Coonawarra prepares for cyclone season

This article has photo gallery Published on LEUT Todd Fitzgerald (author), LSIS James Whittle (photographer)

Location(s): HMAS Coonawarra

Topic(s): HMAS Coonawarra

Commanding Officer of HMAS Coonawarra, Commander Viktor Pilicic, RAN, (right) collects rubbish with Seaman Gap Year Courtney Goode during a pre-cyclone season clean-up day. (photo: LSIS James Whittle)
Commanding Officer of HMAS Coonawarra, Commander Viktor Pilicic, RAN, (right) collects rubbish with Seaman Gap Year Courtney Goode during a pre-cyclone season clean-up day.
The Royal Australian Navy in Darwin knows too well the devastation of a cyclone. In the early hours of Christmas Day in 1974, Cyclone Tracy ripped HMAS Arrow from her mooring in Darwin Harbour and dashed the patrol boat against Stokes Hill Wharf. Two sailors were killed.
The memory of that event continues to ensure all hands are on deck at HMAS Coonawarra for the annual cyclone season clean-up day.
This year a large team of officers and sailors worked side-by-side to batten down the hatches on whatever could be secured and remove whatever could not.
Commanding Officer Coonawarra, Commander Viktor Pilicic said the clean-up ensured the base was prepared for a cyclone and could remain focused on its primary role of supporting Australia’s border integrity operations.
“Cyclones are a part of life in the top end but their damage can be mitigated through careful planning and preparation,” Commander Pilicic said.
“Maintaining tidy areas ensures that loose materials do not become lethal missiles during strong winds.”
Coonawarra makes a number of preparations for cyclone season, which runs from 1 November  to 30 April in the Top End. Cyclone stores and rations are pre-positioned around the base and a cyclone plan is written and rehearsed. Personnel working or living on base are kept informed of an impending cyclone or emergency via text messages.
Coonawarra also has a ship lifting system to raise its patrol boats out of the water and secure them on land in the event of a cyclone. An alternative option is for the vessels to sail outside the reach of the cyclone.
It is a comprehensive plan, and with good reason.
In 1974, Cyclone Tracy struck Darwin. Winds of up to 217 kilometres per hour and waves the length of Bondi Beach ripped Arrow off her mooring and dashed her against the wharf.
The Commanding Officer Arrow during the cyclone was the now retired Navy Captain, Bob Dagworthy.
On a recent trip to Darwin, Mr Dagworthy said that Tracy was like nothing he had ever experienced in his entire naval career.
“During the blow our anchor and cabling, which secured us to the buoy, was ripped out of the deck of the Arrow leaving us at the mercy of the mountainous seas and Tracy’s full fury,” he said.
“I tried to steer a course to the mangroves but we were forced down on to the corner of Stokes Hill wharf at which point I gave the order to abandon ship.
“The crew worked together to try and get everyone on to the wharf. Every time the bridge of the ship rose up on a wave above the wharf sailors jumped on to the wharf. Sadly as we were getting to the last of the crew a sailor mistimed his leap and fell between the boat and the wharf and was crushed.
“One of my Petty Officers who was on the wharf also lost his life when he was hit by flying debris. By the time I came to leave the ship we had taken on so much water, and the boat was sinking, so I had to jump into the raging sea. They found me the next day washed up on the mud flats below Darwin.”
On average, there are 10 to 13 tropical cyclones each season in the Australian region, four of which typically cross the coast, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.