With a basic chart and compass, the multicultural crews endured rough conditions on the pearling luggers, which lacked basic amenities. They worked from sunup to sundown in seas with some of the biggest tides in the world. They faced cyclones, tide-rips and currents that could suck a lugger into a whirlpool. Most crew-members were indentured workers, poorly paid.

The crew lived ‘like family’. Even today, former lugger crews reminisce about the days when they were ‘saltwater cowboys’.

Lugger crew

Kamarudin ‘Dino’ Bin Lusimoen, Engineer:

“My job is a deck hand and after promoted to look after the engine. Every morning we have to get up about five o’clock in the morning. We start the engine by hand and pump it, and then as well, you can use that one for air compressor for the divers. Two divers on the boat. One is head diver, one is second diver. There is a one skipper, and there is second skipper and then yeah, one is a cook and four crews. The divers are sleeping right at the back of the boat and the engineers is in the middle and we are on the front.

We used to go out to sea for seven weeks at a time. We only dive on those days on the neap tide. Once the spring tide come, we’re not allowed to come to Broome. We just stay in one of the creek and anchor there for three, four days until neap tide comes.

They, the divers eat the same as what we eat. They only get the first preference. Most of the time we had a rice and fish soup.

Out at sea, every Sunday is day off. Fleet is anchored between hundred meters of each other. Everybody put their dinghy in the water so we come and see each other. Say, “Hello, how’s things? How many shell you get?” Very competitive. Good bonus, end of the year if the diver got a lot of shell, so that crew got a lot of bonus.”

Paul Sampi Janganbirr, Shell opener:

“My job was a crew. Pearl opener. I would have my trousers like that, you know. Yeah, rolled up. I little bit could kind of slip. Never catch me. Sell it for, I could sell it for twenty pounds. I’d sell in the Chinese end. There were lot of Indonesian and Chinese you know. Koepangers, they were all here. We only had few Japanese in those days.”

Paul Phillips, Tender:

“Out in the ocean, see, the diver tells the tender where’s to go, but he steers the boat, the tender. Then the tender gives us the order. We had to learn how to handle lifeline. Well, the lifeline was, yeah, like Morse code. Tender would put the diver down to the depth, and all you knew was that signal, one, two, three or whatever and call out, and you’d ask somebody, you know, and they’d tell us how to turn the boat around or the diver wanted more air or rope, whatever. And we’d work as one.

Their life was in your hand. And you got to know, you got to learn. Learn the signals. What they want, they want more air, they want more lifeline or they want to come up, turn the boat around. It’s Morse code. But the tender was the main one that holds it. Most of us was on deck scrubbing shell or washing the deck.

I mean, you got to be careful how you handle the diver, the rope. If you pull it on jerking, you can, know, hurt his chin or something inside the helmet of the suit. Of course the main thing is the lifeline that holds it is that diver’s life you’re looking after. So we were more like guardian angels, mate. You had to work as a team. Holding lifeline like you had somebody’s life in your hand. Anything could happen. It was your responsibility.”

Lugger builders

Eddie Wright, Boat builder’s daughter

My father built luggers, and it was a time in Broome after the war when the Japanese boat builders, they were interned. So the only people or men who knew how to build luggers were the Hunter men. They had learned from their father Harry Hunter how to build luggers. It would take him roughly a year. They used a lot of local materials. They used bush cadjeput, the local timbers around Broome.

Peter Hunter Rooboo, Boat builder’s son:

“And my dad used to have a team there, men. And they used to look for the bend on the boat for the tree. Bent like a shape like a front of the boat. Big tree like that they used to chop down, and well, in those days, that was the skill of my dad when he used to learn how to build. Go to that shape. Put it in that shape and took it in. After doing that, they came in and started chipping away. Shape it up. Even the L boats were the boats and the ‘knee’ they call it. Working on that everyday. They had long, long-handled hatchet.

With the ribs of the boat, they got some guys to weld a forty-four gallon drum, like a big boiler. Put all the timbers in, and boil it up, and once they gave it a few hours, the timber would get nice, very soft. That’s how they bend it. When they got them bent, and they started work on the ribs, and the keel that was all hammer and chisel.”

Donald McKenzie, Foreshore worker:

“My job was to caulk boats. Caulk the decks, caulk the boat and side, and every time the boats used to leak, we used to go out to the creek, walk knee deep in mud. Not thinking about the snakes and all that that’s around there. We never thought about that, and we’d caulk the boats. Every two years, take out all the old planks, and even the decks, and re do all that. Re-caulk it. Take about four, five months doing all that. And when it went down, down the slip, it was just like a new boat again, you know.”