byTom de Voil, Nicholson VICDuchess%20at%20sea%20with%20Sydney

I was MEO of HMAS Duchess in 1972 and we were secured alongside in the Stores Basin in Singapore when it was similarly busy.  We decided to hold an Engineering Departmental banyan on Seletar Island that Saturday afternoon.  Seletar Island was an uninhabited island in Johore Strait a few kilometres east of the Naval Base, near RAF Seletar Base – a strip of sand with a few palm trees and a couple of basic structures.

We successfully ferried all the troops, victuals and BBQ using the ship’s tinny to the island.  It was a pleasant afternoon and as evening approached we started ferrying people and goods back.  On the second last trip the Chief Tiff took charge saying he would return for us in a few minutes.  There were about four of us who could not fit into the previous trip.

We waited, and waited and waited!

Finally, we hailed a passing canoe – one of those with a powerful engine on one end of a long boom balanced by the propeller on the other.  We sped off towards the Naval Base and soon, silhouetted by the setting sun we spied our tinny.  Ahead of it was a small blob in the water.  As we drew closer we were able to discern the head of our Chief Tiff, swimming towards shore with the boat’s painter in his mouth.  We pulled alongside, all piled in and found out that the outboard had jumped off the transom.  It was too heavy for him to recover.  We pulled up the floor boards and started paddling for home.

As we entered the Stores Basin “Sunset” was piped!  It seemed as if the eyes of every ship’s OOD and Bosun’s Mate were fixed on us (they probably were) and we had nowhere to hide.  So ended the Banyan.


The 1965 HMAS Yarra Mysterious Diver Incident

By Hector Donohue

The following description of a little known incident onboard Yarra during Confrontation is taken from the recently published book ‘United and Undaunted – the First 100 Years’, a history of Diving in the RAN 1911 – 2011, by EW Linton and HJ Donohue.

The Indonesia – Malaysia Confrontation (Konfrontasi) was fought from 1962 to 1966 between the British Commonwealth and Indonesia. Under President Sukarno, Indonesia sought to prevent the creation of the new Federation of Malaysia that emerged in 1963, whilst the British Commonwealth sought to safeguard the security of the new state. The conflict raged for more than two years along the borders between the two countries from Sebatik Island off the east coast of Sabah to Penang in the Malacca Strait. From Tanjong Datu at the western extremity of Sarawak to the Indian Ocean, this border was delineated on the sea.

Although Malaysia was a sovereign state, it was only months old at the time the Indonesians launched their attacks by land sea and air.  Since Britain, Australia and New Zealand had defence agreements with the new federation, and had established bases in both Malaya and Singapore, it was the British who provided the leadership and a significant proportion of the forces engaged in repelling the Indonesians. Australia also played its part, with the air base at RAAF Butterworth near Penang providing air defence and maritime surveillance and the Australian infantry battalion and SAS troop at Camp Terendak near Malacca eventually committed to the land fighting in Borneo. But from Day One it was the ships and men of the RAN who were in the front line. Naval commitments included the destroyers and frigates assigned to the Far East Strategic Reserve, visits by the carrier HMAS Melbourne and HMAS Sydney on trooping voyages, but the major patrol and surveillance load fell on the small ships of the 16th Minesweeping Squadron.


The combined headquarters for Confrontation were established in Singapore, and command was delegated for all forces to the British Commander-in-Chief Far East.  All RN, RAN and RNZN ships and personnel were under the operational command of the Commander Far East Fleet (COMFEF), with his headquarters in the extensive naval base on the northern coast of Singapore Island, reached via the Johore Strait. At one point, COMFEF had more than 80 ships under his command, ranging from aircraft carriers to patrol boats and submarines.

The comparative ease with which Indonesian infiltrators could, potentially, enter Singapore across the narrow Singapore Strait from the Indonesian Riau Archipelago, together with the existence of active anti-British and anti-Malaysian elements in the city, meant that the threat of attack on ships in the Naval Base and those moored in Johore Strait was commensurately high. While the landward approaches were secured and the water boundaries patrolled, assault by underwater swimmer was always possible. Under these circumstances, Commonwealth ships took precautionary measures – Operation Awkward, and the RAN deployed for the first time its Mobile Clearance Diving Team (MCDT) to Singapore.

