Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Rotting Thorbryn

Yes, she's been up before, this post.
Yes, I'm a bit lazy and
Yes, I like this story enough to drag her back up to the front!

She was born of the detritus of World War II. Dismantled tanks, trucks, railway track were melted down into billets and blooms, beaten out into panels and riveted together to create a new monster.
She was an apocalyptic, piratical vision for the protesters of 1977, men and women who lurked in Zodiacs behind Michaelmas Island in the predawn gloaming. They saw the whalechaser steam past, her high Antarctic prow bristling with the barbed spine of a cannon, and Johnny Lewis said to his partner in the fight against whaling, "I don't care if I have to swim 30 miles back from the Shelf. There's no way I'm ever gonna get on that ship." *

In the 1860's, Svend Foyn, 'model puritan capitalist' citizen of T√łnsberg and nearing retirement, designed an innovative ship that revolutionised the whaling industry. The slower, more bouyant Bow whales were now becoming scarce in Arctic waters. The ‘Captain Ahab’ style hunts - stalking whales in wooden whale boats, with hand held harpoons and the mother ship under sail nearby - were unsuccessful with the quicker whales and those who uncooperatively sank to the bottom upon killing.

Foyn wanted faster, steam powered chasers that were quick enough to chase down those open ocean cetaceans that had so far escaped the eye of the gunner. He invented a cannon fired harpoon with an explosive head and winches for playing and hauling in the kill. For his troubles he was granted a ten year monopoly by the Norwegian government.

"Revolutionising the industry' is always a graveyard epitaph when hunting animals, certainly it was dark days for the whales. Within thirty years, the whale population in the Finmark region was decimated. Thus the Antarctic epoch began in earnest.

The Norwegians commissioned Thorbryn and her sister ship Thorgrim to be built by the English. With the fleet of chasers and a factory ship, they worked the Antarctic grounds every season for fifteen years, travelling from the northern hemisphere to the white south and back again.

Thorbryn ended up here in Albany in 1963, purchased by the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company and renamed Cheynes 2. Theirs was a daily hunt, rather than the months at sea. They chased down and harpooned the toothed sperm whales that cruised the deep waters off the Continental Shelf.

The men were hard, pragmatic, multicultural (in a white kind of way). They were top of their game - well disciplined, high status, fat wallets.
It all fell to bits not long after soldiers came back from Vietnam and sometimes I think they must have felt the same way, redundant from the jobs they were most respected for and being derided for doing it in the first place. World opinion had turned against them. It's just the way it is.

Cheynes 2 had a stint as a star exhibit at Hobart's Maritime Museum until maintenance became an issue. She was 'requisitioned' on a scientific expedition to Heard Island that was beset with drama, documented in the movie The Ship That Shouldn't Have. She returned to Albany under sail.
She became the Boy's Own wet dream for several entrepreneurs who just wanted to save her - and rightly so. Who wouldn't want to own a decrepit Norwegian whale chaser?

The stairway you can see is where I first met Bob. He was the 'strange long haired man playing guitar'. This is the stage when Cheynes 2 was to be converted into a floating restaurant in time for the America's Cup and went spectacularly broke instead. Bank repossessions followed.

Then one day, when everybody seemed to have thrown up their hands about the Cheynes 2 - tethered to the deep water jetty in a shameless state magnificent dilapidation, complete with the grand velvet booths and a stainless galley restaurant kitchen, a four poster velvet and jarrah bed in the wheelhouse and the rivets rusting off her sides - she broke her moorings in a wild storm and landed on the rocks.

After that, her destiny was ordered by the harbour master of the time. She was towed straight across a major shipping lane and laid on the sand bar at Quaranup where she still is today. Thousands of pigeons call her home. The engine room is full of water. You have to be careful not to step on eggs and chicks, or to put your foot through her crumbling decks. One day she will fold in on herself and dissolve into the sea.

*This quote paraphrased from Chris Pash's book 'The Last Whale.' I'd give you the page number but I've lent the book to Old Salt!


  1. I reckon if you ever got sick of writing you could quite easily switch to becoming a photographer!
    Love the porthole shot particularly - reminds me of a Joan Campbell!

  2. So this is what happened to the old Norwegian whalers?? I used to watch them sail out at 4.30am or some time round abouts... And through those portholes I wonder what view of colour were the waves when harpooned Sperm whales were dragged through the sea? Those portholes would have their own memory and stories to tell, no doubt...

  3. Hopefully I won't get sick of writing Ramsnake. And the circles thang, yes it is very Joan Campbell you are right! I like taking photos though and wouldn't it be great to go out there and paint one day?
    Tim, you know the sea around those ships wasn't quite so pretty in those days...oh no not WineDark but red with blood, (oh no!) Did you see them sail out from albany or Point Cloates?And have you read The Last Whale yet? It's really good. I actually owe that quote by johnny Lewis to Chris Pash- thanks chris!

  4. Yep, I used to fish for leatherjackets, yellow eyed herring and skip jack from the whalers jetty. That place carried the scent. You can still smell that scent today at the whaling station, well at least I can. I remember the hockey players riding high atop the sperm whales, hockey sticks that they slid into slicing away the blubber that they hooked and dragged into the holes and holds below. I imagined when I was a child with tissues covering my face - such was the stink - that this place was none other but hell, and that there was a place below where devils lurked. Yep, that red ocean wine dark sea was there alright. You can't see it today, the torquouise waters by the old whaling station have washed it all away, and say little about the minature submarines that once therein lurked and slid onto the backs of those sperm tied to their 44 gallon drums... Do you, can you remember that? White sharks as big as buses, I think I thought them to be submarines... and the ocean was bloody clot red and stinking and the heat on the flenzing deck bubbled and men in wellington boots carried hockey sticks...

  5. Far out Tim! I remember the smell, like death. Tim Winton said once of Albany that there are 'sharks as big as cars and whales the size of buildings demolished.'

  6. wow sarah, that's fantastic! beautiful photos. love the view thru the broken glass. did you post that short story yet that you mention here?

  7. It's steam-powered chasers, and cannon-fired harpoons, Sarah, god damn it, where are your hyphens! Lordy be. Don't you know a man-eating shark is an entirely different prospect to a man eating shark?

    Mark Roy, sub-editor.

    And yes, i'm still drunk.

  8. sorry for being a pain, i'm not even drinking, but i have to agree about the hyphens...(glad it wasn't me that brought it up, but it's been bothering me for ages)


  9. Oh my god! (and thats god with a small g coz the editor must be correct, even in drunken heathen mode) My two favourite editors in the same room! Why didn't I bring this up, when you both met over Bob's green Hyundai 'putral'? (yes putral)
    Shark, I'm gonna ask you over for flathead. Our Sunshine, I don't know which story you mean? xxxSarah

  10. What's all this about 'hyphens' hyper-hens pecking around words seeing words rather than details - was it a shark or a wobbygong or a fearful thought or fear-filled thought of a man eating shark? What does it matter...? I guess one could be fearful if that shark was full of lead...then eating it could threaten one's health - either way, whether eaten by the shark or eating a shark there's a threat to one's health :) Yep, hyper-hens are important to have around, agreed we need hyphens but I'm not bothered because we all know what you mean - don't we?

  11. you know the story about the party on the boat, cooking all the salmon, diving of into the water... it's probably a couple years old.

    (bloody hell, the warped word was "sillyc" i'm not sure i like that?!?)