The embarkation of a Voight Kingfisher aboard HMAS Wyatt Earp in 1948 is one of the strangest and doubtless the most ill-conceived events in the history of Australian Naval Aviation at sea. Marcus Peake tells the story.
The Wyatt Earp was originally built in Norway in 1919 as the sealing ship Fanefjord. Designed for Arctic waters it was very strongly constructed of wood with an overall length of 136 feet long, a beam of 29 feet and it 15 feet of water. It was given a round bottom and no bilge keel so it withstand the pressure of ice. The side effect, however, as that she rolled like a pig: on occasions up to 55 degrees each way. The rate of roll was also very quick: typically 4.5 seconds from port to starboard and back.
In 1933 an American millionaire bought the Fanefjord and renamed it Wyatt Earp after his home country hero. He had it sheathed in oak with steel plates as further protection against ice, and made four expeditions to Antartica with Sir Hubery Wilkins – but at the end of the 1939 voyage he was exasperated with the excessive roll characteristics and so gave the ship to Wilkins, who promptly sold it to the Australian Government.
Shortly after the beginning of WW2 the Wyatt Earp was handed to the RAN, who renamed it Wondalga and used it initially to carry stores to Darwin and then as a Guard Ship in South Australia. At the conclusion of the war she was made available to Sea Scouts for training.
That might have marked the end of the old vessel, but for a quirk of fate. In 1947 another arm of the Government were looking for a suitable vessel for the Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition, and the Wondalga was recommended for the task by no less than Sir Douglas Mawson, who knew of the ship. It was handed back to the control of the RAN, renamed the Wyatt Earp, and given a £50,00 refit (more than 10 times more than they had paid for the vessel in the first place). Rotting timbers were replaced, the superstructure altered to provide better visibility from the bridge and workspaces and extra accommodation fitted for crew and scientists. A new diesel engine was also fitted, although the mast and sails were retained: the last ship in the ORBAT to have sails. LCDR William Cook joined the ship in refit and later wrote:
“Perhaps we were the last of His Majesty’s ships under the White Ensign to use sail. I know I got a great thrill out of piping ‘Hands to sailing stations’ when we set all plain sail as we so often did. We found that with a favourable wind on the quarter we increased her speed up to two knots. But the real advantage was that it slowed down her rate of roll by at least two seconds, which, when she was rolling 30° to 40°, really meant something.”
After a couple of false starts for technical problems, the ship sailed at the start of March 1938. She had a Voight Kingfisher aboard: a cumbersome, ungainly aircraft seemingly comprising more float than aircraft and significantly underpowered.
HMAS Wyatt Earp returned to Australia on 31 March 1948, after only four weeks at sea. Three months later she was paid off and sold to a shipping company in Victoria for £11,000 and renamed the Wondalga. In 1956 she changed hands again, christened the Natone and put to work in east Australian waters in general trade. In January 1959, now forty years old, she was struck by a severe storm off the coast of Queensland that flooded the engine room. She managed to make Rainbow Bay under sail but was blown ashore and wrecked.