Generally there was at least one clearance diver onboard each of the major fleet units deployed to Southeast Asia during the period. While the ships divers could undertake ships bottom searches, the CD was there to deal with anything found and provide experienced diving support. The RAN MCDT embarked in HMAS Melbourne in February 1965 to join with the RN’s Far East Diving Team, to assist in providing a ready reaction diving capability which might be required from RN or RAN units operating in the region.

On arrival, the integration of the RAN team with the British was accomplished quickly and with little difficulty, as both used similar methods and techniques. Located in the Naval Base, the combined group formed two teams to operate as directed by COMFEF. Principally, they maintained the capability of responding to underwater incidents in the vicinity of the base which were beyond the capabilities and experience of ships’ divers, such as the discovery of ordnance attached to hulls.

There was, however, a more serious incident in the frigate HMAS Yarra on the night of 4 June 1965 whilst berthed in the Stores Basin at the Naval Base. It was described as ‘the extraordinary affair of the missing diver’ in the frigate’s Report of Proceedings for that month. At the time Captain B H Loxton was in command with Lieutenant Commander J H Snow, the Executive Officer.

Yarra 3B

HMAS Yarra

Yarra had closed up in modified Awkward State 3 at 1800 in accordance with the current practice and around 2100 the after sentry sighted bubbles aft. He reported to the Officer of the Day and a check was made of all underwater discharges which found that the bubbles did not emanate from the ship, and it was concluded the bubbles were from a diver using compressed air breathing apparatus. (Later that night a trial was carried out with a ships diver producing exactly the same effect.) At 2115, the forward sentry saw bubbles abreast the bridge. Grenades and scare charges were dropped at each of the forward and after areas and the bubbles ceased. The ship went to the highest state of watertight integrity and ships divers conducted a bottom search, but nothing was found.

The next morning the ship’s divers conducted a follow-up bottom search and on completion, two of the ships divers, EM C S Harkennes and ORD QMG D M Bowman, were instructed to carry out a sweep of the sea bed under the ship. At 0720 they surfaced and reported sighting the body of a diver dressed conventionally in a diving suit, face mask and underwater breathing apparatus. The body was resting on the bottom in a crouched-over position. No sign of life was evident. Bowman later said he thought there might have been a large explosive charge in the vicinity of the body. The ship then prepared to move with the aid of a tug.  Some 20 minutes later divers re-entered the water in an effort to re-locate the body, but the tug closed the ship stirring up the water, and nothing was found.

The Royal Navy’s Far East Fleet Clearance Diving Team then took over the task. Despite three hours of searching they encountered nothing unusual. In the absence of anything being found, it was decided not to move the ship. One explanation for the absence of the body was the possibility that it had been propelled from under the ship into the Johor Strait after a tug sent to assist the relocation of Yarra used a ‘large amount of engine power’ in the adjacent water.

Meanwhile, both of the divers who had seen the body were closely questioned by the Diving Officer (Sub Lieutenant Don Chalmers) to confirm their initial report. Harkennes’s observations of the body over 90 seconds from about a metre away included a full description of the foreign diver’s dress and equipment. When asked was he certain he saw a dead human with diving gear he responded:

I am sure I saw a person with diving gear on; whether he was lying ‘doggo’ or dead I’m not certain, but it was definitely a human being. I came to the conclusion that he was dead because there was absolutely no movement and no bubbles.

Yarra in its signalled report immediately after the incident concluded that ‘After intensive investigation of my divers I consider they sighted a diver beneath Yarra and that diver was not of friendly origin’. Following a review of Yarra’s report on the incident in Navy Office, Commander MS Batterham (the RAN’s then diving expert) concluded that there was little doubt that the body of a diver was indeed sighted and in addition to the description of the equipment, the body in a sitting position fits with a still unexplained phenomena that in most underwater deaths the corpse assumes this rather lifelike attitude.

Intelligence advice issued in October 1964 included the warning: ‘It is known that an underwater sabotage frogman threat exists and that the Indonesians may demonstrate their capability shortly’. Thereafter the threat of underwater attack was considered to be real and preventative measures were taken seriously. From all the evidence available and particularly the statements from the divers, it would appear that there had been a diver under Yarra that evening, but in the absence of a body the identity could not be established. Needless to say, the two divers were unsettled by their experience.

Stamp out Polygraphs

Stamp out polygraphs

CBS reporter Dianne Sawyer (left) easily beat this “lie detector” test on live TV after minimal training.

