“Then I will walk into town naked, just like him!”
Currently, I am on a sea-wreck hunting sabbatical.
I was born in Geraldton, but in 1980, when I was 9, my family moved to Rabaul, in Papua New Guinea, for my dad’s work. The three years that we lived there had a huge effect on me and formed the foundations of my personality.
My dad loved being on the ocean: we spent a lot of time diving, fishing, snorkelling to see the marine fauna and WWII wrecks. Rabaul was a beautiful colonial town and an adventurous place to grow up, with hills full of tunnels filled with Japanese war debris. In my explorations I’d find live ammunition, bombs; all sorts of things.
Most importantly, my dad had to routinely fly for his job, so I often got to ride in the helicopters with him. It was mind-blowing for me. The pilots were these crazy NZ cowboys, they’d zoom along at breakneck speeds with the jungle just below our feet.
It was then that I made a firm decision to become a helicopter pilot.
Then we went back to Darwin, I hit puberty and started to rebel. I still thought I would become a pilot, but my marks in year 12 were dismal, and I couldn’t get into any relevant uni course.
Instead I applied for a few jobs and apprenticeships and out of the ones I got accepted for, I chose a police cadetship. Mainly because my dad didn’t want me to do it! But also that it paid the most, and I thought that since I couldn’t get into flying via the traditional routes, I’d work and go to private flying school to get my license anyway.
I was a police officer for around 6 years. It was a good early experience for me overall, and shaped me into the person I became.
I had two main takeaways after my time on the force.
One was how lucky I am to live the life that I do. After dealing with such underprivileged people, I’d take stock and say, “I can’t ever complain about my life”.
The other big lesson was the value of death. I spent two months relieving a coroner’s constable, having to deal with corpses, deliver them to the morgues, write reports. We averaged one dead person a day, and a lot of these deaths were very dramatic and traumatic.
So at 22, I learned to appreciate life and not take it for granted. Death can be just around the corner, so I won’t put off till tomorrow what I can do today.
Perhaps at times this philosophy has made me too spontaneous or spend-thrifty, but I think it has served me well overall.
While on the force, I followed my plan and soon got my private pilot’s license and some good flying hours under my belt. The next step was to get my commercial license, and I was working towards saving the thirty or so grand needed to get it.
At the same time, I got disillusioned with police work, and going through a low point in my life personally. Lying in bed one night feeling sorry for myself, I had an idea.
I thought, “Why don’t you become a deep sea diver on the oil rigs!”
I’ve always loved diving and divers make a lot of money, which I could then use to accelerate getting my commercial pilot’s license.
I spoke to a friend who was in the industry and he recommended that I go and do a well known diving course in England. Suddenly I was feeling positive and filled with hope again.
I did the course, which was a fantastic experience and returned to Australia to start diving on offshore oil rigs. Divers do all sorts of construction and maintenance work underwater, like joining or disconnecting pipes, turning off a jammed valve or helping with the drills.
The depths vary. Divers operate anywhere from the surface shallows to 300 meters. However 50 meters is the limit for normal diving. After 50 meters you become what’s called a saturation diver, which requires specialized training and plenty of experience. I didn’t get around to that.
I did what’s called air diving, within the 50 meters.
You get pressurised just before going under. You wear a special suit, hard hat and carry communications and video technology. The background of a commercial diver is someone who is good with their hands, perhaps trade related. Obviously you need to be fit and not get panicked or claustrophobic underwater.
Nothing underwater is easy, every action is twenty times harder and takes much longer than on ground. But that’s the challenge I liked about it.
There is potential to make a lot of money, though in the current climate of oil and gas companies collapsing, there’s been some steep wage cuts for divers recently.
I enjoyed the job, though sometimes the big egos and politics of the industry got to me. And shortly after I started, I met my first wife Kate, who was from Melbourne. I decided to leave diving in order to live a normal family life with her, so I rejoined the police force in Melbourne.
However my desire to become a pilot did not diminish.
Twice I applied to the army for a pilot position and twice I was rejected, though I came very close in the selections. It was very competitive. The army has 16 pilot positions, and thousands of applications.
