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Life as a Master Mariner


Captain Lindsay Gillies of Witta

Master Mariner, Captain of the Australian Lighthouse Vessel, “Cape Grafton” and resident of Maleny.  Lindsay is a well-known resident of Maleny and is a member of the Tesch family, one of the pioneering families of the Sunshine Coast Hinterland.

Lindsay has had an interesting life on both land and water.  He was involved in the early timber industry through the Tesch Family and later as a Master Mariner, finishing as the Captain of the Australian Lighthouse Vessel, “Cape Grafton”.

Lindsay tells us a little about his life as Captain of the “Cape Grafton”.


Australia is the biggest island in the world.  The southern half of the continent is ringed by rocky reefs whilst the northern part by coral reefs.   In the early days these reefs brought tragedy to many sailors and their cargoes.  This has meant that the Australian Government has had to develop a maritime safety program covering a large part of the world’s oceans.  This was done through the Commonwealth Government’s Australian Maritime Safety Authority.


Maleny resident, Lindsay Gillies, as Captain of the Australian Lighthouse tender “Cape Grafton” played an important part in the program.  The duties of those onboard the Cape Grafton included the construction and maintenance of Australian Maritime Safety Authorities aids to navigation network around the Australian coastline.  This includes over 400 sites comprising traditional light beacons and buoys, radar transponders, differential global positioning system stations and ship reporting radar systems.

(Photo Left  Captain Lindsay Gillies on the bridge of Cape Don Lighthouse Tender)

It also involves maintenance and logistic support of search and rescue air-droppable equipment including life rafts, pumps, VHF radios', survival equipment and on-site training support.

The “Cape Grafton” was a dedicated 75 meter long vessel.  It was built to the highest ice breaking strength and fitted out for Australia’s AMSA in Spain.  The ice breaking strength was important as the ship ventured into many areas of uncharted and unsurveyed hazards and reefs to get to lights marking those hazards.  These hazards are less forgiving on the bottom of boats than ice.  

The ship was fully computerised and driven by a crew of 2, the watch-keeper who actually drives it and a standby man who checks the running of the ship, particularly the engine room.   The ship was diesel electric driven by three ‘Caterpillar’ diesel motors driving a single propeller.  It had a draft of 5.2 metres and carried about 500 cubic metres of fuel and was capable of driving through ice 1.5 metres thick.

The “Cape Grafton” was fitted with the latest in computerised radio and navigation equipment.  It also carried its own helicopter and amphibious landing craft.  It housed a most up to date workshop.

During the time at sea the crew had to be fully self-contained and totally independent of shore facilities.  The crew was trained in the use of welders, lathes, millers, oxy-acetylene equipment and all manner of woodworking tools.

The “Cape Grafton” replaced the previous lighthouse tender, “Cape Moreton” in 1994.   Lindsay was also a Captain on that ship.   As a result of this experience he was required by the Australian Government to oversee the obtaining and fit out of the "Cape Grafton”.


The ship was located in Virgo, Spain.  The hull was being built for a client who had gone bankrupt and had yet to be fitted out when Lindsay found it.  He was responsible for negotiations to purchase the hull, the purchase, the fit out and final delivery to Australia.  He then continued on as Master.

Lindsay believed that in Vigo, Spain there would be clean sandy beaches with wooden boats bobbing in the wavelets; instead he found a polluted industrial waterfront.   He was housed in a concrete bunker type of units that ran for about six kilometres.  The quiet countryside did not exist and the area was continually a cacophony of noise, causing Lindsay to sleep in a type of earmuff.

As an aside, Vigo is the largest city of the Galicia region and Pontevedra province in north-western Spain.

The population of the city of Vigo is estimated at about 300,000 and is ranked as the 14th-largest urban area of Spain.  It is the first industrial area in Galicia.   There are automobile industry, shipyards and auxiliary industry.  Situated in Vigo is Galicia's leading employer, PSA Peugeot Citroën Group.

Vigo is also the largest fishing port in Europe, and the homeport of the world's largest fishing company, Pescanova.


Now Back to Lindsay and the “Cape Grafton”.

Fitting out a ship of this type is a complicated as fitting out a small town.  Starting with fitting out electricity to drive the ship, to telephone systems, public address systems, cafeteria, galley, cabins, showers, toilets with sewerage system, cold room and engineering workshop.   All the systems had to have a “backup” system in case of failure.

Special facilities had to be included for the onboard helicopter and amphibious landing craft and other specialist equipment.

