January 20 - 26, 2013: Issue 94

 The Forehead Mast of the SS Birubi at the Royal Motor Yacht Club – Broken Bay

A thousand guests have been invited to attend the ceremony of launching Newcastle's new pilot steamer Birubi, at the Government Dockyards, Walsh Island, tomorrow afternoon. The ceremony will be performed by Mrs. J. T. Lang, wife of the Premier. The new vessel, which, it is anticipated, will be put into commission in a few months, will take the place of the Ajax, which has been In the service for many years. The Premier will give a short address to the visitors and the employees of the dockyard.
PILOT STEAMER. (1927, August 19). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), p. 12. Retrieved from


Pilot ship "Birubi" bringing tanker, "Edith Borthen" into Newcastle Harbour, 25/6/1950, photo by Sam Hood, Pic No: hood_26146, courtesy State Librray of NSW

The pilot steamer Birubi, which was recently completed at the Government dockyard, Walsh Island, will replace the Ajax at Newcastle. Tomorrow the Birubi will leave Newcastle for Sydney, and will undergo trials at sea and on the harbour over the measured distances. Of 441 tons gross register, the new steamer is 130 feet IN length, and has a moulded breadth of 26 feet, and a depth of 10 feet 6 inches. The Birubi is constructed of steel, and has accommodation for two masters, two mates, two engineers, ten pilots, six firemen, ten seamen, and two cooks.
NEW PILOT STEAMER. (1927, November 29). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), p. 12. Retrieved from

Successful speed trials were-carried out by the new Newcastle pilot steamer Birubi  yesterday. Although the builders had guaranteed a maximum speed of 11 knots, the vessel, at one period attained a speed of 11.6 knots. The new" vessel was taken over a measured mile in the harbour at varying speeds. She then proceeded down the coast to Maroubra, where further trials were carried out. The State Navigation authorities stated that the Birubi had proved 'most satisfactory In all the tests. The pilot steamer sailed for Newcastle last night, where she will replace the Ajax. The Birubi is of 441 tons gross register,130 feet in length, with a moulded breadth of26 feet, and a depth of 10 feet 6 inches.
NEW PILOT STEAMER. (1927, December 2). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), p. 18. Retrieved from

In the grounds of the RMYC – Broken Bay at Newport is the Forehead Mast of the SS Buribi, a Pilot Boat that served Newcastle and Sydney harbour from 1927 to 1959. A forehead or fore-mast is the first mast or the mast fore of the main mast if a vessel ha two, three or more masts. A Mizzen mast is the third mast, or the mast immediately aft of the main-mast. These are usually shorter than the fore-mast.

Birubi Beach extends uninterrupted for 30 kilometres all the way to Newcastle and there is also a Birubi Point SLSC. The word ‘birubi’ meaning ‘Southern Cross’ comes from what is called the Awabakal Language and Peoples of Lake Macquarie, Newcastle and the Hunter Valley regions. (1.)

The mast now flies four Australian flags into the cardinal points of the compass.
On the Forehead Mast is the following:
S.S.BIRUBI ‘Southern Cross’
Newcastle Harbour Pilot Ship
IN service 1927 to 1959

Pilot Boats have existed for centuries, their duties being to transport ‘pilots’ between the shore and incoming ships. They were also used to guide larger vessels into harbour and served in search and rescue missions. They were built to withstand the worst weather and waves. 'Pilots' are experienced sailors who use their knowledge of local waters to guide large ships into and out of port. These vessels formed part of the NSW MARITIME Services Board, formed in 1936. Australia’s first Harbour Master was appointed in 1811 for Sydney Harbour, while other ports were overseen by the Department of Navigation which were responsible for navigation laws and pilotage service until centralisation of all ports in NSW.(2.)

It wasn’t long before the SS Birubi began her many rescue missions, some successful, some not:

At the end of the inquest on Alfriedo Badolati, the cook of the wrecked White Bay, the Newcastle District Coroner (Mr. Hibble) found yesterday morning that Badolati met his death on Juno 14 by drowning, through shipwreck.
"I have no doubt at all on the evidence," the Coroner said, "that the captain and crew of the Ill-fated White Bay put up a most courageous fight against the elements. For any man to be saved, in the circumstances, would seem almost impossible. Fate has favoured Ricupero, the one survivor. The White Bay was undoubtedly seen off the coast at Newcastle by the port authorities, and every-thing that humanly could have been done to succour It was done. The pilotboat Birubi put out, but with the tremendous sleet and haze that prevailed. Its vision was necessarily limited. After being compelled to return to port through damage received, the pilot boat bravely put out again, but the White Bay was nowhere to be seen."
WRECKED WHITE BAY. (1928, July 16). The Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 - 1954), p. 7. Retrieved from

PILOT BOAT TO ASSISTANCE WOMAN'S LIFE SAVED. Sydney, Monday. The Newcastle pilot steamer,Birubi, with medical assistance on board, arrived at Lord Howe Island yesterday morning, in time to save the life of Mrs Shicks, who was dangerously ill. An operation was performed three hours later, and the patient is now reported to too progressing favourably. PILOT BOAT TO ASSISTANCE. (1931, August 3). Singleton Argus (NSW : 1880 - 1954) , p. 1. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article81191466

