the shipbreakers planned to tow the hull to the Adelaide suburb of Ethelton to be torn apart by the unemployed for firewood. The hull would not fit through Jervois Bridge, however, and it was towed to the North Arm of the Port Adelaide River to be abandoned in the Garden Island Ships’ Graveyard, where the skeleton of its hull remains to this day, a relic of the past. A similar fate befell its sister schooner, Helen B Sterling (the former Oregon Fir). In January 1927, Captain Sterling purchased the vessel and, as with Dorothy H Sterling, it made only one voyage under his name, carrying more than two million feet of lumber to Australia. Sterling was forced to sell the schooner to Mr W S Payne of the Pacific Export Lumber Company, who then changed its name back to Oregon Fir. In 1930, the vessel was seized in Sydney for outstanding debts. The ship’s master, Henry H Oosterhuis, reportedly stayed with the vessel for 15 months. As it lay idle in Sydney Harbour, Oosterhuis made headlines in the newspapers for opening the vessel at night as a ‘floating cabaret’ to host wild ‘Bohemian parties’. Sydney Morning Herald journalist Macleod Morgan described the vessel’s final months with a great sense of nostalgia: 16 SIGNALS 102 MARCH–MAY 2013
Here are the old-timers, such as the Helen B Stirling [sic], who have seen the greatest days of life, and are now passing their twilight hour in these reaches of the harbour. There they rest placidly amid the ripples, vessels which have helped to build Australia. (SMH, 18 March 1933) In March 1934, after it was dismantled and stripped of anything of value, Helen B Sterling, as it was still affectionately known, was set on fire in 20 places in its ‘last resting place’, aptly known as Kerosene Bay (now Balls Head Bay near Waverton). Little information is currently available about what happened between this period and E R Sterling’s death, possibly in 1943. An article after the E R Sterling disaster states that he had had a ‘long and adventurous seafaring life’ and ‘seemed little the worse for his experiences’ (The Argus, 24 March 1928). Another report in The Mail on the same date described him in one word – ‘heartbroken’. Journalists’ impressions aside, Captain Sterling was a traditionalist. He could not, in his own words, ‘abide steam’, he revelled in the ‘beauty and mystery of the ships, and the magic of the sea’ and he had a profound pride in his vessels and crew. Based on this and the
fact that he named all but one of his vessels after the women he loved most in his life, it seems likely that these misfortunes would have had an adverse effect on him. Captain Sterling was first and foremost a ‘real sailor’, second a shipowner. He had an affinity with the sea and a love affair with the sailing ship that endured all his life. He was of a certain school that bitterly rejected the development of steam-powered vessels as banal and stubbornly stood by his fleet of sailing vessels, with devastating consequences. In the end, Sterling was a man torn between his love for the tall sailing ship and the stark economic reality caused by his unwillingness to embrace the modern age. Sterling’s fleet of schooners and barquentines comprised some of the largest timber sailing vessels ever built, in a belated attempt to keep sail economically competitive in an age of iron and steam. Their design had distinct pros and cons. They were built to carry enormous bulk cargoes such as lumber, with reduced operating costs thanks to relatively small crews. However, they were vulnerable to harsh weather and were often in port, idle for months on end, waiting to source sufficient cargo to fill their enormous holds.
E R Sterling was the largest barquentine in the world and the key to its design lay in the gaff sails it carried on all of its many masts, except the foremast. They could be raised, reefed or furled from the deck with the aid of a donkey engine for halyards, enabling ‘10 men to achieve what it would ordinarily take 24 men to do on a square rigger’, as the Cairns Post reported (1 February 1922). Yet although it sailed with some success, E R Sterling lay without charter for months in Adelaide before the 1927 voyage that led to its demise. Similarly, Dorothy H Sterling wasted away in port for months before it was finally sent to Port Adelaide and ripped apart. The small number of crew coupled with these vessels’ size proved a dangerous combination when they encountered bad weather. Despite their majesty, the ships of the Sterling Line have passed into maritime folklore. The sad fate of the Sterling Line contrasts with Hood’s photographs of happier days, before industrial change and economic hardship took their toll. Amid the heartbreak, Hood’s images hint at stories that may otherwise have been left untold. Discoveries like these not only underline the significance of the Hood collection to Australia’s maritime history, they reinforce
the nature of his photographs. They show a time when ships’ portraits were popular among crew members, before steam superseded sail and the demand for Hood’s portraiture declined. Moreover, they display the human face of sailing that Hood so rigorously pursued. They depict the crew’s camaraderie and the close relationship they shared with their vessels. Apart from Hood’s photographs and a few objects from the collection, all that remains for us to see today are the barest bones of the Dorothy H Sterling, which appear at low tide in the Port River in Adelaide – destroyed after shipbreakers had ‘wrenched all her beauty from her’, and abandoned to ‘that graveyard of broken ships where the waves lap sadly and the wind sighs mournfully through the timbers of what were once graceful craft’ (The Advertiser, 5 February 1932). The bones of Dorothy H Sterling are remnants of a bygone era; they are mementos of the boy who fell in love with sailing and ran away to sea. With thanks to Steve Reynolds of The Marine Life Society of South Australia and his work on the Sterling ships, in particular ‘The Schooner Dorothy H Sterling (and other ships associated with her)’, MLSSA Newsletter No 355, June 2008.
This is the story of a family who experienced the high life and had it snatched away, and of a man whose undying passion for the great sailing ships was crushed by financial ruin
01 Ceramic plate commemorating the schooner
Helen B Sterling. Henry Oosterhuis was the vessel’s last master. ANMM Collection 02 A day at the races: (right to left) Captain Edward Robert Sterling, his son Ray Milton Sterling and Australian daughter-in-law Ethel May Sterling, with unidentified friends. 03 Captain E R Sterling’s son, Ray Milton Sterling, seated next to a symbol of modern invention, the player piano. The saloon of E R Sterling was reported as most beautiful, equipped with a range of contemporary gadgets built for ‘comfort and convenience’. AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL MARITIME MUSEUM 17
The Australian National Maritime Museum's quarterly journal Signals.