Death of a Titan by alan Lucas

Maintaining Sydney Harbour’s status as a working port was the cherished dream of many, even Premier Carr offering a glint of hope when making his famous promise.
But politicians’ promises are mere trickles into oceans of developmental pressure and anyone with the least sceptical mind could see that Botany Bay wasn’t being over-developed for the fun of it. But perhaps the true awakening in this period of deceit came when the floating crane Titan was allowed to be towed away to a foreign country by a foreign owner: an owner who would lose her forever within a few days.
Many concerned citizens presumed heritage-listing was her guarantee of protection, but what they didn’t know was that Titan was only covered by the Protection of Moveable Cultural Heritage Act of 1986, a multi-faceted bit of codswallop that didn’t know whether it was Arthur or Martha.
An ignominious end to a much-loved and still useful icon: Titan lies upside down waiting to be scuttled after rolling over on Xmas Eve, 1992.Incredibly, the relevant authority, the Department of Arts, Sport, the Environment and Territories, gave foreign owners permission to export our crane despite her being in good enough condition to continue working (with a little touch-up here and there); and the strong waterfront rumble that she was going to Singapore – not to work, but to be scrapped (the fact that she carried 66 tons of old electric motors, rich in copper, seemed to substantiate the rumour).
While granting permission to export, the relevant departments shed a few crocodile tears by expressing concern about a piece of moveable heritage being towed beyond the jurisdiction of Australian Courts by a foreign owner: nevertheless a permit for Titan’s temporary export was issued in 1992 conditional on her return before July 1995.
After reaching Smoky Cape (solid line), Titan rolled over whilst under tow and drifted back to Camden Head (dotted line). She was professionally scuttled over a gravel bed approximately where indicated.From here on, things went from bad to worse as one bureaucracy after another failed to notice a few small details, as follows:
The tow ship, the 3,085-ton ex-oceanographic research vessel Rapuhia, then owned by the Singapore Company, Wirana, had a lapsed class registration with Germanischer Lloyd, and although she was in excellent condition to carry out a tow, her Honduras registration proved to be false, the Honduras authorities stating that no such ship was registered in their country. They referred to her as a ‘flagless ship’.
Furthermore, Rapuhia’s Cargo and Ship Safety Equipment Certificate and International Radio Certificate had expired on 20 September 1992 – three months before the tow. A separate New Zealand Certificate of Survey was valid to September 1995, but it was subject to annual endorsement and this, before the tow, had not been done.
As if all of the above were not enough to ring alarm bells, no insurance was carried for any eventuality – certainly not for salvage costs – and although the Master’s certificate of competency as a Foreign Going Master was issued by the Indian Government in 1974 and the Radio Officer’s certificate was issued in Madras in 1991, the Mate’s and the Engineer’s certificates later proved to be obtained under false pretences.
It would seem that these details went unnoticed or were ignored when an inspector from the Australian Marine Safety Authority (AMSA) found “the ship to be of a high order (which in fact, she was) and all safety certificates and certificates of competency were in order, and were accepted at face value, in accordance with the provisions of Port State Control”.
When Titan rolled over off Smoky Cape, her crane tower and jib dropped off leaving no sign of it by the time she was scuttled the next day. Only the stub-mast, over which the crane’s tower fitted, remained in place. If that last bit – ‘accepted at face value etcetera’ – is legal, then that means we, the general public, could show the police a false licence and expect to get away with it.
Despite the many legal reasons for detaining her, Titan left Pyrmont at noon, 22 December 1992 and towed down-harbour by two tugs that passed the tow to Rapuhia at 1500 hours just inside Sydney Heads. The towing equipment, including a towing frame fabricated on Titan’s bow (actually her stern because she was towed stern first) and the 48mm steel cable with 60mm nylon stretcher (shock absorber) were in excellent shape and everything seemed set for a successful operation.
The only weakness – from this scribe’s point of view anyway – seems to be lack of awareness of Titan’s history as being a difficult object to tow in a seaway.
To insure against her sinking mast up, and thus becoming a potential shipping hazard, Titan had to be rolled on her side before scuttling. This was done using a floatation balloon on her mast in unison with controlled puncturing of one bilge. When ready to sink, the opposite bilge was breached and flooded.Classified as a ‘crane-barge’, Titan was prefabricated in the United Kingdom during and immediately after World War One and was assembled in Sydney to enter service in the Royal Australian Navy, December 1919. The hull was of riveted steel construction 177ft long by 80ft wide with a depth of 13ft. Her displacement in working trim was around 2,000 tons making her the largest floating crane in the southern hemisphere.
Her crane had a cantilevered jib, which at maximum elevation stood 190ft above the deck and could lift 150 tons through two 75-ton blocks working in tandem at which time she heeled to five degrees off the horizontal plane. The actual crane tower, at the top of which was the jib with its counter weights, hoisting winches and control cabin, sat over a central latticed mast on a system of 48 rollers that rode on a slewing ring. There was another, smaller slewing ring – or ‘roller path’, near the top of the mast. The only real connection between the crane tower and the barge were the drive shafts from the two slewing motors.