SHIP SINKS NEAR NEWCASTLE Crew Leap Into Sea; Now Safe. DOOMED CHINA-BOUND SHIP-IN TOW SHORTLY BEFORE IT SANK: The 230-ton motor vessel Yua Hwa (on left) in tow yesterday  during her attempt to reach port. The ship sank five miles south of Newcastle. All of the crew were rescued. NEWCASTLE, Sunday.-The ship’s company of 13 had to jump overboard when a 230-ton wooden motor vessel, the Yua Hwa (formerly the Desikoko) sank five miles south of Newcastle early this afternoon while being towed to port. They were the 72-year-old English master, Captain James Baldwin, two Norwegian officers, and10 Chinese. Only Captain Baldwin was hurt. He is in Newcastle Hospital with a fractured knee-cap. The vessel left Sydney at 2 p.m. yesterday with a cargo of flour for China, but sprang a leak last night and began to take in much water. The Newcastle pilot boat Birubi took the Yua Hwa in tow about 1 p.m. to-day. However, after being towed for an hour the Yua Hwa suddenly listed and sank within two minutes. A lifeboat from the Birubi picked up the Yua Hwa's crew. SHIP SINKS NEAR NEWCASTLE. (1947, January 6). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), p. 1. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article18006639

Pilot ship saves 9 men. NEWCASTLE, Sat: The Newcastle pilot steamer, Birubi, put to sea at full speed today to rescue nine lifesavers swept a mile to sea from Nobby 's Beach by big waves. Men on surfboards and skis, a surfboat, and the Birubi, joined in the most dramatic rescue of the surfing season. The Birubi launched a boat as she pitched in a heavy ground swell, and picked up all nine men and brought them back to Newcastle Harbor. They had been in the shark-infested water for an hour and had been swept a long way to the south.  Pilot ship saves 9 men. (1954, January 9). The Mail (Adelaide, SA : 1912 - 1954), p. 10. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article58094771

Mud hopper and pilot, 10/7/1955 (in Newcastle Harbour). Taken for Newcastle Morning Herald. Pic No: hood_28131, courtesy State LIbrary of NSW.

Recognition of those who served on her putting themselves at peril:

It was announced yesterday that the committee of the Royal Shipwreck Relief and Humane Society of New South Wales had reconsidered the award made in respect of the bravery displayed by the boat's crew of the Newcastle pilot steamer Birubi in rescuing Messrs. L.P. and D.H. Jones from the  wreck of the yacht San Pan on Big Ben Reef, outside Newcastle breakwater, on April 18 last.
In May the committee decided to award a certificate of merit to Captain Scott Olsen, pilot and crew of the Birubi, the certificate to be hung in the wardroom of the vessel. However, yesterday, in view of additional evidence relating to the rescue, the committee  decided to award a silver medal and certificate of merit to each of the five members of the boat's crew. These men were: Captain Donald MacRae, pilot, in charge of the boat, and Messrs. William Young: Masson, William Rutherford. Alfred Ratcliffe, and John Bowen.

The Jones brothers' yacht was wrecked in a particularly dangerous locality, just outside the southern breakwater of Newcastle harbour, and the pilot steamer could not approach close enough to effect the rescue of the two men. Captain MacRae, the pilot aboard the Birubi, volunteered to take off in the boarding boat, and the other four men readily offered to accompany him. It was a very dark night, and the searchlight on the Birubi had to be used sparingly for fear of dazzling the crew of the boarding boat. Eventually, however, after a particularly hazardous experience, the boat's crew rescued the Jones brothers from the breakwater, and rowed back  to the Birubi. BRAVERY AWARDS. (1936, June 12). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), p. 16. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article17242333

She was requisitioned as an examination vessel in 1939 and painted grey, probably retaining her civilian crew - being used as an examination vessel as required, but released back to her former work on July 31, 1943. An examination vessel is a vessel used to inspect ships and boats entering a port during wartime.

As an example of how an examination service might operate, here is an account of the procedure that operated in 1917 in Sydney Harbour: (3.)
"At midnight on 7 August all traffic entering and leaving the harbour was placed under strict naval control with the inauguration of an examination service under Captain Pasco's port defense organisation, to guard against surprise attack by disguised armed merchant ship raiders. No incoming ship could approach beyond the line between Flat Point and Cranberry Head without first establishing its identity to a naval examination vessel. Because no steamer was available this had to be performed by motor launches. The examination personnel, if satisfied, would order the gate of the submarine net to be opened. Vessels wishing to leave port would have to notify the examination one day in advance and receive, confidentially, a time when the gate would be briefly opened. Vessels could not enter or leave during darkness or when the weather was thick. One of primary responsibilities of the coastal batteries at Cranberry Head and Fort Petrie was to be ready at all times to open fire, first with warning shots and then for effect, on instructions from the examination staff... [No vessels] could pass, in or out, without displaying certain prearranged signals, set from day to day by the naval authorities." 