It was then necessary to outfit the ship with all the normal navigation systems, and day-to-day necessities required for day-to-day living and working.  Ensuring that the workshop was equipped with all of the maintenance equipment and parts required to carry out the required future tasks.  The ship is even equipped with its own concrete batching and pumping plant.  This versatile piece of equipment can be dismantled and carried to the construction site in the amphibious landing craft.

Whilst in Spain the Spaniards showed a very warm disposition towards him but Lindsay had trouble, as generally there was no English spoken either in the shipyard or the surrounding area.  Lindsay had to learn enough Spanish to get him through.  He also soon found that it was cheaper to buy local wine than fresh water.

Communicating with the ship builders consisted of drawings on a white board or the ship’s hull.  The working day started at six in the morning and finished at ten at night with a two-hour siesta in the middle of the day.

Following the fit out the ship was sailed to Australia where its life an Lighthouse Tender, “Cape Grafton” commenced.

When you mention “life at sea” immediately a life of adventure, romance and exotic destinations spring to mind.   Daily life on the lighthouse tender was nothing of the sort.  It would be best described as routine.

The ship’s crew consisted of a Master, 2 mates, an engineer, a cook, and three sailors on each voyage.  That makes a total crew of sixteen allowing for rotating six weeks on and six weeks off.

The ship would standoff lighthouses during the daytime whilst repair and maintenance was completed and during darkness sail from one lighthouse to the next.  This continued for the six weeks until all the tasks for that voyage were completed.

One of Australia's historic light beacons

The Raine Island beacon is the oldest European structure in the Australian tropics and is a monument of great historical value. It was constructed in 1844, under the order of the British Admiralty, using convict labour. Stone for the beacon was quarried from the phosphate rock found on the island. Shells were burnt to make lime for mortar and timbers were taken from shipwrecks in the area. The work was completed in four months.

(Notice the birdlife around the structure)


The Australian shoreline is the home of a myriad of bird-life and this bird-life causes all manner of problems associated with the irregularities of lighthouses.   Long gone are the days of manned lighthouses.  As most lighthouses now are solar power the birdlime created major problems by obscuring the solar panels.  To overcome this problem the ship’s crew often had to relocate sea eagles nests from a light to another site.  This relocation could be quite an ordeal, particularly if there were young in the nest as the parent birds were very protective of their young. Their natural armoury of beaks, and claws make them formidable opponents.


Photo Left:  Another unmanned Australian lighthouse - Goods Island in the Torres Strait.


Crocodile numbers in the north during Lindsay’s time were growing and it was most important to be aware of them and keep a vigilant lookout for them.   Building a light on a semi-submerged reef required a lot of time in the water and it was necessary to have a “safety man” in a rubber ducky constantly on lookout for these crocodiles and also for sharks.

Most navigational buoys are chained to the sea bottom and there is a lot of maintenance to ensure that those buoys do not move.  Any malfunction here could result in dire consequences.

Whilst the day-to-day life on board the ship was somewhat routine each day brought something different because of the variety of tasks routinely carried out.

Some of the not so routine tasks completed was the recovery of a ditched plane along with its crew off Sydney and new survey work.  One such survey was to survey a route outside the Barrier Reef so that international ships could sail to Australia without coming inside the Barrier Reef.

Whilst much time is spent in the Torres Strait area it is not only Queensland waters that the “Cape Grafton” sails as there are navigational aids right around Australia to be maintained.

Lindsay said, “Life on the ocean waves was a wonderful life, however it was a hectic life.   If there was a down side to it it takes you away from your family too often.  For the family of crew at home life can be very lonely”.  What does somebody do after a day’s work when onboard the ship for six weeks?   Lindsay said, “When you work hard from daylight to dusk – seven days a week all you want to do at the end of the day is get some sleep”.

When asked about rough seas Lindsay replied,” The ship is some 2500 tonnes and is a particularly good ship in heavy seas.  It has had to “stand to” during cyclones and those seas did not create any particular problems for the ship".   On retiring in 1999 Lindsay said, “Life at sea is the life I enjoy“.

Along with many other services, in 2001 the Australian Federal Government outsourced the maintenance of the lighthouses and ancillary equipment and thus the Australia’s Maritime Services sold the “Cape Grafton” to P & O Maritime Services.

Today Lindsay spends his days living at Witta with his wife, Norma.  He is a very proficient wood worker and enjoys working in his workshop at home creating all sorts of timber products.

Some who may have been in Maleny for some years will remember Lindsay, Max Graham and Bob Hawkins when they operated Maleny Timbers in Coral Street, Maleny.

I am sure that there are many more of you out there who have bits of
information that would be of great interest to the rest of us.  

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