“Polygraph testing for national security screening is little more than junk science, with results so inaccurate that they tend to be counterproductive,” said a long-awaited report released 8 October 2002 by the prestigious American National Academy of Sciences.

“I don’t think federal agencies stop and ask themselves how many spies we have caught with this, because the answer is ‘none’, or how many people have been unfairly denied employment, because the answer is ‘many’,” said Steven Aftergood, an intelligence analyst with the Federation of American Scientists, according to Charles Piller, a reporter with the Los Angeles Times, 9 October 2002, p1.

“Unigraph” precursor, scientific distrust

Since 1923 the “unigraph”, a precursor of today’s “polygraph” that recorded only cardiovascular responses, has been under legal scrutiny (Frye v. United States, 1923 – U.S. Court of Appeals of District of Columbia). That ruling stated that before unigraph evidence could be introduced, its validity would have to be accepted by the scientific community. No worthwhile scientific study has ever justified the process for either the unigraph or polygraph. There have been a number of subsequent legal rulings confirming the 1923 finding.

The polygraph, developed originally by behavioural psychologists for phobia interventions, records not only heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rates, but also “galvanic skin responses” through electrical resistance changes due to sweat gland activity. These easily-measured signs of autonomic nervous system arousal frequently accompany the anxiety generated by lying. Unfortunately, when used as a “truth detector” the machine is easily deceived. The machine has lead to many people being falsely accused of criminal behaviour and others being falsely cleared.

A laptop computer digital version “lie detector”.

Behavioural psychologists, the scientists most familiar with all aspects of polygraph testing, have expressed a longstanding distrust of the polygraph as it is used by “forensic experts”. They almost universally condemn the machine as a “lie detector”. Reports supporting its usefulness in detecting lies tend to be written by researchers not known for their scientific rigour or by those who couch their “proof” in rubbery language.

The United States Supreme Court, in a 1998 ruling, (Supreme Court of the United States – No. 96-1133 – U.S. vs Edward G Scheffer – Decision March 31, 1998) reaffirmed that polygraph evidence should not be admissible in court cases because:

The contentions of respondent and the dissent not withstanding, there is simply no consensus that polygraph evidence is reliable. To this day, the scientific community remains extremely polarized about the reliability of polygraph techniques. Some studies have concluded that polygraph tests overall are accurate and reliable. See, e.g., S. Abrams, The Complete Polygraph Handbook 190-191, 1968; reporting the overall accuracy rate from laboratory studies involving the common “control question technique” polygraph to be “in the range of 87 per cent”. Others have found that polygraph tests assess truthfulness significantly less accurately – that scientific field studies suggest the accuracy rate of the “control question technique” polygraph is “little better than could be obtained by the toss of a coin,” that is, 50 per cent.

Now, the highly respected National Academy of Sciences has completed an exhaustive 19-month study. It concluded that the machine is useless as a lie detector because it encourages both positive and negative unfair conclusions.

polygraph readout
A typical “lie detector” readout.

Still, the machine remains in use by a number of American and Australian government agencies, including Defence, who should know better. It can be easily beaten. Dr Karl Kruszelnicki (2002) says people can be trained to beat the machine. A drawing pin in a shoe or a pre-test tranquilliser, such as Valium, can confound results. Dianne Sawyer, a highly respected American CBS reporter, was quickly trained by a prominent polygrapher to lie with impunity when hooked up to the machine.

“I took the test, using the ‘Sting’ technique, lied about everything including my name, and the polygrapher told me I was the most honest person he had ever tested,” she said.

For the same program, CBS randomly hired four polygraphers to examine four randomly-chosen staff about a theft crime that had never been committed. All four polygraphers picked different “guilty parties”, finding truthful people liars. This strongly supports the assertion that polygraph testing is biased against truthful people.

Aldrich Ames

The Aldrich Ames case is another serious and convincing example of how polygraph machines and their operators can be deceived. Ames was a senior American CIA agent who also spied for the Soviets. He had been trained by the Soviets in techniques to confound the machine. Like habitual liars and sociopaths, he was highly successful, recording 100 per cent “truthful” responses to incriminating questions in CIA-conducted polygraph tests. He was unmasked, not by polygraph testing, but by two female fellow employees playing a simple “dumb blonde” routine.

