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Pam, 90-year-old pearling lugger, to sail again

by Sail-World Cruising round-up on 15 Apr 2014
Pearling lugger in Broome today - this, one day might be a scene on Gippsland Lakes SW
Nothing embodies colour and raw drama of the history of Broome's pearling industry more than the splendid old pearling luggers which sailed the waters of north west Australia during the so-called 'glory' days of the boom in pearling. Now, after being sunk and neglected and given up as scrap over 40 years ago, one of these graceful old vessels will sail again.

While the history is sometimes cruel and horrifying, the pearling luggers were beautiful gaff-rigged ketches, measuring around 15m in length. They did not carry lug sails as their name implies and their timber hull lines were curved and graceful, with low waist and bulwarks to assist diving.

It was the beauty in one such old lugger, named Pam after the owner's daughter, that inspired Gippsland man Dan McLay to spend the last 25 years restoring her to some of her former glory.



While the industry was at its peak, dozens of pearl divers, some of them acting as virtual slaves, died as a result of the dangers of deep sea diving. Pam, too, is inextricably tied to the legacy of cemeteries full of Aboriginal and Japanese pearl divers who fell afoul of decompression sickness (the bends).

But the lovely lines of the lugger emerging from Mr McKay's long years of work tell nothing of that story. Pam is one of only around ten pearling luggers left in Australia, survived the bombing of Darwin during the Second World War, and was sunk - then almost forgotten - after Cyclone Tracy passed over Darwin in 1974. However, in spite of her northern heritage, it won't be Broome or Darwin where Pam will be re-launched, but in Gippsland Lakes in Victoria.

'It was basically a ship wreck; we've had to do a total rebuild and pull out every part of it,' Mr McLay said.

Having undergone five restoration attempts over its lifetime, through a rich history of owners with high aspirations, it was dogged perseverance which saw Mr McLay succeed in his quest.

'There were a lot of people out there who thought it wouldn't happen, but the way I saw it was not to give up half way through, otherwise everyone else would have been right, and I hate being wrong,' Mr McLay said, adding that he views Pam as treasured piece of Australian history.

Built in Broome in 1925 with her characteristic flat bottom, enabling it to beach safely on Broome's renowned 30-foot tides, it went on under subsequent owners to harvest mother of pearl beds in Darwin, where she spent 70 per cent of her working life.

According to an interview with the Latrobe Valley Express, Pam first stole Mr McClay's heart in 1988 - on a trip to Darwin's Fisherman's Wharf, where then-owner John Corbet was attempting to return her to the water.

Refloated, but then ravaged by white ants since the sinking by Cyclone Tracey, the hull had been stabilised but the project failed to attract further interest.

For Mr McLay however, it was love at first sight, instilling a dream in his mind he never thought realistic.

That was until two years later, when Pam's unmistakable flat-bottomed curve showed up in a boat classifieds magazine. Mr McLay jumped at the turn of fate - successfully arranging to swap a 1979 Harley Davidson Classic for the abandoned lugger.

Shipping Pam across the mainland through Cooper Pedy in 1989 to the Latrobe Valley, Mr McLay's 25-year mission to restore her had begun.

'It sat around for 10 years as I built up my bank account,' Mr McLay said, who had to resort to selling more of his treasured Harley Davidson collection to keep the project afloat.

The near-impossible project got its big break in the late 1990s, when he secured community restoration grant through Latrobe City's Federation project, allowing the rebuild to continue at the Traralgon Men's Shed.

However the grant funding was soon after pulled, once again sending Pam's future into limbo, before Mr McLay shipped her to a property in Toongabbie, purchased for its ample boat building shed space.

'Sometimes I doubted this would ever happen, but the secret was to never give up,' Mr McLay said.

Pam will begin a new career sailing tourists on the placid waters of the Gippsland Lakes, a far cry from the tropical blue waters off Broome.

Dan joked this week in conversation with the ABC that Pam is actually short for Perserverence And Money.

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