Lean on the rail that skirts the graving dock, the best place seems to be next to the sign saying “DO NOT LEAN ON RAIL”, and in a very short while someone will pop up at your shoulder and start to spin a tale. With equal measure of pride and an emotion very near disgust, they will talk of their time on “the rock” (Cockatoo Island) servicing the Oberons, the intermediate dockings here at Garden Island or their time as a submariner operating these immensely complex machines. Like an abstinent addict, one half of them cannot help but take pride in what the other half casts in shame. They were all younger men then and for their lack of a comparative perspective they achieved amazing things, things that the prospect of having to repeat today would produce a repulsive shudder.
“15 years I spent working on those damned things.” says one
“that’s my boat there….filthy bloody things they are” says another, and another “ two months they reckoned It’d take and eighteen months later I was still labelling those @#!*%$ pipes.”
With casings removed the exhaust is revealed
Luckily for us the tasks to be performed during this docking are no where near as formidable as those done while Onslow was in service. In some ways there is a camaraderie here akin to that displayed by the members of the Vampire Association, those indomitable volunteers who brush off the passing years by rejuvenating our destroyer, the former HMAS Vampire, and in so doing re-invigorate themselves. There is genuine feeling in the hand shakes that help to establish a collegiate atmosphere between the dockyard and the museum. This is personal. For many the preservation of Onslow goes beyond the commercial imperatives of a job for it is also in a small way the preservation of a part of their lives.
A bit of gentle persuasion when lifting a casing
There are always disputes and misunderstandings even in the most congenial relationships and this week the greatest source of friction amongst the team has been around the issue of electrical cables and conduit. Where to cut? What to cut? What should be retained and how? Everyone has an answer but rarely do they agree. At the heart of the issue two distinct philosophies, on one hand is the commercial perspective, succinctly put by project manager Joe Pham as “all I can offer you is the cheapest way of doing it.” And in a purely commercial operation this would make clear sense. The difference arises because we, as a museum, are obligated to take a longer view. The cables and conduit in question would have been replaced at every major refit, they were not designed to have an extended life and have thus suffered greatly from corrosion which subsequently adds to the rust staining on Onslow’s hull, so something must be done. To cut it all out and dump it in the recycling bin would solve the problem in its economic and aesthetic forms, “Who’s going to see it under the casing, anyway?” But what about the not too distant future when much of the first hand knowledge of the sub has been lost? There would be no material indication of how these systems hidden under the casing worked, the drawings and plans that the museum retains are incomplete and in regards to electrical systems they are quite abstract. The submarine must be maintained in as a complete state as possible for it to remain historically and educationally relevant. Using the frame work of the Burra Charter to guide him the fleet section head Steven Adams working with Joe will find an economical resolution but for now work goes on.
Four man dive chamber and built in breatthing system air bottles , are revealed
Peter Toparis’ team of fitters don their disposable overalls, colloquially known as “sperm suits” and squirm their way under the casing, these agile young men finalise the freeing up of the GPR structures, the hand tight bolts must be removed and even as the chain blocks tighten and the dogman signs to the distant crane, pipes must be displaced to make way for the rising arch. Inch by inch it comes, the dogman using his significant mass like a time lapsed surfer to pivot the casing up past one obstacle then down past the next in the far corner, securing each measure of height gained with the metallic rattle of a chain block. Then all is cleared and the casing hovers for a time a foot above its origin, the young fitters blushingly revealed, to be snuggled safely amongst the exhaust system and fuel pipes. Without its functional context, the black arch with its garishly coloured lifting strops, gently turning on its mythic sky hook, gives a pleasure akin to that of a Magritte vision.
“Yeah, well done but how are we going to put it back on”
[Nervous laughter is heard off stage.]
Raising the sonar dome, a Magritte moment