There was speculation that had the FBI conducted the Aldrich Ames examination, the outcome would have been different. Physiologist Dr R.C. Richardson, an FBI polygraph researcher, flatly contradicted this position in surprising testimony before a Senate committee in 1997:

I think a careful examination of the Aldrich Ames case will reveal that any shortcomings in the use of the polygraph were not simply errors on the part of the polygraph examiners involved, and would not have been eliminated if FBI instead of CIA polygraphers had conducted these examinations. Instead I believe this is largely a reflection of the complete lack of validity of this methodology.

Washington Times

Five years later, Richardson went on to say, in the Washington Times, on 17 October 2002, following the Academy of Sciences report:

Recently, the National Academy of Sciences issued a landmark report regarding the use of polygraphy by various federal agencies. Although many issues were explored and several conclusions were drawn, none was more important than the finding that polygraph screening is completely invalid as a diagnostic instrument for determining truth regarding counter-terrorism, counter-espionage, past activities of job applicants and other important issues currently so assessed by our various federal, state and local governments…various panel members (stated) very clearly and emphatically that no spy had ever been caught as a result of polygraphy, none would ever be expected to be so revealed, and that although a precise figure cannot be assigned to the number of false-positive results, large numbers of the tens of thousands of people subjected yearly to this sort of “testing” are likely being falsely accused about their backgrounds and activities.

The jury is in and the evidence is clear and compelling—Spies such as Aldrich Ames and Ana Montes have been allowed to continue spying, in a large part due to the false confidence placed in polygraph exams having been passed by these individuals. It has been demonstrated clearly over the years: not only is polygraph screening not a solution for the problems encountered by those entrusted with protecting the national security, but it is, in fact, a real threat itself to the national security and the reputations of our citizens.

There is also equally compelling evidence that totally innocent parties incriminate themselves because of nervousness and intimidation associated with the machine.

There seems little justification, nowadays, for anyone to place any trust in any polygraph machine or polygraph operator to detect either lies or truth. It is the environment and the machine itself that creates anxiety in naive subjects, eliciting false random bodily responses to emotionally laden questions. Highly trained professional liars, such as spies, manipulate the machine with impunity. It is tragic that thousands of people have been falsely denied employment on the sole evidence of a polygraph machine.


Abrams, S. The complete polygraph handbook. Lexington Books: Lanham, 1989.
Kruszelnicki, K. The lie about lies. Sydney Morning Herald, Weekender 2.11.2002 p11.
Maschke, G. W. and G.J.Scalabrini The lie behind the lie detector. Antipolygraph.org.
Richardson, R.C. Washington Times 17 October 2002.


Bantry Bay Gigs

Bantry Bay gigs

As a followup to Bantry, the unknown invasion (Newsletter 65, June 2006 pp 24-27) Tom de Voil learned “quite by accident” at a local Rotary Club meeting about an exciting modern twist to the original story. Two apprentice Gippsland Lakes shipwrights participated in the 2006 Atlantic Challenge, sailing Bantry Bay gigs, last July in Genoa, Italy.

The apprentices addressed Tom’s Rotary Club and they aim to build a Bantry Bay gig in Australia for the 2008 Atlantic Challenge. The local Bairnsdale Advertiser also featured an article, on 16 June 2006, about the apprentices and the pulling/sailing boats that are enjoying increasing worldwide popularity.

Bantry Bay gig
A Bantry Bay Gig under sail, with the crew on the rail.

The gigs have become popular with boating enthusiasts in recent years, since one from France and another from the USA engaged in a contest near the Statue of Liberty in 1986, during the statue’s refurbishment celebrations. The contest has grown and is repeated every two years in varying countries, under the auspices of the Atlantic Challenge.The gig fleet has grown rapidly to about 55 in 12 countries, including Canada, Russia and Indonesia. The Challenge accent is on youth training, with participation concentrated on those between 16 and 22 years of age.

French 1796 invasion

The French built the first Bantry Bay gig in Brest over 200 years ago as an admiral’s barge and it is probably the oldest surviving French Navy vessel. The British captured it during their aborted 1796 invasion. After conservation work in Liverpool that boat now rests in the National Maritime Museum in Dun Laoghaire, near Dublin. Its carvel-planked hull is 11.6 x 2 x 0.35 metres (38.17 x 6.75 x 1.17 feet) and it is designed to mount up to ten oars and three masts.

