February 3 - 9, 2013: Issue 96

The Helen B Stirling Ship's Wheel at Club Palm Beach

In the foyer of Club Palm Beach (formerly Palm Beach RSL) is the large ship's wheel donated by Carl Gow, Palm Beach legend and former lighthouse keeper at Barrenjoey, of the six-masted schooner the Helen B Stirling (sometimes spelt 'Sterling').

A Schooner is a type of sailing vessel with fore-and-aft sails on two or more masts, the foremast being no taller than the rear mast(s). These vessels were first used by the Dutch in the 16th or 17th century (but may not have been called that at the time - see etymology, below). Originally schooners were gaff-rigged, but modern schooners may be Bermuda-rigged. Schooners were further developed in North America from the early 18th century, and were more widely used in the United States than in any other country.[citation needed] The most common type of schooners, with two-masts, were popular in trades that required speed and windward ability, such as slaving, privateering, and blockade running. They were also traditional fishing boats, used for offshore fishing. They were favoured as pilot vessels, both in North America and in Northern Europe.  According to the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, the first vessel called a schooner was built by builder Andrew Robinson and launched in 1713 from Gloucester, Massachusetts. Legend has it that the name was the result of a spectator exclaiming "Oh how she scoons", scoon being similar to scone, a Scots word meaning to skip along the surface of the water. Robinson replied, "A schooner let her be." According to Walter William Skeat, the term schooner comes from scoon, while the sch spelling comes from the later adoption of the Dutch and German spellings ("Schoener"). Schooner. (2013, January 25). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Schooner&oldid=534832403

This wheel with ten spokes makes it one of the larger versions of ship’s wheels;

A traditional ship's wheel is composed of eight cylindrical wooden spokes (though sometimes as few as six or as many as ten) shaped like balusters and all joined at a central wooden hub or nave (sometimes covered with a brass nave plate) which housed the axle. The square hole at the center of the hub through which the axle ran is called a drive square and was often lined with a brass plate (and therefore called a brass boss) which was frequently etched with the name of the wheel's manufacturer. The outer rim is composed of four sections each made up of stacks of three felloes, the facing felloe, the middle felloe, and the after felloe. Because each group of three felloes at one time made up a quarter of the distance around the rim, the entire outer wooden wheel was sometimes called the quadrant. Each spoke ran through the middle felloe creating a series of handles on the outside of the wheel's rim. One of these handles/ spokes was frequently given extra grooves at its tip which could be felt by a helmsman steering in the dark and used by him to determine the exact position of the rudder— this was the king spoke and when it pointed straight upward the rudder was dead straight. The wood used in construction of this type of wheel was most often either teak or mahogany. Ship's wheel. (2013, January 21). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Ship%27s_wheel&oldid=534097784

The first Helen B Sterling, courtesy State Library of Victoria. Image no: 230169

There were two sailing ships of this name. The first was a four mast schooner which foundered in 1922 near Three Kings off New Zealand. This Helen B Sterling was built as a four-mast wooden auxiliary screw schooner, a windjammer, of 1608 tons, and formerly known as the ‘Tacoma’, by the Washington Shipping Corporation in Seattle in 1917.  The dimensions of this vessel were: Length: 220 ft. Breadth: 43 ft. Depth: 21 ft. This original Helen B Sterling was wrecked and sunk in this storm which second generation relatives of those who were passengers state was more like a cyclone. (1).

HELEN B. STERLING. AFLOAT AND ADRIFT. Melbourne, Wednesday Night.— Cable advice reports, that the abandoned Helen B. Sterling is still afloat and drifting. HELEN B. STERLING. (1922, January 26). Zeehan and Dundas Herald (Tas. : 1890 - 1922), p. 3. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article84509225

Windjammers were large sailing ships with an iron or for the most part steel hull, built to carry cargo in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Windjammers were the grandest of merchant sailing ships, with between three and five large masts and square sails, giving them a characteristic profile. The origin of the name refers to the typical sound that is made by strong winds blowing through (modern) steel rigging and can be traced back to the Dutch language: the verb 'jammeren' can be translated as 'wailing'. Windjammer. (2013, January 30). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Windjammer&oldid=535649963

The second Helen B Stirling, from which this ship's wheel came., courtesy State Library of Victoria, image no: 230169.

The second ship of this name was a six-masted schooner purchased by Ray Milton Sterling (E R Sterling’s son) in 1926 (she was originally the OREGON FIR and was rejigged). She was named after his mother. Her dimensions were approximately 267.0 feet (81.4 m) in length, 46.5 feet (15.3 m) breadth and 25.2 feet (7.7m) depth and she was a 2526-ton (gross) ship, alike her sister ship the Dorothy H Sterling. (3). The Dorothy H was named for Captain E R Sterling’s daughter. Both these vessels were built at Portland, USA, by the Peninsula Shipbuilding Company of Portland, Oregon, USA and were not only the largest of their kind to be built then but also among the most expensive, costing £50,000 to build.