Seen here bearing southwest, Smoky Cape is an area where the south-flowing Australian East Coast Current is at its strongest. Under-tow late Xmas Eve 1992, a piece of Australian heritage turned upside down off this cape and later had to be scuttled.
Within the barge itself was a steam-driven dynamo and electric motors that were replaced with a diesel-driven alternator and rectifier in the mid 1970s, by which time her owner was Cockatoo Island Dockyard Pty Ltd after the Navy decided it no longer needed her.
On a number of occasions, Titan had to cross Sydney Heads to work on such projects as the Spit Bridge and armaments loading at Manly Quarantine Station, her jib being stabilised for the crossings with her 75-ton crane hoists acting as shrouds bowsed down to deck-eyes on each side.
Yet, despite what seemed to be more than adequate precautions, her exposure to swell action so worried the authorities that she was eventually banned from working north of Bradleys Head without special dispensation. It appeared that the jib, even at its lowest elevation, wanted to live a life of its own despite the shrouds and inherent stability of the barge itself.
And so Rapuhia, with Titan in tow, dropped her Sydney pilot at 1620 hours on 22 December 1992 and set off for Singapore over a slight sea. The wind was 14 knots from the north and the crew set up responsible sea going routines of regular inspections of all towing paraphernalia. It would seem that false papers or not, the crew of 12 knew what they were doing. The average speed was a little over three knots.
The following day the northerly increased to 20 knots and would later top-out at 28 knots, reducing Rapuhia’s speed to around one knot as she approached Smoky Cape, an area where the East Australian Current is always at its strongest.
Titan was pitching and shipping seas on deck but generally appeared to be towing well. Then, at 2300 hours on Christmas Eve, an unusual movement aboard Rapuhia directed all eyes aft to find Titan’s towing lights missing – she had turned upside down! And here I must digress to point out the following:
The official report claims that the crane barge had rolled over, obliging Rapuhia to tow it south out of the current to a proclaimed area for controlled sinking.
This is true enough in essence, but insider information tells me that Rapuhia got the towing cable around her propellers and, thus connected to Titan, she impotently drifted south on the current. Evidence of this lies in the fact that the first job for a team of divers was to free her propellers of steel cable with gas-axes.
The tow drifted back to the Camden Haven area by the morning of Christmas Day where a dive team led by local divers Paul Doney and his son Scott met the ship and started work. Paul is a can-do person who has faced much bigger jobs all over the world, but to have a job come to him was a brand new experience. His first obligation was to video the barge’s submerged areas then make a full report to AMSA and decide on the best method of salvage.
England’s most famous express locomotive, the Pacific Class Flying Scotsman, takes on water at Gosford, 1988. She spent the Bicentennial Year in Australia and her unloading is believed to have been Titan’s last lift. His video showed that the crane’s jib and tower had fallen off and that the remaining 20-odd metre mast was twisted and lodged on a reef from which the ship – with her propellers now functioning, needed to free her. Paul then advised that Titan could not be economically righted but nor could she be sunk in an uncontrolled way because if her mast turned upright on the way down it would become a shipping hazard.
AMSA agreed to Paul sinking her over what is locally called ‘the gravel patch’ two miles east of Camden Head. Having seen the underwater video, I can vouch for the fact that this is no ordinary gravel patch, some of the stones being large boulders with old steel wreckage scattered around. Trawler men have known about if for yonks, never going near it with their nets shot. It was the perfect gravesite for yet another steel wreck.
Remembering that Titan was now upside down, the divers attached a 30-ton-lift balloon to the top of her mast then inflated it slowly while gas-axing holes along one side of her bilges, the idea being to release trapped air and admit seawater at a slow but steady rate.
In 1934, Titan lifted the 30-ton HMS Sydney Memorial Mast into place on Bradleys Head. In later years Bradleys Head became the northern limit of Titan’s working area owing to her instability when crossing Sydney Heads. Why, then, was this not considered when permission was given for her tow to Singapore by foreign owners? Pic reproduced courtesy of the Local Studies Librarians, Mosman Library.Between the balloon’s lift and the flooding of one side of the barge, Titan slowly turned on her side at which time her exposed bilge was cut open, the balloon was removed and she went to the bottom, her hull landing on its side with the mast propping it at an angle so that now, 18 years later, it has almost collapsed to let the hull adopt a flatter upside-down plane.
How did Titan capsize? The inquiry found that it was a conglomerate of causes based on the probability that rivets had started leaking as the enormous reverse-pendulum motion of her crane strained the barge every which way. With the possibility of her having taken in a few hundred tons of water and the resultant reduction in stability – plus the increased movement and top weight of the crane – turning upside down became a fait accompli.
If we suppress our outrage of a heritage-listed item being allowed to be treated in this way and then overlook all the other inconsistencies to view the episode as a straight forward maritime incident, a very big question remains unanswered:
Who in the authorities’ chains of command signed off on allowing Titan to go to sea with her crane tower and jib still in place? Hadn’t her history of crossing Sydney Heads taught anybody anything?