Hobart in Hindsight

Back in 2001 I was involved in what was to be a fairly short lived career in the recreational diving industry. I had spent the previous 5 years in the Australian Navy and during my final year my weekends were totally consumed with diving in the Sydney area. I’d had so much fun with it in my spare time that it seemed to be a natural progression to become an Instructor and move into this as a full time occupation after my planned discharge. My chances of securing a position at what was South Australia’s premier dive business, took a decidedly positive turn when a decision was made to sink the Guided Missile Destroyer HMAS Hobart as an artificial reef just south of Adelaide.

Hobart had been my second sea posting so I was set to have the unique perspective of being the only active South Australian instructor at the time who had served on what was to become the state’s biggest dive attraction. On paper it looked like dynamite but the reality was it never ended up being the cash cow that the industry hoped it would and as such my previous experience on it served me little benefit except on a personal level. I’d put the main drawbacks down to it being located about 45 minutes drive too far south compared to where it really should have been sunk, in order to make it more readily accessible. Also it had the misfortune to be in an area where you really had to pick dodge tides to give customers the ideal experience on it. Not withstanding the shortcomings in where they chose to sink it, and the fact that one isn’t really able to make a sustainable career solely as an instructor anyway, it matters little to me now. It was and still is a site that I have a unique relationship with. You have to pick the right day but when it’s good it can be a sensational dive.

Several months before the sinking I was approached by the owner of the business (where by that time I worked) to write what would be my first ever article. None of us knew at the time how the Hobart was going to effect the industry but we were all optimistic. I set to work on putting down on paper some of my experiences living and working on the ship and what we could look forward to as divers. Initially it was just for the club newsletter but I later had it published elsewhere. It was to be the first of a series of articles and I ended up archiving them in boxes and there they sat for the next 15 years. However during a recent clear out I came across them again so I thought I would re-visit those times and share my first ever article with you, albeit slightly ammended. So here it is, appropriately titled ‘Hobart in Hindsight!’

July 2001 – whilst working at Glenelg Marine and Scuba

I joined HMAS Hobart in November 1997 as a Naval Combat Systems Operator, having just returned from a 5 month overseas deployment to Asia on another ship. My previous vessel had been more modern and decidedly more comfortable to live on, so it was to be a notable change in my Naval career. As a Guided Missile Destroyer (DDG), Hobart formed part of Australia’s front line of defence and was particularly useful in anti-air warfare, whilst remaining capable in the anti-submarine area too. It had been used extensively in these roles over its 35 year service career, including 2 tours to Vietnam during the 1960’s. As with the other two DDG’s that have served in the Australian Navy, Hobart was crewed solely with men and over 300 of them at that, making it a cramped working environment to say the least. It was approaching the end of its service life and despite the affection that many of the crew had for her, the ship was really starting to show its age.

The Junior Sailors Mess that I lived in, known as 163 Mess (the number is a reference to the frame in the hull), berthed 80 sailors in sets of 3 tier bunks. As such communal living was a skill quickly learnt, especially when it came to showers (a maximum time of 90 seconds was a limit that we were meant to keep to in order to conserve water). Meals also were an interesting logistical feat. After a three week stint doing cafe duties during a deployment to New Zealand in 1998, doing the dishes back at home no longer seemed like such a chore (3 meals on Hobart translated to over 900 sets of dishes and cutlery to wash every day)! In saying that, for the most part I was employed in the Operations Room.

As a Combat Systems Operator my job was to form part of a team of sensor operators who would amongst them, provide a tactical picture of movements of other ships, aircraft and submarines which Command would then use to make tactical decisions. When not on watch, all members of the crew would try and get rest whenever they could, as there was always the possibility of going to a higher state of readiness. You never really knew when the next opportunity would present itself and in short, sleep was an over rated commodity which we seldom got enough of. Instances of going to action stations during exercise periods were common and the crew members who were ‘off-watch’ would proceed immediately to their damage control stations ready to fight fires, stop floods or eliminate toxic hazards. It may have been all for practice but we had to take it very seriously and any departure from that would not be well received! As a member of one of the fire fighting teams in my ‘off-watch’ time, I can remember us sustaining a simulated missile hit. Minutes later I was descending down a ladder into one of the boiler rooms whilst wearing a thick fire retardant fearnought suit and breathing apparatus. Given that the boiler rooms could exceed 50 degrees centigrade, toasty is perhaps not a sufficient way of describing the sensation! Luckily I was extremely fit at the time and not carrying much in the way of body fat so was somewhat suited to such drills but that’s not to say they were particularly pleasant or welcome for that matter!

