If you are down at Kingston you may be intrigued to see a number of weathered boat hulls, in various stages of repose, on the grassy area near the pier and the Royal Engineer’s Office. Children often climb in them, and they are much photographed by visitors. These are old Norfolk Island lighters which have reached the end of their useful life. However, far from being neglected, they have been placed there to serve as a dignified and respectful reminder of their importance to this community over the years.
If you are fortunate enough to be here when a cargo ship is in, you will see today’s fleet of lighters, hard at work, ferrying goods between ship and shore, towed behind a motor launch. Visitors love to gather and watch the unique unloading process. It is a scene which showcases the traditional skills of the Norfolk men, as they leap around with great agility, ensuring that the cargo is balanced and can be safely lowered from the ship into nets on the boat, which is then steered safely through the break in the reef.
Once they have reached the pier, aided by the long sweep oar, the workers skilfully bring the boat alongside, and guide the cargo loads as they are craned up for the waiting delivery trucks.
The word ‘lighter’ simply refers to a vessel that makes a ship ‘lighter’ by unloading its cargo. In many parts of the world, a lighter is more of a flat bottom barge. However, in the more open sea conditions of Norfolk Island, where there is no harbour or safe anchorage close to shore, the lighters have evolved from the old whaleboats and longboats which played such a vital part in the lives of former generations of islanders. It is a style of boat that may well date back for a millennium to the time of the Vikings. It is narrow and tapered at both ends, and is stable and easy to manoeuvre.The design was refined in the United States during the Whaling era, and the craft would be lowered into the sea from the larger vessels to engage in the whale chase. The famous American whaler, the Charles W. Morgan, on which Norfolk Islander Parkins Christian served, carried seven 28 foot whaleboats aboard. These vessels have also proved useful for carrying passengers, and closely resemble the lifeboats carried by larger ships.
The Norfolk Island people brought the whaleboat design from Pitcairn in 1856, and found it served their purposes well, not only for whaling, but for fishing and for visits to neighbouring Phillip and Nepean Islands. Early on, the boats were pressed into service to carry goods and people between the Kingston and Cascade pier and visiting ships that needed to anchor a distance from the shore. In the old days, considerable manpower would have been needed to row and negotiate the waves and surf. These little boats became an essential link with the outside world for a community and island that was surrounded by ocean.
It was not until 1943 that the first aircraft landed on Norfolk Island, providing the facility to bring more perishable or urgently needed goods to the island, as well as visitors for a growing tourist industry. However, we are told that around 90% of imported cargo still arrives by sea. Muscle power and oars have been replaced by a motorised launch for towing, but strength and skill are still needed in handling the lighterage operations. The versatility of these craft really comes to the fore when two or more are lashed together using local gum poles in order to carry oversized cargo such as a bus or large piece of machinery. With the advent of motor launches for fishing and recreational use, the specific term ‘lighter’ came to be applied to those boats whose task it was to carry the goods between the ship and the wharves.
The boatbuilding skills of Norfolk men are well known. For many years, the Norfolk lighters were built by the late Philly McCoy. Eventually the task of building these iconic vessels was taken on by Peter Swynenburg, a Dutchman who had settled on Norfolk Island with his family. It is interesting to note that the lighters were never given names, but were identified by simple numbers. The last one to be crafted by Peter before he retired was known as No. 12.
In 2001, John Christian-Bailey, from JCB Cabinets, was commissioned to produce the first of a new generation of lighters. A joiner by trade, John had discovered a love for boatbuilding early in his career, and has built or refurbished many vessels for local fishermen. John was able to use the same templates that had been handed down through the generations. When the new boat was finished, it was decided that it may be unlucky to call it No. 13, and so it became the new No.01. A new No. 02 followed soon after.
Unfortunately, Lighter No. 1 was destroyed in a fire in 2013. As two of the older boats were due for retirement in the near future, a replacement would be needed for the continued viability of the lighterage operation. There were a number of studies and investigations into alternative methods of cargo handling, but no one had yet come up with anything to replace this time-honoured operation whereby – it has been claimed – cargo could still be unloaded more efficiently and safely than could be achieved on the Sydney wharves!
