Haldane Family – Port Fairy to Port Lincoln

A holiday memory by Diana McGarvie

One of the highlights of our trip was the chance meeting with Ross Haldane in Pt.Lincoln, whose family had relocated by sea from Port Fairy to South Australia, in 1952, when he was just four years old.

We had decided to visit Port Lincoln,at the southern end of the Eyre Peninsula, on the way home, where we have been several times, (including a very memorable family holiday with our boys in 2000), to enjoy a little luxury and a break from camping.

 We happened to see a brochure at the tourist information centre, advertising onboard tours of the MFV Tacoma, a wooden ‘tuna clipper’, built in Port Fairy by Ross’s father, and his brothers, using timber from the Otways, supplied by Babington’s Mill, and transferred by train via Deans Marsh to Port Fairy. This vessel is famous for pioneering the South Australia tuna fishery and for being a working vessel in pristine condition after seventy years of active fishing in the Southern Ocean.

 We decided to have a look at this vessel, and, as we approached the mooring, we heard a friendly voice “come aboard”. We were welcomed into the cozy galley where Ross was sitting with a mate.

For the next three hours, Ross proudly told us the story of his family’s hard work and perseverance:

His grandfather, Hugh, a Scot, and a shipwright, learnt his trade on the River Clyde. He emigrated to Australia on the paddle steamer Weeroona, on her maiden voyage. This vessel later became a pleasure boat on Port Phillip Bay and the coast.

Hugh married Rebecca Hamilton in 1912, and they lived in Melbourne with their family of three sons and two daughters, until 1929 when Hugh became the Harbour Master and Lighthouse keeper at Port Fairy. The eldest son, William (Bill), Ross’s father, became apprenticed to a builder and cabinet maker, on leaving the Footscray Technical College. Following this, he attended night classes and qualified as a boat builder. This placed him in good stead for what was to become a family adventure and livelihood. Living as they did, so close to the sea, at the lighthouse on Griffiths Island, at the mouth of the Moyne River, boats, fishing, and the sea became a constant part of the Haldane brothers’ lives. With the help of his two brothers, Alan and Hugh, Bill built a 40ft.(12m.) double-ended fishing cutter the Amaryllis, launched in 1935, for shark fishing.Then, in 1939, they built another 40ft. boat, the Dolphin, again using traditional methods – copper nails, caulking cotton and wooden dowels.                         –

During shark fishing, they saw large schools of salmon, and wished they had a boat big enough to go out in deeper water to catch them. Also, tuna were being caught by trawling a line astern. So, the decision was made to build a bigger boat! In 1944, after a long search for plans, they sought guidance from the Western Boatbuilding Co. in Tacoma, U.S.A. This firm, run by the Petrich family, supplied the plans, the two families became lifelong friends, and the Haldanes decided to name their boat Tacoma.

Eight blue gum logs were selected from the Otways at Babington’s mill and transported out to Deans Marsh. Part of the longest (120ft) would become the keel of this 84ft. (25.6m.) vessel. The others were used for main deck beams and framing. There was some delay in supplying the timber, it being wartime. Finally, they received the call from the Port Fairy railway station that the logs had arrived, and they were transported to a site near the lighthouse keeper’s cottage, which was to become the shipyard for the next seven years.

Boat building, Port Fairy – Tacoma Preservation Society

The work was slow and hard, the logs being shaped by hand with crosscut saw and adze. The keel,120ft.in length, was laid in 1945, but as the brothers were working full time, fishing to support their families, progress was very slow. They were scorned by neighbours, saying ”they would never finish it”. Finance became a problem, and they had difficulty securing loans in Victoria. However, the South Australian Inspector of Fisheries heard of their plight and, being keen to develop the S.A. fishing industry, sought help from the S.A. Government of the day, which supported them to finish the boat. The condition being they would operate from a S.A. port, and the fish be processed in S.A. This they accepted and planned to relocate to Port Lincoln on completion of the project

It certainly was a family affair, the sisters and wives helped with painting, of which there was plenty. Their shipwright father helped and gave advice and guidance when time permitted.

Finally, the Tacoma was ready to launch….

