Tenacious Old Tug
When taking a walk along the Ford Park pathway past the Calypso caravan park, you are bound to meet the MV Francis Freeburn, a tenacious old tug wallowing in the waters of Yamba Bay. She marks a milestone of a long history tracing right back to the first Clarence River pilot boats. From the earliest days of shipping on the Clarence River, pilot boats have helped ships to navigate through its treacherous waters.
It was the responsibility of the first Pilot, Captain Francis Freeburn, after his appointment in 1854, to steer ships safely in and out of the river. The original pilot boats in constant use by Freeburn and his crew were two four-oared whaleboats. It was not uncommon for him to see up to twenty schooners, brigs and barques waiting to cross in or out of the river. One whaleboat was kept in the vicinity of the present entrance to the Calypso Caravan Park, whilst the other was kept adjacent to Convent Beach before sand hills encroached on the area.
The second boat was only used if the bar was too rough to cross. Then Pilot Freeburn would hoist a signal on the signal staff (then located on Pilot Hill) for the vessel to send a boat towards the rocks on Yamba Headland. Having a heaving line thrown to him from the boat he would then tie the line round his waist, jump into the sea, to be pulled into the boat and taken aboard to pilot it in
Captain Freeburn whilst piloting the brigantine, Uncle Tom, to sea in 1854, lost one of the whaleboats and a replacement boat was built. It is not known when the “whaleboat era” ended. However the steam tug Dunsky, built at Balmain in 1891 came to Yamba and remained here until 1896 when the SS Conqueror, built in 1893, replaced her.
The next tug that came along was SS Alexandra. She was leased to the Government soon after she was built in 1902. The Government then bought her in 1910 and she remained in service as a Yamba Pilot boat until the end of September 1940 when she was sold to the Pullen family in 1942 and hulked a year later. Alexandra was replaced by the last wooden tug, the SS Henry Miles, which was built in Foster in 1939 and leased to the Government. Years later it was converted to trawler and eventually caught fire and sank in the Gulf of Carpentaria.
For a short time the Idaho, a trawler, was used for bar-sounding work. Then in 1972, the MV Francis Freeburn a 15.2m steel-hull tug, stoutly constructed by Stannard Brothers of Berrys Bay Sydney for the Maritime Services Board (now Waterways), was ready for service in Yamba. Unlike her predecessors she was fitted with an electronic communication system for piloting incoming ships by radio. And serve she did, for the next forty years until her modern successor, a 16m aluminium pilot boat MV Governor Hunter replaced her in 2012. After travelling from Sydney where it had previously provided pilot services as well as at Port Kembla, she found her place where you can see her today alongside the Francis Freeburn at the Waterways wharf in Yamba Bay.
While the Governor Hunter is rather sophisticated compared to the Francis Freeburn and the wooden boats of yesteryear, the job of piloting is still a dangerous one where brave men that has kept commerce moving in and out of the Port of Yamba. Nevertheless it seems our fascination still lies with these iconic vessels that are an important part of Yamba’s maritime history.
For more in depth stories, amazing photographs of shipwrecks and other Clarence River boats and ships, visit the Yamba Museum.