The Sterlings were an American shipping family. Patriarch Captain Edward Robert Sterling, Canadian born, and his wife Helen B Sterling, plied the timber trade between America, Australia and New Zealand. They had three children, Ray Milton Sterling, Ethel Manila Sterling and Dorothy H Sterling. They were E R Sterling & Company Inc. and came into possession of these large schooners after both met with mishaps elsewhere and their repair bills could not be met.

From the Australian National Maritime Museum blog and Flickr pages of August 30th, 2012 (4.):
Son Ray married Ethel May Francis, born on 17 March 1894 in Hamilton, Newcastle NSW, on 17 December 1916 at St Peters Church in her hometown of Hamilton. Two years later, their daughter Margaret Francis Sterling was born on 8 August, and within three months, records indicate that Mrs Sterling sailed to San Francisco with her daughter on the VENTURA. In the US, the couple lived in Seattle, Washington with Ray Sterling's parents, Captain E R Sterling and Helen B Sterling. Ray Sterling was captain of the six-masted barquentine E R STERLING throughout his career following his father's footsteps. E R STERLING was originally built in Belfast in 1883 as a four-masted iron ship LORD WOLSELEY. In 1904 it was renamed EVERETT G GRIGGS and modified into a six-masted barquentine. It was sold and renamed E R STERLING in 1910, and was broken up in 1927.

Picture: A 1925 picture of Ethel May Francis and daughter Margaret Francis beside the E R Sterling wheel; also ten spokes. Image Courtesy The Australian National Maritime Museum, Image: 00035539 taken by Samuel J. Hood Studio Collection; ANMM states before he made his way into photojournalism he would take his Folmer & Schwing Graflex camera to Sydney Harbour and make an income from photographing Captains and their families and their ships as portraits and studies of these vessels on Sydney and Newcastle Harbour. He also photographed many Pittwater Regattas once employed by SMH in the 1930's.

The Sterlings did not have possession of the Helen B Stirling for very long:

Helen B Sterling Sold: the six-masted schooner Helen B Sterling has been purchased by Mr W.S Payne, president of the Pacific Export Lumber Company. The vessel is enroute to Australia with a cargo of more then 2, 000,000 feet of lumber. The Helen B Sterling is to be given back her old name, Oregon Fir. She was completed in Portland in 1920. HELEN B. STERLING SOLD. (1928, October 3). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), p. 19. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article16499012

E R Sterling was forced to sell one of his schooners, Ethel M Sterling (named for daughter in law), because he had not paid for the two 240 horsepower diesel engines he had installed in 1926. They show a time of prosperity that would again be put under serious strain with E R Sterling & Company Inc. being riddled with ongoing ship disasters. In 1927, E R Sterling faced a gale near the Falkland Islands en route from Port Adelaide to Britain. After nine months at sea, the vessel sailed into the Thames in complete disrepair and had lost its chief officer, who had been crushed to death by one of the masts during a hurricane. (2)

In Autumn of 1930 the Helen B Stirling arrived in Sydney:

HELEN B. STIRLING. Arrives in Sydney. Memories of old sea dogs on the water-front yesterday were pleasantly revived when the graceful lines of the six-masted American schooner Helen B. Stirling came into view. Nowadays the entry of a sailer through the Heads excites quite a flutter among the older shipping fraternity, and the curiosity of the rising generation-they are strange visitors, becoming rarer every year or so. It Is three months since a salier, the Finnish barque Penang, entered the port of Sydney and revived memories of not so many years ago when rival tugs set out to search for her and bring her safely to port. The Helen B. Stirling is a vessel of 2500 tons. She brought nearly 3,000,000 feet of timber from Portland, Oregon, after a voyage occupying 78 days. Her skipper, Captain H. H. Oostrerhuis, is a veteran mariner, and holds confident views of the profitable working of sailing vessels. The vessel, he said, had a comfortable voyage across the Pacific. The Helen B. Stirling was towed into port by the St. Olaves to Double Bay, and later she was taken up to Snails Bay to discharge her cargo. HELEN B. STIRLING. (1930, March 28). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), p. 11. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article16637511

Unfortunately she then ran into trouble with Australia’s Federal Department of Navigation:

