 9000 nautical miles (17000km) at 12 knots, and a depth of 200 metres. She was able to carry 64 – 68 personnel, plus an additional 16 trainees.
During service she carried six 21 inch bow torpedo tubes, which could fire torpedos or deploy sea mines, in addition to anti-ship missiles, and further stern mounted torpedo tubes for use against other submarines.
You can find more information about Onslow HERE.
References and further reading:
Brough, Neil. “Onslow in dry dock 2002″ (PDF). Signals, Sydney, NSW: Australian National Maritime Museum, 2003.
Shaw, Lindsey. HMAS Onslow: cold war warrior. Sydney, NSW: Australian National Maritime Museum, 2005.
War, for all of its awful consequences, produces some fascinating advances in technology and some very curious inventions. Some have transferred their purposes to civilian society (the modern computer, the humble slinky) but others are too strange, too specialised to have ever left the realm of warfare.
Meet the Sleeping Beauty.
Designed in WWII by prolific British inventor Major H. Quentin Reeves (said to be the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s character ‘Q’ in the James Bond series) of the top-secret research centre Station IX – the Sleeping Beauties were submersible one-man canoes created specifically for the clandestine activities of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and its offshoot Special Operations Australia (SOA).
Today was not just another day at the office. As senior curator of the Australian naval history collection here at the museum I was very lucky indeed to have the opportunity to leave the desk and computer behind and enjoy Sydney’s autumnal weather! Our Oberon class submarine, the former HMAS Onslow is due for her four-yearly check and major maintenance at Thales Garden Island.
Boarding the submarine at 7.45 am we were soon in the capable hands of Navy’s Master Attendant Commander Glenn Thompson, who was ably assisted by Lieutenant Peter Dargan, most recently navigator on HMAS Parramatta. Three tugs masterly manoeuvred us away from the museum and we gently and gracefully headed to Garden Island – with a short interlude waiting for a large tanker to pass by.
Lindsey Shaw, senior curator
Being in a sunless space, bereft of fresh air for last three years, does strange thing to people.
After picking up the entry permit from the project office our thoroughly serious and professional marine hull surveyor, Warwick Thomson, is intently checking that the tank has been gas freed correctly; he sorts out the essentials, gas monitor… check, camera, torch… check, chipping hammer… check, note pad and pen… check check. Clothed in his fresh, white disposable overalls, Warwick could be mistaken for a slightly dumpy cottontail but afflicted with the difficulties of Alice in negotiating the entry down the rabbit hole of No.3 fuel oil tank. In its shape, the fuel reservoir is a crescent moon prism, its inboard surface being the regular cylinder of the pressure hull, its outer more complex curve, being the thinner plated skin visible from the exterior of the sub. Internally, the space is complicated by a lattice of supports radiating from the inner to the outer lateral face.
After edging past the coming, Warwick heads to the side and upwards, inspecting the critical edge that, externally, has been of much concern (see blog, Day Two; Between the Times) but any disquiet felt over the potential state of the internal structure has been found to be misplaced. The area is in near pristine condition with only about two percent surface corrosion and no wastage of either the pressure hull or the outer tank shell. Nearly all of the corrosion present in the tank appears around and directly below the entry point where remedial work being undertaken will eliminate any further ingress of rain water. The continual harsh tap of hammer to steel, as our Professional troglodyte tests the integrity of any suspect area, acts as a reassuring heart monitor, but as Bunny Thomson makes his way outboard down the first ladder then crosses over to the second to head in, down around the tightening lower radius and out of sight, a mad high pitched cackle is heard.
“Tis the annular holes of the tooth brush that’s checked annually, hee, hee, hee”
Has he gone insane, overcome by remnant diesel fumes or has he partaken of the “eat me”, “drink me” temptations at the bottom of the rabbit’s hole?
The grimy white whiskered face of Warwick, appearing through the tank top, bearing a broad smirk, informs me the it is neither diesel nor potions that have caste this madness upon him, it is simply the latent-naughty child within, delighting in the novel adventure of being somewhere he shouldn’t really be. The regressed marine surveyor was just testing out the acoustics by sounding out a rendition of Spike Milligan, The Goon Show, circa 1958.