As luck would have it, when I posted ashore for what would be my final posting in the Navy I became heavily involved in wreck diving in my spare time around the Sydney area. Meanwhile Hobart was decommissioned and plans were being made for it to be sunk as an artificial reef about an hours drive south of Adelaide. When I got wind of this I was already a Divemaster and was becoming rather intrigued as to the possibilities. It wasn’t long before I was in contact with South Australia’s premier dive business and I made sure I mentioned my background! A month later I was spending my leave period doing 3 weeks work experience there to seal the deal. I’m not a believer in fate but all the stars seemed to be lining up at this point! I also had the good fortune to spend my remaining time in the Navy at a training establishment, located at a stunning vantage point at the end of South Head. A few months before leaving, I watched with interest next to some of my former shipmates as our ship was towed out through the heads and out of sight towards South Australia. A few months later I would follow. After leaving the Navy in late 2000 I moved back to South Australia and soon after found myself working at Glenelg Scuba. I think I speak on behalf of all the staff when I say we are very much looking forward to what is to come…

As a potential artificial reef, what the Hobart has to offer is very varied and exciting in terms of the nature of the varied compartments and also in terms of the different challenges they each present. In short what this translates to is a diving site that is suitable as a very diverse training ground. At a maximum depth of 29 metres, Hobart will be a prime Enriched Air Nitrox site whilst also offering divers the opportunity to get advanced wreck and overhead environment training. That being said however, with the modifications currently being made prior to the scuttling, most of the wreck will also be accessible to those with recreational wreck training. In particular interest to the advanced wreck diver would be the 4 engineering compartments located deep within the hull of the ship, although at present it is uncertain as to whether these will all be left unsealed. Over time the engineering spaces may also become a haven to underwater photographers and videographers, as the various boilers, engines and steering gear machinery begin to play host to a vast array of marine life.

Over time, we who frequently dive the wreck will be able to see time gradually take its toll. What is now a bare steel hull will eventually become totally encrusted with sponges and soft corals, much like the Glenelg Dredge and Barge have become. As is the case in many overhead environments in the ocean, we can expect shoals of Bullseyes and Old Wives to eventually fill corridors that were once walked by hundreds of different Australian servicemen. Where once sailors and officers slept in their bunks, may lie a sleeping wobbygong or a large cuttlefish in their place. To most, this transition is what wreck diving is all about as it is linking the present with the past in a dynamic visual extravaganza. For myself in particular this transition will be unusual. Drifting through the Operations Room will no doubt bring back memories of the monotonous hours of tracking shipping. In dire contrast would be the memories of the totally frenetic periods associated with tracking inbound aircraft doing simulated air raids, whilst we struggled to keep up due to the inadequacies of the ships aged sensor equipment. Meanwhile I will no doubt also remember the familiar sound of the general alarm sounding in the background to send us to action stations.

Descending onto the quarter deck may bring back the recollection of tending berthing lines when coming alongside and in particular, the unfortunate time when we got it all wrong and crashed stern first into the wharf in New Zealand, creating a large hole in the back of the ship (which gave the waiting media some good material for the following days newspaper)! In the cafeteria no doubt my thoughts will turn to the countless meals and the equally countless number of dishes that I had to wash. Whilst drifting through the bridge it will be the time I spent at the helm and the feeling of steering what amounted to a 4,720 tonne warship, without straying more than a couple of degrees off course (or else buying the Leading Coxswain a slab of beer)! All memories, and in hindsight all precious, particularly considering the role I now play as a Diving Instructor here in South Australia.

The future for wreck diving in Australia looks quite encouraging. We have seen how successful the Swan project has been in Western Australia and pretty soon the Perth and Hobart will join her as the country’s largest and most intact accessible wrecks. Added to that chain of three we have the majestic beauty of the Yongala in Queensland, the wreck graveyards in Port Phillip Bay, Victoria and those off Long Reef in New South Wales. The conclusion one can draw is that there is real merit to the scuttling of decommissioned vessels for the purpose of being re-born as artificial reefs. I find this much more appealing than sending them to the scrap yard to be disassembled in a manner not fitting their previous grandeur. Perhaps the success of the Hobart project will assist South Australia in securing other attractions for the diving community and if so then it can only be a positive step and in every diver’s best interest.

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About 'The Endurance Swimmer'

First and foremost, as you may have guessed I'm a cave diving addict who also dabbles in a bit of freediving and other adventure sports as they present. My interest in videography and writing has led to me being able to share my experiences with others and I'm hoping to continue with this extensively in the future with many more ambitious projects in the pipeline. As the website name may suggest, I had a background in open water distance swimming and that's led me to embrace most things of an aquatic nature. A couple of years ago I returned to this in order to do some solo challenges and recently my interest in endurance sports has focused also seen me getting involved in cycling, with a focus on hill climbing. Whether it's cave diving, freediving, endurance swimming, cycling or some other activity I don't know exactly what the future has in store. I like my life being an adventure.
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