DETENTION ORDERED. SCHOONER HELEN B. STIRLING. DECLARED UNSEAWORTHY. Following a report by officers of the Federal Department of Navigation that the six-masted American schooner Helen B. Stirling was unseaworthy, the Deputy-Director of Navigation(Captain C. D. Matheson) has Issued a detention order against the vessel. She will not be allowed to leave Sydney until she has been repaired to the satisfaction of the department's surveyors. The Helen B. Stirling, a vessel of 2500 tons, arrived In Sydney on March 27, 76 days out from Portland (Oregon), with 3,000,000 feet of timber. It is stated that the pumps had to be employed during the latter portion of the trip, and that an Inspection by surveyors of the Federal Navigation Department led to a discovery that the vessel was still making water. Captain Oosterhuis, the master, is now awaiting instructions from his principals in Portland. The Helen B. Stirling is moored in Snail's Bay. DETENTION ORDERED. (1930, April 21). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), p. 10. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article16677245

THE HELEN B. STIRLING. CREW WILLING TO TAKE HER TO SEA. Whilst the Federal Department of Navigation remains firm in demanding that the six masted American schooner Helen B. Stirling must be repaired before she will be allowed to leave Sydney, the local agents are pressing for the cancellation of the detention order. They admit that she is still making water, but state that the master (Captain Oosterhuis) and crew are prepared to take her to sea. It was stated on behalf of the agents yesterday that a leak had developed early in the 76-day voyage from Portland (Oregon), and that the pumps had been kept In action throughout the rest of the journey. On arrival In Sydney it was found that the vessel was holed, below the waterline. A diver had since descended, and effected repairs, and, although a little water was still finding its way into the hull, it was not thought necessary to undertake the expense of dry-docking the vessel. Advice on that point was being awaited from the owners In Portland. The Department of Navigation, on the other hand, continues to conduct daily tests. It points out that, if disaster should overtake the vessel after she had been allowed to sail from Australia In what it considered an unseaworthy condition, the responsibility would rest with the department. THE HELEN B. STIRLING. (1930, April 23). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), p. 14. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article16663488

It seems the Great Depression affected those who had bought these large vessels and harbour dues, upkeep fees, repair costs and crew wages resulted in her sister ship, the Dorothy H Sterling being abandoned and ‘seized in South Australia. (3). While in port and moored The Helen B Stirling was put to use in a great way to begin Spring 1930:

DANCE ON SHIPBOARD. A novel entertainment took place last night when a dance was held on board the HelenB. Stirling, an old American sailing vessel, which is lying off Point Piper. The ship was lent for the occasion by the captain, Captain H. Oosterhuis. Motor launches conveyed the guests, who numbered 200, from Fort Macquarie to the ship. The two long decks, each over 210 feet in length, were used for dancing, and were illuminated by petrol lamps. A feature of the evening was the ballet, the members of which were arrayed as pirates,' and boarded the ship late in the evening, and were met with a barrage of coloured streamers and confetti thrown by the dancers. The dance was organised by a number of art students of well-known studios of Sydney, and by University undergraduates. It is proposed to hold another dance on board the ship shortly. DANCE ON SHIPBOARD. (1930, September 10). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), p. 6. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article16700174

HELEN B. STERLING. Passing Under Bridge. At 3 o'clock this afternoon the six-masted schooner, Helen B. Stealing, which has lain idle in Rose Bay since early last year, when the navigation authorities declared her unseaworthy, will pass under the Harbour Bridge in tow, on her way to Kerosene Bay, to join many other old-timers in "The Bay of Forgotten Ships." The event is particularly interesting, in view of the fact that the schooner's six masts are more than 170ft in height. On a high tide, therefore, it is doubtful whether there would have been sufficient clearance for the schooner to pass under the bridge deck. For this reason she will be towed to her new quarters at low tide. When the owners were refused permission to take the Helen B. Sterling to sea, It was ruled that, if proper repairs were effected, a seaworthy certificate would be issued. No steps were taken to fulfil the department's requirements, and, as the schooner was thought to be obstructing traffic, she must seek a more out of-the-way resting place. HELEN B. STERLING. (1931, March 5). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), p. 8. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article16759181

Some sources state the Helen B. Stirling may have been used as a ‘test vehicle’ for all ships passing under the then not yet finished Sydney Harbour Bridge and as she was moved at low tide, with a clearance of only five feet, this may well have been the case, as illustrated in this photo from the Argus, taken by Sam Hood (there are also copies of these pictures in the NSW State Records):

NARROW CLEARANCE. (1931, March 7). The Argus(Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1956), p. 17. Retrieved February 1, 2013, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article4376744

Once moved to Kerosene Bay it seems more likely that she was dismantled and sold off. Parts of many old ships were incorporated into wharves and used as pylons on waterfronts all over Australia. (3)

Sydney Morning Herald – February 8, 2008. In Column 8 – From Ric Havyatt, of Woolwich. “In 1930 she (Helen B) was moored off Point Piper, and several times my brothers and I rowed out to the ship and went aboard with the permission of the caretaker. The holds contained large river boulders as ballast, and plenty of rats. When the ship was finally broken up, two of its masts were erected on Middle Head to hold the transmitting aerial for radio station 2KY.