With few exceptions all the fuel oil & water ballast tanks as well as the free flooding areas have been found to be in remarkably good condition with little or no deterioration of the surface coatings. Even No 1 water ballast tank, open from the last docking, had but little marine growth. Although the discovery of a saucer sized oyster on the internal structure promised a rare treat, the thick sludge oozing beneath my feet made me think better of it. The sub hadn’t bottomed since being at the museum; the black tar like matter, slowly swallowing my feet, had simply formed by suspended, water borne particles, settling in the sedate confines of the tank. I instantly desired to send a sample off to some lab, perhaps a cure for cancer would be found in this concoction which smelt of three day old marinara with a case of sun stroke, but more probably, yet another cause would be identified.
There was an element of envy in losing out on the oyster, for it seemed that everyone else had been able to partake of the oceans offering. As the pump down of the outer dock drew to a close a mild frenzy took place at the base of the outer caisson. Plucking brim and flat head, from the grasp of the graving dock pumps a flock of labourers swooped upon there forlorn prey. It is a time honoured tradition here “the docking fish haggle”, where, using dockside Esperanto and gesticulations, each man argues for his fair share, a regular bonus for these unfashionable labourers who possess a sense of irony and love for the great Australian sport of tax avoidance; as one old hand gleefully explained.
“There’s no fringe benefit tax on this lot, mate”.
In the early morning and aft of the clock watchers end, the dock floor is moist and cool. At mid day dining time, again she’s placid, humidified by the latent pools and the gentle cascade edging by the outer caisson. The sheer thermal mass of a structure, that when completed, at the eve of peace in the 1944, could house any vessel afloat, ensures a mild clime, while Onslow’s constant shadow gives respite at midday to our more freckled fellows. At these times there is only the interval led, discordant pop of the compressed air relief valves, not too far removed from a croak, to disturb the air. But these are only moments among many and the sudden vision of a soul, accompanied by paramedics, being hauled aloft in a yellow cage through the vacant blue, reminds you that when you’re down and out at the bottom of the dock there’s only one way out; forty five feet up straight up. He’ll be okay, the pain killing shots have subdued him and after a couple of weeks of physio he’ll be back but for the rest of the day you’re left hypersensitive to the need to know, to be sure of every placing of the three points of contact, to follow the rules, to know that some one else knows where you’re at, for on the irregular floor of the dock, strung out with hoses possessing their own dynamism, with multiple bobcats and remotely driven cherry pickers all beeping out a warning that builds to a Doppler cacophony, then splits into asymmetric chaos of sound, to be heard, to be seen, to be safe, is never guaranteed.
The sub, has of late, adopted the manners of a chameleon, changing at every new glance. The preparation work left the hull with a temporary psychedelic camo. pattern that the merry pranksters would be proud of. Within a day it disappears below a coat of sealing primer, green / bronze in hue on the steel topsides and a stark white primer for the GRP fin. Seven men work as one to progress the painting. The ever smiling Humphrey coordinates the process from the dock floor; he has two colleagues at his side supplying a continual flow of the synthetically sweet smelling liquid to the basket of each cherry picker. While the sprayer applies overlapping two meter runs the driver perched beside him directs the platform through three dimensions so as to offer a fresh surface to the sprayer on each pass. Roughly apace of each other, the long necked vehicles, on either side of the sub, seem locked in a reptilian dance, advancing only after numerous jolting rocks of their body.
Now that the majority of the prepared surfaces have been sealed, work can commence atop of the pressure hull, readying the more intricate areas for paint… well not quite yet. If you recall, the last blog post detailed the candy pink desertification of the dock, well those pretty little grains of garnet have entrenched themselves in every nook, every possible crevice and improbable cranny and yet again cheery Humphrey’s and his team appear, ready to do battle. Like an unseen army of banister brush ants they push forth mounds of earth, mined from beneath the casings, onto the tank tops from where it topples down like pink rain. Days and days of rain spray out from the teams nozzled hoses in a laborious attempt to depose any remaining gem grains tenaciously clinging to there setting. While the wash out continues little progress is made on painting, the only obvious change is the handy work of a isolated couple elevated to face the fin, filling each of the hundreds of bolt holes with a Laminex green, epoxy filler. There could be problems, the liberal application of the bog will multiply ten fold the sanding needed to gain a flush surface and at this point, time is not a commodity we have an abundance of.
