On the 4th of August 2023, the Low Head Pilot Station Maritime Museum commemorated the 60th anniversary of the remarkable rescue operation that unfolded in the Bass Strait.
Dr Ray Swannell, a key figure in the operation, marked the event at the museum, surrounded by a small gathering comprising of family members, volunteers, and former Pilot Ron Riley and Don Heather. Don Heather used to operate the Bell Bay Cranes and shared involvement with the Westamar Tug.
Six decades ago, on the 4th of August 1963, the Norwegian Ship Porthos (6,000 tons) was headed for Hobart on a journey that took an unexpected turn for the worst, navigating rough seas fraught with peril.
Loaded with phosphates from Christmas Island just off Swan Island, fire broke out in the crew’s quarters, damaging the ship’s steering; similar to the vessel, the crew did not escape unscathed from the incident, with three of the ship’s crew losing their lives on that fateful trip, while others were left injured.
Promptly, the ship undertook the installation of emergency steering before changing its course and heading toward the Tamar Heads.
All the meanwhile, a valiant rescue mission ensued with the tug Westamar departing from the George Town wharf around midday, carrying two doctors with it.
One of those doctors was 26-year-old Dr Ray Swannell, who relocated from Western Australia to serve as a Resident Medical Officer at the Launceston General Hospital.
“The 4th of August 1963 was a cold, wet and windy Sunday. I was relaxing at home when a call was made for volunteers to render medical assistance to the crew of a fire-stricken ship in Bass Strait. I volunteered because it appealed to my sense of adventure.” Dr Swannell shared.
Following an arduous 5-6 hour journey through exceptionally rough waters, the Westamar rendezvoused with the Porthos near Waterhouse Island.
“It wasn’t until we were in Bass Strait and battling huge waves, that I realised this was more than I had bargained for. It was dusk when we reached the Porthos. I remember having been terribly seasick and not wanting to do anything but remain on the bunk.”
“When I was summoned to go on deck, and to transfer from the tug to the Porthos, I thought – this is what this whole exercise is about; this is why I’m here; I can’t renege now.”
During the celebration last month, Dr. Swannell shared his memories of the challenges of boarding the ship, with the most prominent hurdle being the absence of a ladder and the darkness, which meant that rescuers had to jump at the right time—waiting until the tug rose with the waves before leaping across to the larger vessel. He wryly said that he chose to return to port on the Porthos, rather than attempt another transfer.
“After several aborted attempts, the tug’s captain skilfully manoeuvred the Westamar to the ship’s side. I experienced only minor apprehension as I stood on the tug’s railing awaiting an opportunity to cross to the larger vessel. Many times since, I have thought – what if….”
Upon the successful transfer from the tug to the ship, Swannell’s medical supplies and equipment were transferred across with a line, and he was then able to proceed with treating the injured.
“When aboard the Porthos I treated five crew members with burns and eye injuries. Two were later admitted to hospital. The fire, I was told began in the galley. One can only imagine what it was like for the crew who were trapped by fire in the middle of the night in a Bass Strait storm.”
In recognition of his extraordinary bravery, Dr Ray Swannell was bestowed with the George Medal for Bravery, one of the highest civilian honours for acts of bravery. The award was presented to him in Hobart by Governor Sir Charles Gairdner the following year. Notably, Gairdner, having formerly held the governorship in Western Australia, was well-acquainted with and respected by the young doctor.
“I was completely taken aback when I learned that I was to be awarded a George Medal, and also a Silver Medal from the Royal Humane Society.”
“Later, at Government House in Hobart, the Governor, Sir Charles Gairdner carried out the investiture with my wife and parents present. The occasion is indelibly etched on my memory.”
Curator of the Low Head Pilot Station Maritime Museum, Des Wooton, received communication from both Dr Swannell’s son, Michael, and Dr Swannell himself a few weeks prior to the anniversary. Their exchanges sought to share and gather additional information about the Porthos incident.
During the 60th-anniversary event, the Swannell family contributed a framed account of the Porthos/Westamar incident, and a framed copy of Captain Skinner’s report was also presented. These valuable additions have now been incorporated into the displays within the Shipwreck Room.
This occasion bore immense significance for Dr. Swannell, as it represented his first interaction with the exhibition during its 60th anniversary. Through joint endeavours, the museum and the Swannell family effectively bridged gaps in each other’s knowledge, resulting in a touching tribute to a momentous historical event.