Obituary – Australian Whaling Ship Captain

(First posted Monday, February 19, 2007

By Chris Pash

Andrew Gordon Cruickshank
Born: October 8, 1925
Died: May 5, 2006

Gordon Cruickshank liked to sneak up on a sperm whale. He’d come in behind the pod, drift into position and line up his target, the one whale he wanted.

The master and harpoon gunner of the chaser Cheynes III bagged one of the last whales caught in Australia. He was there at the end when Australia’s last whaling station, and the last in the English-speaking world, closed at Albany on November 21, 1978.

The Cheynes III could drift without power for several miles and still have some steerage. Gordon liked to be as quiet as he could.

“I’d shut everything off about 50 yards out, come right up behind them and get a shot just under the little flipper they have on their side.”

A head shot was no good. It was an easy target, almost one-third of a sperm whale’s body length, but it was tough. A harpoon could bounce off.

Recounting the technique in the pub, he would emphasis the point of the story with a sudden jab of his fingers to the nearest person’s ribs. The tender spot under the arm.

The Scotsman arrived in Fremantle in September 1949 on a fishing trawler, the Ben Dearg, as a coal trimmer shovelling ten tonnes of coal a day all the way from the UK.

The Anglo-Australian Fisheries venture, established to trawl the Great Australian Bight, didn’t last long. “Australian coal was too green. It wasn’t a good steaming coal.”

Gordon got a job with the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company as a deckhand. He became first mate and then a relieving skipper when he got his skipper’s ticket in 1968. He moved from relieving skipper to the master of the Cheynes III after Ches Stubbs lost his leg in an accident at sea.

Gordon spent his life at sea but he almost didn’t get his wish to be a seaman. His family tried to stop him because his grandfather and great uncle both drowned.

As a boy in Aberdeen, Scotland, read tales of adventure at sea. He always wanted to join the navy, visit China or go whaling. He did all three.

He left school in Scotland when he was fourteen and joined the Royal Navy when he was seventeen.

His mother didn’t want him to go. His older brother, home on leave from the Army, said Gordon would go anyway, no matter what she said. If she let Gordon go, at least she would know where he was.

When he joined the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company, his war experience as a Royal Navy gunner came in handy. He could service a harpoon gun with his eyes closed.

Gordon always said a clean kill was in everyone’s interest. A bad shot was a messy business costing time and money. The chaser would have to move in for a killer shot, a wooden harpoon with an explosive head, to make sure the whale was dead.

“If the whales comes up and turns on his side and his mouth is open, I take that to be instantaneous. If he comes up and thrashes a bit, we bring him alongside to put a killer in him.”

And no one wanted an undersized whale. No profit, no bonus, in that. And Gordon would have to spend hours on the paperwork. He hated making excuses.

He started one report: “This whale being undersized was as much a surprise to me as it was to the whale when I shot her. The whale was on its own, which is unusual for cows, and at the time it looked quite big enough. If I had thought otherwise I would not have shot it.”

Gordon built a deep knowledge on the habits of sperm whales. He knew he had to be fast when he hit a pod.

The big bull sperm whale would take off first, running underwater across the pod. Gordon would keep the chaser in the area and try to meet the bull as he came up.

Gordon could tell the difference between the sexes in an instant. A female had a pointed head, more of a taper, while a bull was squarer and bigger.

A sperm whale can keep up a ten to twelve knot pace for a long time and dive deep for thirty minutes or more. A high flick of the tail usually meant the whale was heading for the depths. A bend in the tail, a short dive of twenty metres.

The Cheynes Beach Whaling Company worked to an annual catch quota set by the International Whaling Commission.

Under the rules, more bulls than cows were taken. Gordon thought this was sensible. The males were larger and returned more sperm whale oil tonnes per harpoon.

And there was always a young bull waiting to take the place of the older, bigger males. A pod of 200 or more females was governed by one large bull. The eager younger bachelor sperm whales followed the harems at a distance. Sometimes a large pod would shrink when a young male made his move and took off with forty to fifty females.

The benefits of technology –spotter planes, sonar and modern ships –didn’t make catching whales easy. And the final decision to take a whale was always Gordon’s. In an instant, he had to judge size and sex. Is the whale pregnant or not? Should he take this one first? Would that scare the others off? In a big swell, a whale might be in one trough and the chaser in another, the crew straining to catch glimpses.

On a good day Gordon would stroll down the catwalk connecting the bridge to the harpoon deck at the bow. In bad weather, he’ll leave it to the last moment. Waves could wash over the harpoon deck and move the forerunner, the lines attached to the harpoon.

The Cheynes III was run on Australian casual lines. The crew called Gordon by his first name, thongs were worn on deck and the officers and crew ate the same food. Gordon took his job seriously and had a strong work ethic. Anyone not keeping up was a ‘lazy bastard’.

Gordon wasn’t impressed when, in 1977, the growing world-wide anti-whaling campaign arrived in Albany in the form of inflatable zodiac dinghies zipping between the three whale chasers 30 nautical miles offshore, trying to spoil the aim of harpooners.

“I dropped the forerunner (the rope connecting the ship to the harpoon) on them, into the rubber ducky,” Gordon said. “They weren’t too happy.”

In 1978, when the then Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, established a judicial inquiry into Whales and Whaling, Gordon took the commissioner, Sir Sydney Frost, out on the Cheynes III. The commissioner was seasick all the way. Gordon admired his determination.

On the last day of operations, Gordon relaxed the no-drinking rule. “We had a few beers on the way home. I told the boys: It doesn’t matter if we get the sack.”

Gordon always said he would go whaling again at the drop of a hat. All he needed was a ship.

He is survived by his wife, Betty, son Gordon, four grandchildren and several great grandchildren.

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4 Responses to “Obituary – Australian Whaling Ship Captain”

  1. sarah toa Says:

    Is the Ben Dearg the Ben Dearg of Ben Dearg Beach? (Now you know why I never went into journalism!) It’s out near Casey’s, the wreck is just offshore.

  2. David Bird. Says:

    Yes. Ben Dearg Beach named after the ex-Fleetwood Drifter built by Cook, Welton & Gemmell of Beverley, Yorkshire. Launched with the name THOMAS ALEXANDER. Brought to Albany early 1950s in company with similar trawler Commiles. Reason fishing venture was unprofitable was because there was no refrigeration aboard and the ships could only hold 10 days of ice. 5 days steaming to the fishing grounds east of Esperance, 2 days fishing and 5 days back again meant the time spent fishing left no ice for the return. Most of the catch was discarded.

  3. sienna Says:

    i wonder why they went whaling and wat did they do to the whales eat them or just capture them?

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