Thales of Miletus lived over 2500 years ago, one of ancient Greece’s “Seven Sages”, he bequeathed to the world many ideas in the fields of politics, ethics and business, but from my desk here at Garden Island, his cosmological beliefs and his contribution to geometry are primary in my mind. The Thales Group, the company that now operates the docking facilities at GI has a world wide presence whose origins lie in electronics. With the company’s comparatively recent entry into shipbuilding came the adoption of the name Thales and seems no where more appropriate than right here. According to Aristotle, Thales believed that everything had water as its origin, an idea that perhaps resonates better in contemporary Australia than in ancient Greece, he is also recorded as measuring the height of Egypt’s pyramids by the length of their shadow. The meshing of ideas in the mind of one ancient polyglot is embedded in the actions all who labour under the banner of Thales. Through the application physics and maths we affect change on a maritime subject but perhaps it is only ideas that are beyond the reach of entropy and we work in vain to protect Onslow from the ravages of this temporal existence?
Like a vestige of Atlantis rising through a receding tide, the steps and galleries of the dock glisten, a fine slurry settles upon the floor, the saturated pores of the concrete walls linger longer in a moist state. Bright orange lines squiggle across the opaque water whose umbilical purpose is only revealed on the occasion of a tethered aquanauts surfacing. They prowl the depths sending dispatches to the watchful dock master on the progress of descent while shoreside workers ease lines aligning the sub on the accumbent plane. Eight hours of pump out has delivered Onslow gently to her cradle, soft wood crushing pieces, on hard wood blocks, atop stubby concrete plinths bear her two thousand odd tonnes. In the deepening quiet of twilight easy conversation flows, with the light ship and floating dock yet to settle on their blocks, I regret that domestic duties will eventually call us all from this meditative place.
Monday brings a more vociferous labour to the dock. The marine debris has been washed from the dock floor, and hired cherry pickers have been lowered in. Seeing CLS4 and Onslow, all revealed, forces a child-like response, like the inadvertent glimpse of your aunt’s stockinged leg; innocent, inappropriate and totally fascinating. From the dock floor the curves and camber noted on the flat, black and white plans, inflate to the third dimension. From astern to above, the sight of the rudder, planes and shafts back dropped by the ninety metres of shadowed hull inspire modesty in regards to the achievements of any individual and awe in those of the collective. The 3 000 PSI water blast that will deforest the majestic curves of their wilting marine flora and crusty flora, is but an overture to the banshee like scream of the ultra high blast to come, a skin peal that leaves Onslow’s steel skin bare with a rust red flush. In between, garnet grit is used to prepare areas where the wielding of the water lance could easily result in the severing of a limb. Although grit blasting is applied to only limited areas, its consequences are to transform the dock into candy pink desert. Soft drifts hold the foot marks of labourers and cirrus like plumes are swept up from above as if from the crest of a great dune. With all this commotion getting onboard the submarine has been problematic and thus much time has been spent fine tuning the plans for some of the other works that are to be carried out.
Glen Thornton (Senior Technical Supervisor, Hoses/Projects, Weapons Systems, In Service Support. Naval) is the coolest man on the island. His philosophical frame work is based upon the following axioms: beards are cool, white overall topped with a green hard hat are cool and despite being already dead, Steve Mc Queen was a sell out for doing those anti-smoking ads in the eighties. With the aid of a race horse rolly on his bottom lip he rallies his intellect to the problem at hand.
“If we can locate ABR 2226-6 along with PIL SCP/10/1, we could, using the ULs, find out the weight of a MarkVIII mod 2 and then test SWL for the lift.”
The ensuing mass nod approved of the plan, unsaid was the general agreement that challenging Glen’s encyclopaedic knowledge of naval publications and acronyms was beyond anyone present. Glen is applying years of experience with O boat weapons systems to, amongst others, the tasks of moving a torpedo in the fore most compartment of the submarine and the resealing of the torpedo tubes. In normal operation the bow caps of the tubes are kept tightly sealed by hydraulic pressure, hydraulics are also used to manoeuvre the torpedoes in the for-ends. In the absence of a functioning telemotor system Glen has formulated a number of different strategies for the completion of these tasks. Appropriately, the approval of Thales’ engineering department is required before any plan is implemented. Glen concedes the point but at times he displays an attitude towards the engineering department which is like that which an artist might have towards a critic, or, that which the boys from Orange County Choppers would have for a vehicle inspector, acknowledging their value yet questioning their judgements.
Will Glen get his way or is it back to the drawing board for Mr Cool? And will this writer stop trying to be clever? All will be revealed in the next exciting episode… or not.
