THE PEARL OF DICKSON INLET
Restored lugger evokes nautical romance
THE pearling lugger, once prolific in northern waters, is now perilously close to extinction. Just a few examples of this maritime work horse remain afloat in Queensland, a sad testimony to changing times and the high maintenance demands of large wooden vessels.
Conservation, of vessels like this, and of the environment as a whole is what drives Jon Bennett and Iris Bom, whose lugger “HB” has been moored in Dickson Inlet in recent months.
The couple have painstaking restored the 60 ft “HB” and it is a simply superb vessel now, beautifully kept and full of atmosphere, below deck especially where burnished lamp light and natural light warm the rich browns and dark reds of wood and furnishings in the living quarters.
Jon and Iris, the key figures behind the Maritime Museum based in Cairns, would like to moor their lugger near the public pontoon on the Inlet, as a floating museum and the centre of their eco education campaign.
It would be more or less opposite the renowned Grafton, the lugger that lies on the mudflat on the northern side of the inlet.
The “HB” was built by a Japanese shipwright on Thursday Island in 1938 for Harry Bowden’s Bowden Pearl Company. Soon after, she was conscripted into WWII service in the army. From the 1940s she returned to harvesting pearl shell in the Torres Strait, an industry that flourished into the ’50s and ’60s with close to 50 luggers collecting mother of pearl.
“They had interesting practices,” said Jon Bennett.
“For example, the skipper, in a heavily weighted diving suit, would bounce along the sea bed watching out for the best patches to explore.
“He could steer the vessel by remote – using ropes to indicate to the helmsman where to steer to the best shell beds.”
The exploits and romance of this way of life in the Strait inspired several feature films, and in one them, “King of the Coral Sea” starring Chips Rafferty and Rod Taylor, the “HB” featured on screen.
But the times were changing and sheer bad fortune played a part too.
Twin calamities in the ’70s wiped out the pearling industry in Torres Strait – the competing cultured pearl industry set up in Broome, WA, and a maritime oil spill killed the East Coast pearl bloodstock.
Jon Bennett has spent a life afloat. Returning to Australia after many years in the superyacht industry, he acquired the “HB” in 1993 and set about fixing her up.
The floodable wet-well was a ready made space for conversion to another cabin area, which accounts for why the “HB” today is so well served for cabin space.
Jon and Iris use the “HB” as a platform for maritime history and also as a platform for educating the public about the Great Barrier Reef and ecological issues.
Most of their extensive maritime museum is warehoused in Cairns, so they want the “HB” to be the centrepiece of a Luggers Landing on the banks of Dickson Inlet.
They invite anyone interested in their project to contact them on 0412 712 042.
Beautifully restored and maintained, the Queensland lugger “HB” in Dickson Inlet
Iris Bom (at right) talks to a guest in the atmospheric and charming main saloon
Natural finishes and goods are favoured everywhere
HB in a former life
Film romance of the pearling era