DISMANTLING THE HELEN B. STERLING. This picture, taken at 100 feet above the deck, shows workmen removing one of the topmasts. DISMANTLING THE HELEN B. STERLING. (1933, April 4). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), p. 12. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article16963097

She was further broken up and used as firewood. Elsewhere when this was the case in 1933, which was one of the worst year for people in Australia during the Depression, old ships and their wood were given to people in need during a cold winter:


FIREWOOD FROM OLD SCHOONER. (1933, June 20). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), p. 12. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article16968970

Her hulk stayed in then named Kerosene Bay until March 1934. It is not stated whether she was deliberately burnt, as Kerosene bay was a ‘graveyard’ for old ships where they were dismantled then burnt to the waterline, or whether this fire was an accident;

LAST OF OLD SAILING SHIP. (1934, March 26). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), p. 14. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article17065501

Kerosene Bay is now called Balls Head Bay: Balls Head Bay is a bay located to the east of the Waverton Peninsula and the west of Berry Island, on the north of Sydney Harbour. Previously known as Oyster Bay, Sugarworks Bay and previously Kerosene Bay. HMAS Waterhen is located within the bay. Ships were broken up and burnt to the waterline in the bay. Balls Head Bay. (2011, July 6). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Balls_Head_Bay&oldid=437963574

The other sad note to this story is that her Captain refused to leave her while she lay marooned in Sydney harbour and waited for two years for her to be repaired before relinquishing all hope and moving on:

FORMER MASTER OF HELEN B STERLING- News was received at Sydney yesterday that Captain H H Oosterhuis formerly master of the now abandoned six-masted schooner Helen B Sterling, had rejoined the United States four-masted schooner Sophie Christenson which he at one time commanded as navigating officer. The owner of the vessel Mr J E Shields of Seattle Is master With22 outboard motor boats on board the schooner has left for Alaska where she will remain through-out the cod fishing season Meanwhile the Helen B Sterling has been stripped, and the hulk lies in Berry's Bay. FORMER MASTER OF HELEN B. STERLING. (1933, June 8).The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), p. 13. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article16981281

Fortunately and thanks to Carl Gow, Club Palm Beach, Pittwater people and visitors can look at and touch this wheel from Maritime History and be in the presence of those who sailed in her and the times of prosperity that were cut short by the fiscal strangling the Great Depression was for so many sea-faring entrepreneurs.

Helen B Sterling references

1. Retrieved from: http://kiwitrevau2.tripod.com/id18.html
2. A Sterling day out with the family. HMB Endeavour website. Published Date : Wed, 29 Aug 2012 by  Nicole Cama
Curatorial assistant. Retrieved from http://endeavour.anmm.gov.au/Keep-Up-to-date/Ships-blog/5/2012_08_30_a-sterling-day-out-with-the-family
3. Dorothy H Sterling. The Schooner Dorothy H Sterling (and other ships associated with her) by Steve Reynolds. Marine Life Society of South Australia. June 2008 Newsletter. Retrieved from: http://www.mlssa.asn.au/cgi-bin/Publications.cgi?topic=nletters/MLSSA_NL_355_June_2008.htm&hash=1
4. Nicole Cama. Australian National Maritime Museum Blog. August 30, 2012. Retrieved from; http://anmm.wordpress.com/2012/08/30/a-sterling-day-out-with-the-family/

 Above: A schematic animated drawing of the workings of a traditional ship's wheel and tiller showing a series of pulleys and sheaves. Created by  and courtesy of KDS444 November 2012.

The steering gear of earlier ships sometimes consisted of a double wheel where each wheel was connected to the other with a wooden spindle that ran through a barrel or drum. The spindle was held up by two pedestals that rested on a wooden platform, often no more than a grate. A tiller rope orchain (sometimes called a steering rope or chain) ran around the barrel in five or six loops and then down through two tiller rope slots at the top of the platform before connecting to two sheaves just below deck (one on either side of the ship's wheel) and thence out to a pair of pulleys before coming back together at the tiller and therefore the ships rudder. Movement of the wheels (which were connected and moved simultaneously) caused the tiller rope to wind in one of two directions and shifted the tiller left or right. In a typical and intuitive arrangement, a helmsman turning the wheel counterclockwise would cause the tiller to move to starboard and therefore the rudder to swing to port causing the vessel to also turn to port (see animation). Ship's wheel. (2013, January 21). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Ship%27s_wheel&oldid=534097784

 Heleln B Stirling Wheel at Palm Beach RSL by A J Guesdon, 2013.