Lean on the rail that skirts the graving dock, the best place seems to be next to the sign saying “DO NOT LEAN ON RAIL”, and in a very short while someone will pop up at your shoulder and start to spin a tale. With equal measure of pride and an emotion very near disgust, they will talk of their time on “the rock” (Cockatoo Island) servicing the Oberons, the intermediate dockings here at Garden Island or their time as a submariner operating these immensely complex machines. Like an abstinent addict, one half of them cannot help but take pride in what the other half casts in shame. They were all younger men then and for their lack of a comparative perspective they achieved amazing things, things that the prospect of having to repeat today would produce a repulsive shudder.
“15 years I spent working on those damned things.” says one
“that’s my boat there….filthy bloody things they are” says another, and another “ two months they reckoned It’d take and eighteen months later I was still labelling those @#!*%$ pipes.”
Luckily for us the tasks to be performed during this docking are no where near as formidable as those done while Onslow was in service. In some ways there is a camaraderie here akin to that displayed by the members of the Vampire Association, those indomitable volunteers who brush off the passing years by rejuvenating our destroyer, the former HMAS Vampire, and in so doing re-invigorate themselves. There is genuine feeling in the hand shakes that help to establish a collegiate atmosphere between the dockyard and the museum. This is personal. For many the preservation of Onslow goes beyond the commercial imperatives of a job for it is also in a small way the preservation of a part of their lives.
There are always disputes and misunderstandings even in the most congenial relationships and this week the greatest source of friction amongst the team has been around the issue of electrical cables and conduit. Where to cut? What to cut? What should be retained and how? Everyone has an answer but rarely do they agree. At the heart of the issue two distinct philosophies, on one hand is the commercial perspective, succinctly put by project manager Joe Pham as “all I can offer you is the cheapest way of doing it.” And in a purely commercial operation this would make clear sense. The difference arises because we, as a museum, are obligated to take a longer view. The cables and conduit in question would have been replaced at every major refit, they were not designed to have an extended life and have thus suffered greatly from corrosion which subsequently adds to the rust staining on Onslow’s hull, so something must be done. To cut it all out and dump it in the recycling bin would solve the problem in its economic and aesthetic forms, “Who’s going to see it under the casing, anyway?” But what about the not too distant future when much of the first hand knowledge of the sub has been lost? There would be no material indication of how these systems hidden under the casing worked, the drawings and plans that the museum retains are incomplete and in regards to electrical systems they are quite abstract. The submarine must be maintained in as a complete state as possible for it to remain historically and educationally relevant. Using the frame work of the Burra Charter to guide him the fleet section head Steven Adams working with Joe will find an economical resolution but for now work goes on.
Peter Toparis’ team of fitters don their disposable overalls, colloquially known as “sperm suits” and squirm their way under the casing, these agile young men finalise the freeing up of the GPR structures, the hand tight bolts must be removed and even as the chain blocks tighten and the dogman signs to the distant crane, pipes must be displaced to make way for the rising arch. Inch by inch it comes, the dogman using his significant mass like a time lapsed surfer to pivot the casing up past one obstacle then down past the next in the far corner, securing each measure of height gained with the metallic rattle of a chain block. Then all is cleared and the casing hovers for a time a foot above its origin, the young fitters blushingly revealed, to be snuggled safely amongst the exhaust system and fuel pipes. Without its functional context, the black arch with its garishly coloured lifting strops, gently turning on its mythic sky hook, gives a pleasure akin to that of a Magritte vision.
“Yeah, well done but how are we going to put it back on”
[Nervous laughter is heard off stage.]
Today is much like the last only lacking all the fanfare. Again, our Navy pilot boards and the DMS tugs come along side. Under the watchful eye of the jaunty dockmaster we’re eased into the Captain Cook Graving Dock, one of the true industrial cathedrals, but today it looks more like an over sized swimming pool. Secured well back in southern eastern corner of the dock, Onslow will stay in this position until the pump-out of the dock commences next Friday, being joined by the museums light ship CLS 4 (commonwealth light ship) and thales’ floating dock. There is not a lot happening for the rest of the day so I’m off back to museum to organise some supplies.