Lighter No. 03 was commissioned, and John Christian-Bailey was delighted to take on the task once more. He was ably assisted by Dean Burrell, who had gained valuable experience and expertise in the boatbuilding trade overseas. The work commenced around September 2015 in the Lighterage shed at Middlegate. It has always been the task of the Lighterage Manager to see that suitable timber is ready for a new lighter. However, because of the urgency, and the uncertainty about the future of lighterage operations under a new governmental regime, this had not occurred. It was Howard Christian, from Christian’s Mill who came to the rescue, providing a lovely set of local pine timbers for them to work with.
Recognising the traditional skills involved in the lighter-building process and the cultural significance to Norfolk Island, the Norfolk Island Museum made a decision to photograph and record each stage of the process of building No. 03. On behalf of the Museum, Gaye Evans and others would regularly visit the shed to film and describe each stage. Skills of other tradesmen were called on from time to time. Mark Davis from KC Industries did much of the metalwork involved. It proved possible to re-use some equipment from what remained of the burnt hull of No.01, such as the cappings and front quarter deck.
According to John, every lighter is different, even though the traditional templates and techniques are still used. Over the years, the design has grown in both girth and height, to cater for modern day cargoes. Minor variations can also occur in the way the ribs are bent in the steam chamber. The boatbuilders make their own stainless steel bolts. Close to 4000 copper nails, placed at four inch intervals, are used to build a lighter. The keel is made from laminated spotted gum or some other Australian hardwood, which must be imported to produce the length required.
There were many visitors to the lighterage shed to view the progress. One very special caller was the renowned young yachtswoman Jessica Watson, who took great interest in Dean and John’s work, and took pictures and notes for an article she was writing for Australian Geographic.
Finally in May 2016, the boat was ready. The boys say it gave them a great deal of pride and satisfaction, because they know the lighter could be serving the island’s needs for up to 20 years, and would probably carry around 30,000 tonnes in that time. It would also be the means of earning a great deal of revenue for the island by bringing ashore goods, from groceries and building material to vehicles and machinery of all sizes, and even livestock.
On the day it was first ‘dunked‘ there would have been some holding of breath. It would seem that each lighter has its own personality. Some prove rather temperamental, while others are beautifully responsive and steer straight and accurately. It was relief for the boys to be told that No. 03 was going to be a reliable and co-operative workhorse.
The new lighter was pressed into action sooner than expected. In early May 2016, while unloading bags of heavy cement, the veteran No. 11 had run onto the rocks at Cascade. Thanks to the dexterity and mindfulness of the crew aboard, there were no injuries, but she sustained considerable damage. No.12 was brought out of retirement, and although work was done to strengthen her, it was not expected that she would be strong enough to work the ship for any extended period. And so, just a day after her test run on May 11, the newly completed No. 03 boat was put into the water to begin her working life to unload the ship. Local artist Tracey Yager painted a beautiful watercolour of the new craft unloading The Guardian at Cascade (view the painting on on pg. 42). This painting has been displayed by the Royal Art Society in the Lavender Bay Gallery in Sydney, and, along with the Museum’s record, it provides a further pictorial documentation for posterity of the lighterage process on Norfolk Island.
What of the future? Will No.03 one day also be retired and laid to rest in the Lighter graveyard at Kingston? Will there be a No.04? Changing technologies, pier upgrades, and new regulatory environments may mean that the days of the old lighters are numbered. Plans are in the pipeline to replace them with motorised barges. Some folk feel, however, that we should look to Pitcairn, where the open sea conditions are similar to ours. Pitcairn continues to meet the challenges of unloading their visiting vessels using their traditional longboats, which are not only motorised, but constructed of aluminium.
Longboat, whaleboat, lifeboat, lighter. Whatever the name, these strong and versatile little craft have proved a lifeline to remote Norfolk Island.