Captain George Bain Johnston Part 8 - What was it like to enter the River Murray through the Mouth?

Through the Murray Mouth - By An Excursionist

Being recently staying at Port Elliot for awhile, endeavouring to gain fresh strength from the invigorating health-bestowing sea breezes, I heard that Captain Johnston, the well-known navigator of the Murray mouth, had brought his steamer to Port Victor, would in the course of a few hours, probably leave for Goolwa, I accordingly went hither by tram, and found that Capt. Johnston had just got rid of his Port Victor cargo; but there being so heavy a sea running on the outside, had almost made up his mind to moor his steamer where she lay until Monday. However about noon there were some indications of a falling sea, and as the wind would have been favourable for returning to Port Victor if it had been unsafe to essay a passage through the mouth, Capt. Johnston decided to reconnoitre, and several gentlemen being introduced to him as anxious to make the trip, he kindly invited them to accompany him. The anchor having been hove up, the steamer made good way across the somewhat heavy sea, which was setting in, and which caused the vessel to roll considerably. As the wind was dead ahead, no canvas could be set to steady her, so that it was well the visitors had got their sea-legs aboard. We left Victor at about 12.25, and shortly before 2.00 entered the broken waters which mark the narrow channel through which the Australian Mississippi empties itself into the Pacific Ocean.

Even a stranger could not fail to be at once favourably impressed with the coolness and nerve displayed by Capt. Johnston. His vessel [which is a flat bottomed screw steamer] drew six feet eight inches aft, and six feet foreward. The minimum depth on the bar was signalled at 9-1/2feet so the gallant skipper [and owner] determined to essay the passage. As the broken seething waters were neared, every man took his accustomed place, ready for any and every emergency which might arise. Capt. Johnston, who had been steering for some little time past, now threw off his coat; men were stationed to assist in clearing the tiller chains; others were stationed with preventative tackle to the rudder, so that in case the rudder chains parted the vessel would be under steerage; and now having gone some little distance to windward of the mouth, the staysail was run up, and the vessel’s prow turned in the direction of the seething mass of waters which marks the shifting bar that renders the passage so difficult. Soon we were in the turbulent waters, which broke about the gallant vessel, threatening to spin her around like a teetotem; but through man’s energy, skill and courage she successfully stemmed the dangerous passage. One of the crew stood at the starboard fore-rigging taking soundings as the steamer crossed the bar, and whilst at times he was able to cry “thirteen feet”, on several occasions it was but nine and a half. The work of crossing the bar was but of a few minutes duration measured by ordinary horology, but I can well believe the Captain, that to him these minutes appeared greatly prolonged, the scene was one that I shall never forget. Captain Johnston says he has seldom seen a heavier sea at the mouth than on this occasion, and as a very rapid current was running outwards from the river, it will be readily understood that the sea was literally made up of broken waters.

The actual passage is extremely narrow, and strange to say the river runs parallel to the coast for some distance, so that almost immediately after entering on the smooth though rapid waters of the river at the estuary, the vessel has to steer a course at right angles with that pursued at the entrance – the river on the one hand being the Murray, that on the other the Coorong.

One thing that strongly impressed me during the critical moments in which the Queen of the South made her way from the briny waters of the ocean to the fresh waters of the river, was the extreme coolness of Capt. Johnston, and the perfect discipline of the crew. There was no bluster on his part, no fussiness on theirs. A stranger shutting his eyes might have supposed there was no risk, where as a matter of fact the least error of judgement or untoward breakage would have involved Capt. Johnston in comparative ruin - the loss of his vessel and a valuable cargo. I am informed that the Queen of the South [which was built under Capt. Johnston’s supervision expressly for this work, and by him, brought out from home] has made about 100 successful trips through the mouth, and I hope she will make many more. It is a matter of national regret that this our only important river should be practically inaccessible, for if its mouth could be so improved as to render it comparatively easy to access and egress there can be no doubt that would be the natural course for the river traffic to take; direct water carriage being always the cheapest.

As soon as we were safe on the placid waters of the Murray, shortly after 2.00 o’clock, the Captain invited us to take lunch with him, he being now at liberty to attend to the wants of the inner man. On returning to the steamer’s bridge we found ourselves rapidly approaching Goolwa, which is situated about 8 miles from the mouth of the Murray, where I found several steamers laid up, one of which [the Cadell, a paddle steamer] had come safely through the mouth the previous week. But it is generally admitted that Capt. Johnston is the navigator of these troubled waters, and the popular reliance in his skill appears to be well warranted. A few minutes after three o’clock the steamer was safely moored to the wharf, thus adding another to the many successful trips she has made.

Kapunda Herald (SA) Fri 9 May 1879 p3

Photograph from