This seems a good time to discuss the work that will be undertaken during the following week, but first, a bit of ‘submarines for dummies.’ Essentially, the submarine is a habitable metal tube (the pressure hull) which gains buoyancy from the saddle tanks attached to the greater part of either side of the vessel. As I explain to our younger guests at the museum, these tanks are much like floaties, when full of air the sub remains on the surface. Release the air and she submerges below the waves. Luckily all submarine have the ability to re-inflate their floaties and re-emerge on the surface.
The next point is that what you see is not what you get with a submarine. On the surface she appears to be ominously sleek and other worldly but lift the bonnet, or more accurately the casings, and much of the mystery is removed. The casings, over twenty in number, sit atop of the pressure hull and run near the full length of the hull. Made of either mild steel or GRP (glass reinforced plastic) their primary function is to give the submarine a hydrodynamic shape; they also provide protection for the equipment that lies below them as well as giving a work platform when the sub is surfaced. Compressed air bottles, exhaust manifolds, sonar arrays, webs of pipes and a menagerie of equipment are housed underneath the casings. With their removal, many of the functions of the sub and the means with which they are attained come to light. The dark menace is shown to be just a bunch of nuts and bolts, although a very a very complex bunch.
So why does Onslow needs to be docked? The three main aims of the docking are to make sure she remains afloat, preserve the vessel’s exterior and to improve the boat’s aesthetics. These three aims are intertwined. In this first week, prior to the pump down of the dock, the lifting of eleven of the GPR casings will be the main event. This will allow access to areas that would, without a team of highly trained spider monkeys, be impossible to reach, and its purpose involves all three aims. One of the critical areas, in regard to buoyancy, is the point at which the saddle tanks join the pressure hull. The surrounding area forms a gutter, collecting water and leaving it susceptible to corrosion and the possibility that the tank’s watertight integrity could be breached. It is essential that this area be well preserved. If the casings were left in place there would be very restricted access and a great risk of the fibre-glass casings being damaged from the water and grit blasting that will take place later. The blasting will remove most of the corrosion on the pressure hull and pipe work, in preparation for preservation via painting. With the source of most of the rust staining along Onslow’s sides no longer present, she will look better for longer and will probably have lost a couple of kilos. The docking is much like the combination of a detox diet and trip to the day spa, you’re healthier, you look better and it often stops that sinking feeling.
The smiles were shining from all as fleet staff rolled in this morning. A mix of relief and the anticipation fed the high spirits. Relief that the occasionally strained contract negotiations with Thales, whose skilled work force will conduct the majority of the dockings tasks, had yesterday, been sealed with the flurry of a pen and a hand shake. The anticipation, for most of us, came from the action to come. Released from the constraints of working in the public domain of the museum, we could focus on the material welfare of the submarine and the exercise of some of our skills and knowledge that had been held in check. Others anticipated a leisurely cruise on a faultless Spring morning.
There had been months of work preparing the sub for this day. Warwick Thompson had been crawling about amongst the tangle of pipe below the casings. With torch and note pad his inspection of the sub’s tanks and innards are the foundation of the scope of work to be conducted in the coming month. I myself had spent countless hours in strange yogic positions undoing hundreds of bolts so as to free the casings. Everyone had contributed. We had prepared, but on seeing the authoritative stride, black’ n ’whites and scrambled-egged caps of the navy pilot’s entourage, I returned to an unexpected place. Every muscle tensed a little, that whole of being feeling as you left port, like the first day of school only more solemn.
The DMS ( Defence Maritime Services ) tugs positioned themselves fore and aft and her lines drawn aboard. Our pilot, by close inspection, assures himself of their security and then takes his position aloft on the tiny bridge way up in the fin. Radio communication is tested between both lines parties, fore and aft, and the bridge. We all wait and then wait a little longer, a car carrier is coming into port. The delay seems too much for the mass of well wishers on the heritage pontoon and they disperse, perhaps they can no longer bare saying farewell? Then a scramble of activity as the tugs’ lines creak taught and the sub’s let go. A close eye is kept on the closing gap between the destroyer and sub as she turned to head out the harbour proper. Finally a miraculous turn is brought off by the forward tug, much like seeing a front rower morph into Rudolf Nuereyev, as he repositions from a push to tow.
Thanks to the skill of or navy pilot and the DMS skippers all goes smoothly on our approach to Garden Island dock yard. Once Onslow is tied up along side we secure all means of entry and leave her for the night. The museum staff will now begin the formidable task of induction into the dockyard work area, a process that in total will take a full day of instruction and evaluation.