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John Louis

Vessel Number: HV000050
Date: 1957
Designer: Male and Co
Vessel type: Pearling Luggers
Dimensions:
Vessel Dimensions: 18.3 m x 13 m x 4.65 m x 1.88 m, 58.27 square metres (60 ft x 42.7 ft x 15.25 ft x 6.2 ft, 627.28 square feet)
Registered Dimensions: 15.64 m x 4.39 m x 2.19 m, 34.45 tons (51.3 ft x 14.4 ft x 7.2 ft)
Engine dimensions: 126 kilowatts, 6 cylinders (170 horsepower)
Propeller dimensions: 560 x 762 mm (22.01 x 29.95 in.)
Classification:Vessels and fittings
Significance
JOHN LOUIS is a pearling lugger built in Broome WA IN 1957. JOHN LOUIS worked for 30 years in north-western Australian waters collecting commercial mother-of-pearl and young pearl shell for the cultured-pearl industry. It was one of the pearling luggers that were amongst the last of the Australian working craft to be operated with sail power. The motor was used for passages to and from the pearling fields, but on the fields it drifted under sail while the divers were down, which had always been the practice.

JOHN LOUIS was also one of the last pearling luggers built to the traditional lines, structure and configuration used by the Broome pearling luggers, and became one of the last of this type to operate in the pearling industry in Australia. It remains in its final operating configuration and has considerable original integrity. JOHN LOUIS is now at the Australian National Maritime Museum and is the only operational lugger in an Australian museum collection. The multi-cultural crew used over its working lifespan connects JOHN LOUIS to many significant stories in the pearling industry.
DescriptionJOHN LOUIS was built in Broome in 1957 by Male & Company for Louis Placanica, a Broome pearler. It was named after Placanica’s son John. The 20 metre long hull was carvel planked in jarrah. The boat was built with an engine as its primary source of power, and the sails were used for manoeuvring on the pearling grounds. ‘Verandahs’ or outriggers let down from the sides of the vessel were used to separate the divers moving over the pearl beds below. Divers worked in hard-hat suits with heavy metal helmets and boots. The work was very dangerous. In 1962 a Malay diver, Pilus Bin Jamiron, died of the bends while diving off JOHN LOUIS in deep water off Eighty Mile Beach.

Initially JOHN LOUIS was used to collect mother-of-pearl for jewellery, button-making, and other applications which were superseded by plastic. This had been the traditional purpose of pearling, with the rare find of a natural pearl as a bonus. As this industry collapsed, the pearl-culture industry developed, where divers collected young pearl shell (pearl oysters) which were taken to farms for ‘seeding’ and cultivation. This became JOHN LOUIS’ use for the rest of its working life. From 1964 it was owned by Pearls Pty Ltd, the biggest cultured-pearl company in Western Australia. It was used to supply the Kuri Bay pearl culture farm north of Broome, and later other farms along the coast as well. It also worked around Thursday Island and Torres Strait from time to time.

In 1971 the most significant episode in JOHN LOUIS’ career took place when the Marine Superintendent of Pearls Pty Ltd, Captain Peter Cumming, a former naval officer, trialled the use of hookah gear – light breathing apparatus connected to an air supply on the deck. He had seen abalone divers using this method in New South Wales, and had JOHN LOUIS refitted on Thursday Island for the purpose, as no luggers were available in Broome, employing a number of expert abalone divers. The crew included Dale Chapman diver and leader, Bruno Mckenna diver, Alan Badger diver, David Dureau deckhand and cook, Frank Bowie engineer. The story of this trial is told in Hugh Edwards, Port of Pearls: a history of Broome. The result was so successful that by 1974 the industry had converted almost entirely to the hookah method.

Prior to the 1970s it was a widespread belief that only non-Europeans were physically suited to deep water diving. After the hookah trials, which were conducted by a hand-picked team of European-Australian spear fishers and divers, the mix of crews and divers in the industry changed. Accordingly, after complaints from the hookah divers, accommodation on JOHN LOUIS was improved. In 1972 the foredeck was raised by Alan Badger to improve crew accommodation below. The flush deck at the bow gave way to the raised bulwark of the present configuration. Peter Cumming replaced the tiller with a wheel at the time of the hookah trial. The wheelhouse was added and eventually held two radios, radar, echo sounder and auto pilot. The original Lister Blackstone diesel engine was replaced in 1970 with a Gardner engine. In 1973 this was replaced with the 6-cylinder Volvo Penta; this engine is still on JOHN LOUIS.

Details of work and life on board in the 1980s have been described by Tom Wiggan, who worked as tender or boat-captain on JOHN LOUIS for more than a year in 1985–86. There were eight crew: six divers, a cook and the tender. A voyage lasted about ten days. Supply tenders came regularly and took some shell back, while a seawater tank kept the rest alive on the voyage home. The sails were no longer used with the changed method of diving.

JOHN LOUIS carries the hull number B3, which was on it when the museum acquired it in 1987. However, the number changed at least three times. From the evidence of photographs it carried the number B25 in 1967, A50 in 1971 and B70 in 1975. These appear to be Broome or Western Australian fisheries numbers. JOHN LOUIS’ original certificate of registry gives its official number as 196905. This was changed to 196906 on later certificates. The hull colour also appears to have been white or grey before becoming the green it is now finished with.

JOHN LOUIS was bought at the end of its final season in pearling operations at Broome. It was brought around to Sydney by skipper David Adams, and has been retained in exactly the same configuration it had when it was in its final years of commercial operation.
Vessel Details
Cabin or superstructure material and construction:timber planked
Current status:floating
Current status:on public display
Current status:operational
Deck layout:full decked
Deck layout:multiple decks
Deck material and construction:timber planked
Hull material and construction:carvelcarvel-planked
Hull material and construction:timber
Hull shape:displacement
Hull shape:monohull
Hull shape:overhanging stem
Hull shape:overhanging transom
Hull shape:round bottom
Keel/centreboard/rudder type:full keel
Keel/centreboard/rudder type:keel hung rudder
Motor propulsion:diesel
Motor propulsion:inboard
Motor propulsion:motor vesselMV
Propeller:single
Related materials:photos
Related materials:plans
Related materials:references
Rig type:gaff
Rig type:ketch
Sail cloth:cotton
Spar material:timber
Hand propulsion/steering mechanism:wheel
Current status:museum vessel
Byzantine ships:ships:ship:ships:wheelhouse
Alternate Numbers

Official Number: 196 906

Vessel Registration Number: B3

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