You go through physical and skills testing, public speaking and debating tests; it’s very intense officer selection. After a year as a cop in Melbourne, I was finally accepted on my third application.
As it turned out, not having a commercial license and only limited flying experience worked in my favour, as the army preferred non-commercial pilots who they could train from scratch and not have to deal with any bad habits acquired previously.
I was ecstatic to be accepted, though it was harder for Kate.
In the early stages of training, the amenities provided by the army for the families are quite poor, though the long-term benefits are fantastic.
We’d just had our son Tom, and Kate was left looking after a newborn baby on her own while I left for training. Though Kate was gracious about it, because she knew how much it meant to me, perhaps it still made an impact on our relationship in some ways.
The training phase lasted 18 months, and though life wasn’t easy, this training was second to none.
I really believe you can’t get better training on earth than a military pilot.
I then became a Special Services Officer, working as a reconnaissance helicopter pilot and flying the smallest helicopter the army has, called a Kiowa – a jet ranger.
I was in the army 6 years, which is the minimum return service obligation. In that time I went to Timor twice.
My job was to search for the enemy from the air, and then bring the ground forces in.
It was quite intense – a lot of low level, dangerous flying, often with night vision goggles.
Professionally, it was an incredible experience and learning curve. On a personal level, I had some issues with the Timorese conflicts.
We were fighting against Indonesian militia, and using army-speak, they were a primitive enemy. They used home-made muskets made out steel pipes. These guys were very spiritual, and they’d decorate their weapons with beautiful paintings and carvings to bring luck.
And then they’d go up against us, who had billions of dollars’ worth on United Nations’ funding for military technologies.
The fights were very unfair, obviously. I was involved in the deaths of a couple of militia guys, finding them from the air and bringing the NZ army guys in to kill them. I saw their bodies lying in the grass from the air, and I felt very bad for them, the unfairness of it.
At the end of the 6 years I left the army because there was a lot of bureaucracy, which frustrated me. Also at this stage Kate and I separated, as she felt it was her time to pursue her goals. We agreed that our son would stay with me for the time being.
And through having Tom, I stepped into my next job… as a primary school teacher! This was quite a random story…
It happened when I did a school fly-in to several schools in Darwin while still in the army, flying the helicopter in, talking to the kids about the army and helicopters. One of the schools was my son’s school.
I really enjoyed it giving the speech and interacting with the kids. The principal came up to me at the end, and said ‘Wow Jim, you’re really good with the kids. Ever thought of being a teacher?’
Long story short, he said if I ever wanted it, he would give me a job and organize for me to get the necessary qualifications! So I took him up on it when I left the army.
I started as a teacher’s assistant, and enrolled into uni to get the qualifications.
It was pretty heavy workload, but I really enjoyed it. I was only there for 8 months, but the job stole my heart. I definitely want to return to it down the track, finish my degree and continue teaching.
I loved it because you’re giving to the community, working with young minds. And there’s hardly any male teachers these days, whilst kids really need good male mentors. I managed to do a lot there.
Aside from all the normal work, I started an after school mechanics class, and a rock band! Of course my son loved having me there, which was a big motivator for me.
Then I got greedy.
There was an opportunity to become a safety officer on an oil rig on Malaysia. Month on/month off, great money. You had to monitor every single worker to ensure safety procedures were followed and nobody got killed. It was pretty full on, sometimes I had to go against management and crew, which didn’t make me popular.
I did that for a year and a half, made good money. In hindsight, maybe it wasn’t really worth it, there was a lot of politics and ego, again not my favourite type of environment.
But I wanted to get back to flying.
I went back to Victoria and set up a one-helicopter business flying tourists, but it wasn’t very successful due to poor earnings and disagreements with my business partner.
I started applying for flying jobs and soon find a job in Karratha as a marine pilot transfer helicopter pilot. I was flying out to the iron ore ships, bringing personnel on and off the ships.
It was a step in the right direction career-wise, but I got into some conflict with company management, who were overworking the pilots to increase profits.
I then did a short stint as a coast watch pilot at Horn Island.