Fleet scattered, commanders return

During the attempted 1796 Bantry Bay invasion, a series of storms scattered the French fleet of 44 ships during their passage from Brest to Ireland. The nominated Army and Navy commanders, in the storm-damaged 74-gun frigate Fraternitê, never caught up. Then, just before the subordinate commanders were due to execute a reduced force landing, another severe storm drove many invasion fleet ships miles out to sea and severely damaged others. The French La Surveillante, was so badly damaged that she was scuttled in Bantry Bay before the storm-battered invasion fleet limped back to Brest.

The captured gig came from a ship called La Resolue, damaged after a collision with Redoutable during the evening of 22 December 1796. Standing off Bantry Bay, La Resolue despatched her longboat, commanded by a Lieutenant Proteau, to locate the Immortalite and request a tow. Instead, the storm drove the longboat ashore on Bere Island near the Bay’s mouth and its crew surrendered to the British.

Pulling into wind, sails stowed.

Like the shorter, beamier and heavier RN/RAN 32-foot cutter, the Bantry Bay gig can be propelled by oars or sail and the gig has pulling thwarts for ten of its normal full crew of 13. Its three comparatively light masts and small sails allow the vessel to be rigged and de-rigged under way. The 38-foot hull has fine lines and is claimed to be capable of six knots under oars in calm water and 10 knots under sail. However, without a proper sailing keel like modern yachts, considerable leeway is made when tacking into the wind. Generally, it is better to drop the masts and use the oars to make ground upwind.

No original sailing rig exists, but modern gigs have standardised on three masts and three dipping lug sails, very similar to those of that historic era. The dipping lug rig means that the yards must be lowered and dipped to the other side when tacking, an evolution that requires considerable teamwork and training, especially in an open boat like the gig. The halyard is then secured to the weather rail to act as a shroud but it is never cleated. Instead, it is dory-hitched with a bight held taut by a crew member. The sheets of the loose-footed sails are always in hand, ready to be eased in a gust.

Sailing the gigs requires skill and fine teamwork. The narrow beam and low freeboard requires constant awareness. When trimmed for maximum speed, any decent gust quickly dips the lee rail under water.


When tacking, the entire crew must work together swiftly and without error. As they dip the main and mizzen yards, the foresail might be backed and the crew might rig a tacking oar to help turn the boat against the resistance of its long keel. Sailing a triangular course, the crew might alternate between rowing and sailing a number of times. All this teamwork makes the Bantry Bay gig a valuable training vessel for young people. It nurtures responsibility and leadership. In two countries at least, the craft has been used as an expedition vessel, with crew members eating and sleeping aboard.

In recent Atlantic Challenges marks have been awarded for skills in pulling, recovering a man overboard, negotiating a slalom, combined sailing and pulling, executing a jackstay transfer, performing a practical challenge, handling as a captain’s gig, ropework, towing and an esprit phase.

Two-mile course

The pulling race typically runs over a two mile course. In the man overboard competition, the craft are under sail then, at a signal, the helmsman jumps overboard. The remaining crew recover this person and finish the race. In the slalom, rudderless boats negotiate a 10-buoy course, leaving them alternately to port and starboard. Penalties accrue if an oar blade or other part of the boat touches a buoy. In the sail and oar race, boats sail twice around a triangular course, with crews rowing upwind and sailing the other legs.

In the jackstay transfer, the boat anchors off a lee shore, veering cable until about 10 metres from the shore. Crewmembers set up a jackstay through a block on the main mast and pass a line ashore. They aim to transfer a heavy bag aboard without it getting wet. The crew then unrig the mast, weigh anchor and race to the finish line.

In the practical challenge, the crew might be tasked with anything to test their problem solving skills. In the towing race, boats are paired as each crew in turn tows the other boat under both oars upwind and sail downwind.

A captain’s gig comes alongside.

Other parts of the competition include evaluating the crew’s performance when handling the boat as a captain’s gig and testing the crew’s ropework skills. Finally, there is an esprit phase when the coxswain and two mast captains are retained, but the rest of a 14-man crew is made up of a mix of crew members of other boats and nations.

Clearly, something positive has arisen from the 1796 Bantry Bay invasion shambles. The Atlantic Challenge group has been highly successful in encouraging the building of Bantry Bay gigs across the world. Its biennial competition in different countries fosters seamanship and other skills of the highest order.