From Sea Scout to Master of the Lady Nelson

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Brian Hodgson is a volunteer master for the replica brig Lady Nelson and has many years’ maritime experience under his belt.

I met Brian on my last visit to Tasmania, where he offered me the great honour of taking the helm of Lady Nelson – it was the highlight of my trip! I certainly commend a sail in her to anyone visiting Hobart.

I am delighted to introduce Brian as June’s Guest Blogger.

Over to Brian…


Brian Hodgson at the helm of Lady Nelson

Brian Hodgson at the helm of Lady Nelson

People ask me how did I become a master of a square rigger. My early nautical experiences were with the 1st Derwent Sea Scouts in Hobart, where we had two old naval gigs which we rowed up and down the harbour – and occasionally set the lug sails.

After graduation from university I worked in Canada for two years as a forester and then returned to Tasmania. I became involved in helping to build the replica of Norfolk, the ship that Bass and Flinders sailed in 1798 and discovered the existence of Bass Strait that separates Tasmania (then called Van Diemen’s land) from the rest of Australia, thus providing a quicker trip to Sydney and avoiding the perils of the west coast of Tasmania. Bern Cuthbertson was the mover and shaker for this project.

The replica <em>Norfolk</em>

The replica Norfolk

For two and a half years each weekend I would drive to Ellendale in the Derwent Valley to work on the craft. The ship was built in the old fashion with trunnels to secure all the planking (wooden pins instead of nails). I think from memory there were about 4500 trunnels used in the construction of Norfolk. She has been crafted from Huon Pine, one of the best timbers for fine boat building. The Forestry Commission had been very generous in donating several salvaged Huon Pine logs which were broken down into planks in our sawmill on site at Ellendale.

After Norfolk was launched I was offered a position in the crew to undertake the re-enactment of Bass and Flinders’ voyage from Sydney, down the coast and through Bass Strait and thence down the West Coast of Tasmania to Hobart. Being a replica of the original, facilities were very basic and somewhat cramped for 10 crew. Working four hourly watch on–watch off was extremely tiring. Much of the food was dried or freeze dried. Drinking water was in a 200 litre barrel. For the call of nature, it was a matter of dropping the trousers and sitting over the cathead, being as quick as possible otherwise ending with a very wet rear end!

Lady Nelson

Lady Nelson

One of my most vivid memories from that trip was the night we anchored midstream in Mercury Passage in the Kent Group of islands waiting for the strong SW winds to decrease. We were at the end of a very long anchor rope that was bar tight. In the pitch black we stood hourly anchor watches checking the rope for any wear. If that rope had snapped we would have been in a dire position.

Crossing Bass Strait from Eden to landfall at Beauty Point took ten days, for a normal two day trip. We were hit by storms, blown back and forth and even becalmed. We experienced a predawn mirage which made us think we were further off course than expected and could easily see the image of Flinders Island to the east. We made the decision to alter course to the west, but in actual fact that was not necessary and put us way off our planned course. It was only as we sighted the coast and hill outlines of the northern coast of Tasmania, that we realized our error. Food supplies were exhausted and by the time the launch came out from George Town to tow us in we were ecstatic to see them hand over a fresh loaf of bread, some butter and honey!

After the Norfolk re-enactment I was at a bit of loss for sailing and joined Lady Nelson, initially to assist in maintenance of the vessel.

The replica brig Lady Nelson is operated by the Tasmanian Sail Training Association, a voluntary organisation. She was built in Tasmania in 1998 as an Australian bicentennial project for the state. The Association is unique in that all the crew are volunteers, even the Master who must have commercial qualifications and is unpaid. There is no other square rigger operated in the other Australian states that has an all unpaid crew.

At the time I joined there were some initial attempts to have a formal training course and I took on the task of setting up all the competencies for rating levels of deckhand, senior deckhand, bosun and uncertificated Watchkeeper. We take people who have never been on the water before and can train them up to the equivalent of a commercial coxswain. To complement the competencies required the preparation of the ship’s operational manual. This task was commenced in 2003 and I am now working on the fourth update.

 Admiral, possibly Australia’s oldest commercial boat

Admiral, possibly Australia’s oldest commercial boat

I undertook the formal commercial training courses for Coxswain, Marine Engine Driver and also finally Master’s certificate, at the Australian Maritime College. A requirement for being master of a square rigger in Tasmania is additional tickets of square rig and fore and aft sail endorsements. These can only be obtained by on the job training. There is no course such as that offered by the Royal Nautical Institute, UK.

Being a voluntary organisation, not for profit and with no sponsor ship, Lady Nelson operates harbour sails for tourists each weekend and for schools and other groups during the week. Lady Nelson is also used by the nautical training organisations for ship handling and engineering training, and also by Tasmanian Police to practice helicopter rescue at sea operations.

Some longer charters demonstrate the full potential of the vessel for longer cruises. A Victorian school comes over each year for five days’ sailing, as do the Bendigo naval cadets for deep water experience. Some of our most enjoyable trips have been with a local girls’ school which has a major outdoor camp each year for its grade 9 students down at Recherche Bay in the south of the state. Here they live under canvas and undertake activities such as sea kayaking, hiking, caveneering, mountain bike riding and each day a different group come out in Lady Nelson for a days’ sailing.

The charter of the organisation is to make the vessel available to all persons in Tasmania, and to fulfill that obligation the vessel is routinely taken north, and has completed several circumnavigations of Tasmania. This enables our own crew members to get open water experience and visit such places as Port Arthur, Wineglass Bay, Schouten Passage and Port Davey. One of my favourite places is the narrow passage through Tasman Passage between Tasman Island and Cape Pillar. Every time we go up north we take the up the challenge to take the vessel through this gap with majestic cliffs each side.

Lord and Lady Nelson (Lord Nelson is one of the vessels of the Jubilee Sailing Trust)

Lord and Lady Nelson
(Lord Nelson is one of the vessels of the Jubilee Sailing Trust)

The most recent major trip has been to Sydney, New South Wales to attend the International Fleet Review commemorating 100 years since the Australian Navy first entered Sydney Harbour. This review coincided with a visit of five square riggers from the northern hemisphere including Lord Nelson operated by the Jubilee Sailing Trust. I had the task of being master on the 10 day (700 nm) return voyage back to Hobart.

Hobart is also home of the acclaimed Australian Wooden Boat Festival, the top wooden boat festival in the Southern Hemisphere. The festival is held every two years and attracts massive crowds and overseas visitors. The next event is in February 2015.

As an aside, the original Lady Nelson on her voyage out from England was the first vessel to pass west to east through Bass Strait after its discovery by Bass and Flinders when they went from east to west…so I have a close association with both replica vessels and Bass Strait.


Lady Nelson website

In the Wake of Bass and Flinders – 200 years on’ by Bern Cuthbertson, is a fascinating account of the building of Norfolk

Norfolk is on permanent display in the Bass and Flinders Centre

Brian has also worked on the restoration of Admiral

Photos: courtesy Brian Hodgson; Lord and Lady Nelson photograph: A. Cusick

One Comment on “From Sea Scout to Master of the Lady Nelson

  1. Pingback: From Sea Scout to Master of the Lady Nelson | Broadly Boats News

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