Pre-1939: Examination vessel BIRUBI in her civilian pilot service livery off Newcastle NSW - Photo courtesy RAN Historical.

The Birubi was used as relieving pilot steamer on Sydney Harbour whenever the Pilot Boat Captain Cook III was in for a refit. Although the writer below will clearly miss her, she was always returned:

Newcastle's Pilot Boat.
Once ours was the port of all fair ships; the white-winged sailors tarried there awhile, and the horizon was criss-crossed by masts and yardarms. They are gone, but sometimes, when a white cloud sal is alone across the sky, it seems the ghost of a sailing ship floating eternally on azure seas

Still the ships from the far ports call, but behind them hovers a cloud of smoke. Nobby's, at the entrance to the harbour, has witnessed the transition from sail to steam, and has seen history enacted

And the guardian of the ships is Birubi, the pilot steamer. Thousands of people have stood on the breakwaters which stretch out like long teeth from the mouth of the harbour, and have watched Birubi hurry out, leaving along stream of smoke behind her, and, soon after some huge liner enters the breakwaters, lifting smoothly to the swell, to anchor in safety at the wharf

But Birubi's task is not always easy, she often has to show all her powers of endurance and her trustworthiness. Sometimes a steamer looms up, when mountainous seas fling themselves on the breakwater and the beach is covered with sea wrack. Her long low whistle is heard above the howling of the gale Birubi leaves her mooring and goes out, her smoke torn to shreds awash from stem to stern, now high on the crest of some mountainous wave then lost to sight in the trough. It seems that she is out a long time, but at length the steamer enters the break-waters and shortly after follows Birubi, the little nursemaid of the liners triumphant once more.

Birubi is certainly of the feminine sex. She flirts with the big steamers when blue skies are mirrored in sleeping seas, but what a gallant little lady she proves herself to be in time of stress and strain. They say we are going to lose Birubi, that she is going to Sydney. Well, she will have more scope there, and we hope the people will love her as we who knew her first have loved her.  "BIRUBI.". (1933, June 24). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), p. 9. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article16967607

The SS Birubi was sold in 1960 to private owners after being replaced by a motor pilot launch in 1959, reportedly for conversion as a luxury ocean going yacht. Some sources state she made a few cruises on Sydney Harbour before being broken up at Sydney in 1965, other forums state she was scuttled.

Given to the club by Commodore Allan G Leslie (Life Member 1970) under whose leadership of four years many successful projects of upgrading the RMYC at Newport were undertaken, including reclaiming the foreshore, remodelling the swimming pool and building a 300 space carpark, the mast was erected to commemorate the opening of the new area between the seawalls and the clubhouse on the 8th of July, 1967.

This piece of our Maritime Heritage, all the stories of her service and a respectful nod to those who served in her, has been retained by this gentleman’s actions and bequest. Next time you are strolling between this great club and her foreshores perhaps you may glance towards this mast and all it represents.


SS Birubi Forehead Mast Pictures by and courtesy of Sally Bacon, RMYC – Broken Bay. Photo of Cmdr. A Leslie and wife Bess and of reclaiming land works from RMYC History Book, courtesy RMYC - Broken Bay.


1. “Awaba” is the Aboriginal name for Lake Macquarie, a large coastal saltwater lake which lies between the Pacific Ocean and the Watagan Mountains of New South Wales. The lake is about 100 km north of the city of  Sydney and 20 km south of the city of Newcastle. The Aboriginal people who lived in the Hunter Valley and Lake Macquarie (HVLM) region spoke a distinctive language which is generally called “Awabakal.” However, this word was invented by John Fraser, who edited the linguistic work of Lancelot Threlkeld for publication in 1892. Retrieved from: http://www.newcastle.edu.au/school/hss/research/publications/awaba/

2. History Maritime Board in NSW. Retrieved from http://www.maritime.nsw.gov.au/about/history.html

3. Brian Douglas Tennyson, Roger Sarty. Guardian of the Gulf: Sydney, Cape Breton, and the Atlantic Wars University of Toronto Press Incorporated. 2000.

Read more about an October 2012 Irish Pilot Vessel being put through her paces, with great pictures, at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2212750/White-knuckle-moment-pilot-boat-tilted-60-degree-angle-hit-35ft-wave.html#ixzz2IPOfPN8s

 Pre-1939: Another view of the pilot boat BIRUBI which doubled as a WWII naval examination vessel - courtesy RAN Historical.

Incidental Harbour Kiss

Shortly after entering Newcastle Harbour today the steamer Mungana touched the buoy which marks the moorings of the pilotFix this text
steamer Birubi. The Birubi slipped the buoy,and no noticeable damage was done.
STEAMER STRIKES BUOY. (1935, February 6). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), p. 17. Retrieved from

The SS MUNGANA 3351 gross tons was also built at Walsh Island Newcastle in the State Dockyard for the Australian Government's Commonwealth Government line as the Eurelia. Sold 1926 to AUSN Co renamed Mungana. Served WW2. Sold January 1951 for scrapping purposes and duly scrapped at Hong Kong.

SS Mungana picture courtesy State Library of Victoria

Anecdote from one who served on her

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