A mystery in a bottle returned

Published on Department of Defence (author)

Location(s): (Former) Todd Shipyard, Seattle

Topic(s): HMAS Sydney (IV)

Commodore Peter Leavy, the Naval Attache in Washington and a former Commanding Officer of Sydney IV took the opportunity of being in Seattle to present a certificate of appreciation, to former members of Todd Shipyards at a  group to dinner. (photo: Unknown)
Commodore Peter Leavy, the Naval Attache in Washington and a former Commanding Officer of Sydney IV took the opportunity of being in Seattle to present a certificate of appreciation, to former members of Todd Shipyards at a group to dinner.

The HMAS Sydney IV whisky retrieval story has added a new chapter, with an Australian Navy memento being presented to members of the ship’s American build team.

Sydney is one of the most famous ship names in the Royal Australian Navy with ships of the name having served with distinction in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf. Sydney IV was built by the Todd Shipyard in Seattle in the United States and commissioned in 1983. After an illustrious career serving the nation she was decommissioned in 2015 and is in the process of being scrapped in Western Australia. 

Shipbuilders the world over take great pride in the ships they produce and the team at Todd Shipyards are no exception. Unbeknownst to the Australian Navy, when the main mast of the ship was assembled in 1982 a group of workers, led by Alex Otero, placed a bottle of Canadian Whisky and a silver dollar inside the mast, hoping to bring the ship good luck. It worked. During her 32 years in commission Sydney completed two global circumnavigations as well as serving in operational theatres and training hundreds of officers and sailors.

Upon decommissioning, Mr Otera saw a chance post about the ship’s scrapping on social media. He quickly arranged for the story of the bottle to be passed to Birdon Pty Ltd, the company engaged to  scrap the ship in Henderson. The Birdon workers carefully cut the mast and 35 years after it was placed there, the bottle of whisky was safely retrieved. Given the extremes of temperature, sea state and weather the ship experienced over the years it is a credit to the workers who initially secured the glass bottle in place that it survived intact.

Given the history of the name and the unique nature of the gift from Todd Shipyards, the bottle was formally handed to the Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Tim Barrett, for safekeeping and now resides in the Navy’s heritage collection. By way of thanks, Vice Admiral Barrett arranged for the presentation of a framed certificate of appreciation along with a bottle of Bundaberg Rum to Mr Otero and his co-workers. Commodore Peter Leavy, the Naval Attache in Washington and a former Commanding Officer of Sydney IV recently took the opportunity of being in Seattle to present the certificate and host the group to dinner.

“HMAS Sydney has always had a great name and been a very happy ship,” Commodore Leavy said. 

“By all accounts her predecessors were the same with all four ships to bear the name serving Australia extremely well from the First World War until today.

“As a former Commanding Officer, and one – among many I hasten to add - who inadvertently took whisky into many ports without declaring it, I found this chapter of Sydney’s life to be a fantastic story and was very proud to be able to represent the Chief of Navy in repaying the workers.”

The function in Seattle brought together eight former Todd Shipyard workers who worked on Sydney, most of whom are now retired. 

“It was great to see that the bonds between workers at Todd Shipyards were just as strong as those between sailors,” Commodore Leavy said.

“They were all extremely proud of the work they did and there was plenty of reminiscing going on as many of them had not seen each other in years.

“It was just like a group of sailors talking about their deployments 20 years ago.”

Navies the world over are by nature very superstitious. They also share many of the same traditions and ceremonies. We will never know just how much luck the bottle and silver dollar provided to HMAS Sydney, but it is safe to say that it did no harm.