Swansong for Sprightly (1985)
For over forty years, the 42 metre war-time tug, Sprightly, has been putting to sea on a variety of important missions, originally as a salvage vessel in the North Atlantic and most recently as a research vessel for CSIRO.
This film takes a nostalgic look at one of the final voyages of Sprightly before she was replaced by the new oceanographic research vessel, the Franklin. During 1984 she undertook a series of cruises in the hazardous waters of Bass Strait. Researchers from CSIRO, universities and marine science institutes collaborated in a multi-disciplinary study of the Strait in one of the most ambitious programs ever carried out by marine scientists.
Crew member – “OK, let go!”
For over forty years this sturdy little vessel has been putting to sea on a variety of important missions but this voyage is especially significant.
For it is among the last she will carry in her current role as an oceanographic research vessel.
It’s a role she has performanced since 1973.
Her early career however, was not nearly so peaceful.
Sprightly was built in the early years of World War Two.
She first saw service in the fierce naval battles of the North Atlantic helping to salvage damage allied ships.
In 1944, Sprightly was transferred to the Royal Australian Navy.
She continued her salvage work in Australian waters rescuing a number of ships such as the SS Ormiston.
The Ormiston was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine off Coffs Harbour.
It seems unlikely she could have made it to Sydney without Sprightly’s assistance.
In a less obvious way, Sprightly’s work as a research vessel has also contributed to the safety of ships and lives at sea.
This voyage is one of a series which aims to provide a greater scientific understanding of the waters between Tasmania and the Australian mainland.
Bass Strait is one of the most hazardous and least understood bodies of water in the world.
Hundreds of ships have foundered in its unpredictable waters since Matthew Flinders first discovered the strait in 1798.
Today it’s one of Australia’s busiest commercial shipping routes.
It’s also used by thousands of fishing and recreation vessels each year.
What’s more, Bass Strait is the site of one of the nation’s biggest offshore oil and gas reserves.
Compared to the surrounding seas Bass Strait is very shallow.
It’s average depth is only about 60 metres but as this computer models shows the ocean floor beyond the strait drops abruptly to about 4,000 metres.
The Strait bears the full force of the gales that roar in from the south-west after traversing thousands of kilometers of open ocean.
Recent research suggests that water movement in the strait may influence currents, tides and weather right up the east coast.
This voyage of the Sprightly is one of the series which is brought together marine scientists from many institutions and disciplines in one of the most ambitious undertakings of its kind.
The research leader for the voyage is Dr John Church from CSIRO’s Division of Oceanography in Hobart.
The path to scientific enlightenment is seldom direct and on this occasion Sprightly was obliged to zig-zag all over the Strait in order to collect the full range of scientific data.
Of great interest is the pattern of currents in Bass Strait, currents that until recently, have been little understood.
These scientists are laying sensitive meters which will record the movement of water at various depths over a period of several months.
The information is recorded on miniature magnetic tapes which will be retrieved on the next voyage.
Such information has helped researchers from the Victorian Institute of Marine Sciences to generate computer models of current movements.
This one shows the characteristic direction and strength of water through the strait over a 24-hour period.
And this model simulates the comparatively large rise and fall of the tide in Bass Strait.
An understanding of these tides and currents is important to mariners and could be vital to rescue services in the event of disasters at sea.
Over the years Sprightly has been extensively modified to equip it for a wide range of oceanographic research activities.
On this voyage water samples of being collected from various depths at a number of carefully determined locations.
The small onboard laboratory enables scientists to perform a range of experiments.
In this case they are measuring the salinity, dissolved oxygen and nutrient concentration in the samples.
And this equipment is being used by researchers John Keene and Wilma Blom of Sydney University to take samples of sediment from the sea bed.
Crew – “OK lower away.”
They’ve also developed a coring tool which will enable them to collect minute fossil remains layered in the sea bed.
John Keene – “By looking at the cores we’ll be able to work out when the Strait, Bass Strait as we know it today was flooded by the rising ocean. Initially the ocean flooded in from the west as sea level rose as the ice melted and uh… then it broke the final land bridge between Wilsons Promontory and Tasmania at a date which we don’t know at the moment but we hope to find out by studying these cores.”
Crew member – “That’ll do for the first stop there Ray.”
Crew member – “Bottle number one.”
Sprightly is also equipped for computer analysis of collected data important since the vessel is often a sea for several weeks at a time.
With eleven permanent crew and up to eight scientists on board an efficient galley is essential.
At meal times it’s first come, first served and everyone gets equal treatment.
While the vessels at sea the work must go on around the clock.
With scientists from so many disciplines onboard, the facilities must remain flexible and schedules must be tightly organised.
But despite her invaluable service to Australian science Sprightly’s resources are no longer adequate to meet the ever-expanding need for knowledge about our oceans.
During 1985 she is being replaced by a new oceanographic research vessel named the Franklin.
The 55 meter ship will be operated by CSIRO but will be a national facility serving marine scientist throughout Australia.
While the new vessel is undergoing her final fitting out the Sprightly will be completing the last of the voyages for CSIRO.
Captain George Cavill has been with Sprightly since she began her career as a research vessel.
A long association which is now coming to an end.
George Cavill – “Aw, one can get a bit sentimental or whatever about it but I find no room in life for regrets for the past because it’s gone, it’s finished with, we have to go with whatever comes up. The ship is basically ones home for six months of the year, over a period of twelve or fourteen years, one gets that same feeling that perhaps people do who live in the same street or the same house for the same length of time. I have no ambition whatsoever to go on cargo vessels or passenger vessels. Research work I like. It’s interesting and is… has variety, and variety I find the thing I enjoy more than anything. To get on a regular run would be rather poison to me.”
Since she was first converted for scientific use Sprightly has covered over half a million nautical miles.
In waters from the Antarctic circle to the equator.
She’s done everything from studying rock lobsters off the West Australia coast, to recovering rockets fired to observe solar eclipses.
In her scientific career Sprightly has played a major role in helping shape the next generation of marine science in Australia.