It was a beautiful part of the world gorgeous flying. My job was to look for illegal fishermen and immigrants crossing the Torres Straight.
Finally, I got a call to join Canadian Helicopter Corporation, a global company that I applied to a year prior. I ended up working for CHC for nine years, flying passenger and cargo to and from oil rigs.
It was good. I liked the job and the money was great.
It was fortnight on/fortnight off, so I was only working 6 months of the year, making triple the salary of an average person.
Plus every year we went overseas for assimilated training, which was like a paid holiday.
Again, I found the job a bit selfish. I had an assignment to fly a brand new helicopter from Philadelphia to Brazil, which took ten days, with stopovers at beautiful resorts – but I was there on my own, not able to share with those close to me.
Once I learnt the ins and outs of the job, it was actually quite cruisy.
The flying could be a bit boring as the aircrafts are very automated. It wasn’t very hands-on flying. You got a lot of time in the flight to get bored and it could get a bit bitchy in the cabins, unfortunately.
Also there was a lot of downtime. Sometimes you’d only be required to fly once or twice a week while on duty, the rest of the time you’d just be cooped up in the hotel.
So I had a lot of time to be bored, and that was mainly what lead to discovering my passion for hunting for shipwrecks!
My father bought me a book for my birthday called “10 Shipwrecks of the Northern Territory.” One of these was Florence D, a wreck from the WWII bombing of Darwin. The book said that if the wreck was ever found, it would be an amazing thing for NT history.
It just got under my skin. I became certain I could find it. And I did!
It took a lot of Googling, detective work, going through old historical archives. That info helped me identify the approximate area in the ocean where the wreck was.
Then I bought a boat and good sonar gear, and spent weeks on the water, combing and scanning the seabed with the sonar gear. I went by myself and with friends.
We’d go up and down, just drawing these lines like a farmer in a paddock with a wheat harvester!
Since my job at CHC was 2 weeks on/2 weeks off, I used the off weeks for wreck hunting. In the end I found the wreck with the help of a local fisherman and some luck. It was incredibly exciting, big news at the time.
And when you have success like that, it just feeds your passion more.
So after nine years, I decided to accept a voluntary redundancy from CHC, and took a very generous payout. I used that money to build my new expedition boat, which I’ve been working on for the past 18 months and which I’m just about to launch.
So far, I have found 3 historic wrecks: the Florence D, then a little WWII bowfighter that crashed in Broome on takeoff, and a 24 Liberator, 4 engine heavy bomber, also from WWII that crashed after takeoff in Kimberley.
For the Liberator, I am planning to revisit the site to take some better quality images and film, as ABC are interested to do a story on it.
Then I’m off to Shark Bay, to do a small job for a local fisherman, who has offered me a thousand dollars to try a find a Piper Aztec that crashed in 1971. The gentleman believes he passed over the wreck some years ago and it has haunted him since.
The next big project is another Liberator WWII wreck in Broome that crashed and killed everyone onboard bar one survivor. That was Malvern Donahue, who managed to swim to shore.
It was incredible, he spent 30 hours in the water, and when he arrived on shore he walked into town completely naked to announce himself.
If I find the wreck, I plan to recreate his swim myself on the day of the crash: March 3rd. It’s a rough time to swim, with big waves, crocodiles and poisonous jellyfish. Lucky for me, Malvern had a lifejacket, so I’m allowed that.
Then I will walk into town naked, just like him!
At the moment, there is no real profit in this for me. I hope to eventually have a project that will warrant a feature documentary, but having had some conversations with documentary makers recently, I was told that they need a bit more drama and action – hidden gold treasure, dramatic historical story – so perhaps something like that will come along soon.
For the moment, I will take an occasional diving or flying gig to bring in extra cash.
From here, there are so many wrecks, I have a whole list of potential searches. When you’re finding these wrecks, you are literally writing history. Lucky for me, my new partner, who is from Canada, also loves the life of adventure, so I can share my passion with her.
Long term, once I get the wreck hunting out of my blood, I’d like to settle down in the country somewhere and build a fully sustainable eco-cottage and get back to teaching, something I feel I am not done with yet. That’s the plan!