Monday 5th November 1951 3.15 am… the tide was right and rising, Rebecca Haldane had a bottle of seawater from Pt. Lincoln covered with blue and white ribbon. Everything was ready and the family (and others) all gathered. At 3.30 am.Rebecca broke the bottle on the bow and the Tacoma slipped down the ramp – all went well, though an anxious time for all, Tacoma was finally ready for her sea trials.

The next few weeks were very busy for the family, packing their belongings, buying, and stowing provisions for the voyage, and all these brought down the river by dinghy.

The passenger list was comprised of:
Bill, Christine & three sons – Clyde 7, Roger 6, & Ross 4
Hugie, Blanche & children – Robin 7, Rowena 5, Rhonda 4
Alan, Clara & 18-month-old Andrew
Keith & Jack Bellamy – local twin boys who had watched and helped with the whole building process with interest, and turned 18 in Adelaide, en route to Pt. Lincoln
Tom McDonald – cook
Alsation dog – ‘Wolf’, 2 cats, plus a litter of kittens born on board en route

They all slept in the sleeping quarters which housed 13 bunks, beautifully finished with silky oak lining and Queensland. Maple plywood. The meals were cooked on an AGA slow combustion stove, which also provided hot water.

Sun 6th Jan 1952: a pleasant sunny morning, and all were on board, Grandpa had brought some of the remaining family members to the island to wave farewell. There was some problem with the fuel lines to the engine which delayed the actual departure till the evening. It was plain sailing after that.

Tues 8th Jan 1952: As they made their way up the Gulf of St. Vincent towards Adelaide,they appreciated the quieter waters after the constant rolling of the boat in Bass Strait. The men called the mothers and children from their bunks at 2am. to see the porpoises, covered in phosphorous, playing in the bow wave like some fairy tale creatures. What excitement and wonder for the children.

The family was welcomed on the wharf at Port Adelaide by politicians, fisheries personnel, and other interested folk. Their arrival had been recorded in the newspapers, and many kind South Australians came offering gifts of fruit and vegetables from their gardens. During this time (10 days) in port, Tacoma was tied up at the stern of a coastal steamer, which towered above the clipper, and in the evenings the crew would lean over the rail delighted to watch the adults trying to round up the children for their showers. There was often a chase up the mast or around the deck before they succeeded! The men were busy, loading nets and other fishing gear, while the mothers cared for and amused the children during the heat of the day,they spent much of the time at the beach. (These are some of the memories of Ross’s aunt, Clara Haldane, wife of Alan.)

Another two days at sea and their journey ended and they arrived at Pt. Lincoln, to be formally welcomed by the Harbour Master and other officials. However, this was not necessarily echoed by the general fishing fleet of the town, they were somewhat sceptical of the newcomers. At first the families shared accommodation, until their ‘trust houses ‘were available, storing their household goods on verandahs or wherever they fitted.

They had an unlucky start to the 1952 season due to bad weather and damaged nets, with repair materials difficult to obtain. Things were uncertain, and did not go to plan for some time, and their finances ran low. It really wasn’t until 1955-56 when the Janguard Brothers (from U.S.A.), sponsored by the S.A.Govt.,arrived and demonstrated the American pole fishing technique to catch tuna, that their haul improved, and the industry boomed.

Some members may remember seeing footage on the Movietone news at the Regent Theatre, during the 1960s, this pole fishing technique. The excitement and thrill of the catch – men out on a platform outside the boat, heaving huge fish over their heads, onto the deck, with a lure on a short line attached to a bamboo pole.

The Janguard brothers stayed for three months and taught the crew of other boats of the local fleet. The boats needed to be modified for this different type of fishing, with the platforms for the men to stand on and the addition of live bait tanks.

And so, this successful fishing industry began, and really hasn’t looked back, changing over the years to the needs of consumers and markets around the nation and the world.

In more recent years, a local Preservation Society has been formed to which the Tacoma belongs,and is responsible for her ongoing maintenance.

However, the family still conducts short tuna fishing excursions 4 times per year with her, and the produce supplies restaurants and other outlets. She is moored just at Ross’s front door in the marina, so he can keep a very close eye on this very special family member.