Fleet week: John Louis goes for a spin

Here at the museum, the first week of each month is known as Fleet Week. It’s a chance for the Fleet team to take our vessels for a spin, rev-up the engines and get the vessels moving. Essentially it’s an  exercise regime for our smaller historic vessels, we don’t want them to turn into couch potatoes (drift wood?) after all!

John Louis in full sail

John Louis in full sail

This week the museum’s pearling lugger John Louis went out on Sydney Harbour.  John Louis has been undergoing repairs and maintenance of late and its freshly painted engine chugged along quite nicely.

John Louis on Sydney Harbour

John Louis on Sydney Harbour

Built in Broome for pearling, John Louis is one of the last working sail craft built in Australia. In the early 20th century, Australia supplied 75% of the world’s pearl shell. Luggers towed their divers over the pearl beds by drifting, often with just the sail on the after mast set. John Louis collected young pearl shells for the cultured pearl industry which thrived after World War II. Its tank of circulating sea water kept shells alive on the return voyage.

John Louis can be viewed from the museum’s wharves any day and there’s also a detailed info sheet available for download too. (Download PDF, 216kb)

To sheath or not to sheath?

In 1987 the Australian National Maritime Museum acquired a pearling lugger from Broome. The John Louis was built in 1957 and operated for 30 years in the pearling industry in north-western Australia. 

The vessel is a gaff-rigged motor ketch and was built from jarrah and karri timber. Up to the 1970s, pearling was still very dangerous seasonal work that was performed in hard-hat diving suits by mostly Japanese, South-East Asian and Aboriginal people. European Australians rarely competed with these skilled divers until the industry was transformed with the introduction of the ‘hookah’ system in the early 1970s. 

The John Louis was involved in trials of this new system of light breathing apparatus connected to an air supply on the deck. After the trials proved the success of the system, and that it did not require hard-hat diving skills, the vessel’s foredeck was raised to create more cabin space for the new European Australian crews who generally needed more headroom than previous crews. 

The John Louis on Sydney Harbour in 1988


The ANMM fleet staff have been doing some restoration work on the vessel. Work on the foredeck has revealed that the  planked decking lay under a plywood sheathing. The museum is interpreting the John Louis at its last ‘phase’ as a pearling lugger in the 1980s, just prior to its acquisition. Because the original decking underneath is in very good condition the question arose as to whether this sheathing was on the boat then and whether it should be kept or removed. 

The problem is that it has been difficult to work out precisely when the ply was installed. 

One ex-crew member recalls that even after the foredeck was raised in the early 1970s to accommodate the larger Australian divers, there was no plywood covering, at least until 1980 when he finished working on the boat. 

Anyone who may be able to help with information on the John Louis, please do get in touch!