For the auxiliary ketch Falie, currently lying in a forlorn state in a quiet corner of the Port Adelaide docks, Sydney Harbour is a long way off.
Yet, the equivalent of a lifetime ago for most ships, the busy entrance to Port Jackson was the backdrop for a large part of her wartime career. Falie was one of several small merchant ships requisitioned by the Royal Australian Navy as examination vessels.
This diverse assortment of craft carried out the important task of inspecting vessels entering port and checking for contraband or any belligerent status. Regular Afloat readers may recall previous issues that featured a WWII photo of the two ‘Queens’, (Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth) passing off Sydney Heads whilst employed as troop transports (Afloat May’05).
However, what they may not remember is Falie, busily going about her duties in the foreground of that now famous image.
During her ‘watchdog role’, Falie (FY02) also played a small part in a big event during the dark days of the war. She was on station at the entrance to the harbour on the night of 31 May, 1942, the evening three Japanese midget subs planned to attack shipping under cover of darkness.
In the opening moments of the strike, Falie grazed one of the submarines lurking under the surface off South Head and reported the contact to Command. There was no immediate follow up on the report and M24, the second of the three Jap subs, proceeded to the boom net entrance. At the time, a steamer, the collier Mortlake Bank was entering Sydney Harbour. As she passed through the net, M24 made its own entry under the ship’s keel.
As we now know, the submarine, having gained access to the harbour, fired its torpedoes and sunk the depot ship HMAS Kuttabul after missing the cruiser, USS Chicago. Despite a desperate search, M24 avoided being sunk itself. It made good its escape, only to finish up on the bottom somewhere off Long Reef. The midget sub’s two companions had no success at all in the harbour and were both destroyed, one by surface vessels and the other by her own crew.
Two years earlier, on 17 July, 1940, the steel ketch Falie had been requisitioned for naval duties. She was commissioned as an examination vessel a few months later on 4th October. Sea keeping qualities and reliability were greater assets for these little ships in their watchdog role than the armament that was mounted. So Falie was relatively heavily armed for her size, with single 20mm Oerlikon guns fore and aft.
In August, 1943, she was refitted as a stores carrier and moved north to New Guinea where the action didn’t cease. As well as a stores toting role, Falie found herself involved in the considerably more hazardous operation of landing troops on enemy shores under the cover of night.
By the end of hostilities, Falie was back in Australia and her career as a naval vessel ended when she paid off in 1946, to be returned to her owners.
But, for the next 15 years, risk and danger were never too far away. As a civilian vessel again, she continued to provide useful service, carrying explosives around a large part of the Australian coastline.
Falie returned to her pre-war work as a trading ketch in South Australian waters in 1968. Here she began a regular run to Kangaroo Island carrying fuel and general cargo, then returning to Port Adelaide with gypsum ore for use in making cement.
It was to South Australia that the ketch originally came, way back in 1922.
She was launched in Holland three years earlier and sailed to her new home on a delivery voyage that lasted 103 days. The vessel was commanded by Captain Andreas Broun, who was sent to Europe to acquire a vessel on behalf of the Spencer’s Gulf Transport Company Limited.
On arrival in Port Adelaide, he renamed the ship after his new wife Philomena, who was affectionately called ‘Falie’. Falie then began a long career carrying farming equipment and grain as part of the South Australian ketch fleet, which provided a vital link to the many small outports around the two gulfs and the West Coast.
She also made frequent voyages interstate to Melbourne and down south to Hobart. A bridge was later added to her after-deckhouse to give an enclosed and higher point from which to con the ship, as opposed to the original open steering position right aft. Falie’s cargo carrying work in South Australia’s coastal waters, of course, came to an abrupt halt shortly after the declaration of war. Temporary though it was, her stint in the navy was a significant chapter in the ketch’s long career.
In July 1982, Falie was taken out of service, becoming a victim of more modern transport methods, a fate that had befallen all of the other trading ketches that went before her.
On concluding this chapter of her long career, Falie was not only the last working ship representing the South Australian ketch fleet, but she was also the last cargo vessel on the Australian coast to still carry working sail.
Falie used her canvas on every trip from Kangaroo Island to Port Adelaide, right up until her last voyage in1982.
The 46-metre ketch received a reprieve shortly after being laid up when the South Australian Government purchased the vessel to be used as the flagship for the State’s 150-year Jubilee celebrations in 1986.
Between 1984-85 the ketch was rebuilt, using Metal Industry employees and apprentices, with finance from the Federal and SA State Governments.
Her bridge was removed and the wheel reinstated back aft, bringing the ship back to the original configuration as a sailing vessel.
Below, Falie was fitted out with accommodation and a substantial galley, so she could carry passengers and a larger crew. Shipwrights and riggers finished the job and brought the ketch back to her former glory, which included the return of two towering topmasts.
With a brand new suit of sails, Falie featured in re-enactment ceremonies and festivities in ports throughout South Australia during the State’s sesquicentenary celebrations in 1986.
At the end of that year, the Government commissioned the Falie Project Limited, to operate the ketch as a community leisure and educational resource and to preserve her for future generations of Australians.
Although supported by commercial sponsors, her charter work was intended to give operating profits to provide maintenance and upgrading of the ship. For two decades she was a familiar sight off the beaches of Adelaide and ports or secluded coves throughout the State.
But, a year or two ago Falie was found to be unseaworthy. Many of her plates below the waterline are now thinning out at an alarming rate and she is consequently unable to meet survey to qualify to continue carrying passengers.
This time, the tired old lady is in need of much more than a facelift. Many experts agree that finances required to get her operational again will extend beyond a million dollars. With no statewide celebrations lurking around the corner, Governments are hard pressed to justify another rescue bid.
The ketch is currently the responsibility of a State Government sector with the curious title of Department for Transport, Energy and Infrastructure. A taskforce has been set up to work out how best to preserve her. It has been suggested that, as she is still in good shape below decks, perhaps she could be used as an educational venue or for lectures or seminars of a maritime nature.
Will she remain as a floating exhibit or should she come out of the water and be dry-docked? Whatever the case, the Government has said it is “committed to ensuring the Falie remains a visible historical icon.”
However, one thing seems certain … regrettably, Falie will never go to sea again. _
* Dave Rickard is a volunteer at the South Australian Maritime Museum.