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My Union Right or Wrong.
A history of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union 1900-1932
By Issy Wyner


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Appendix 2: The Duties of a Docking Gang

(See also Appendix 1 )

The Docking Gang, usually between 10 and 24 men depending on the size of the dock and the size of the ship entering or leaving the dock, worked under the direction of the Dock Master, divided into two teams, one for each side of the dock. Their duties entailed working with shipwrights on preparing the dock for receiving a vessel; putting a ship into or out of a dock or on or off a slipway; sweeping down the dock floor after the dock was pumped out to make it reasonably dry for the scrubbers and painters to do their work; and removing all refuse, marine growth, etc., from the dock.

The first stage of the Dockers work involved setting or re-setting the keel blocks which ran like a herring-bone down the centre of the dock floor from its fore-end to its after-end. The ship, when docked, rested on these keel blocks each of which was about twelve inches square and about three feet six inches long, made of sturdy hardwood. These blocks were stacked to a height of about 3'6", the bottom block cemented about six inches into the dock floor. As well, each of these stacks included two hardwood wedges, one at each end of the stack; each wedge about two feet six inches long a foot wide and about five inches thick. The purpose of the wedges was to allow any stack of blocks to be removed for repairs to the section of the keel sitting on it. As well, each stack was capped with an oregon block about 3 or 4 inches thick, 12 inches wide and the same length as the hardwood blocks. These caps received the full weight of the ship whose keel would sink into the oregon, something which hardwood could not tolerate. The caps, through receiving the full impact of the ship's weight, had to be replaced periodically due to the damage caused by this crushing weight. The stacks of blocks stood about eighteen inches to two feet apart along the dock floor. For the purpose of re-capping and other work, the dock had to be pumped dry.

Tugs brought the ship to the dock's mouth and bow lines approximately 6" or 7" in diameter were passed from the ship down to the Dockers on each side of the dock. The manner of passing them was by a member of the Docking Gang throwing a light line to a crew member, who then fastened the heavy line to it and it was pulled ashore by the Docking Gang. (There was a fine skill in sending this light line across to the ship. Known as a heaving line, it was the thickness of a boxer's skipping rope, on one end of which was fastened a piece of lead weighing about half a pound, quarter of a kilo. The line was carefully coiled to ensure that it snaked out cleanly when the lead was heaved. The piece of lead was usually covered with light canvas, but often, a round piece of lead was encased in a "monkey's paw" or "monkey's fist", which was a length of heaving line fashioned by fancy knotting into a ball.)

The ship would still have a certain amount of way on as the tugs cast off and it would move slowly into the wet dock. As it slowed, the headlines with an eye spliced in the end would placed on heavy cast iron bollards along each side of the dock, and the ship's steam winches would take the strain and begin to ease the ship further into the dock. Stern lines would then be passed down to other members of the Docking Gang and these would have sufficient length on shore for the Dockers to turn them up on bollards and thus ensure that the vessel did not move too fast or too far into the dock.

In other cases, the ship's steam winches would not be used, but the bow lines would be attached to large steel hooks welded on to a steam crane on each side of the dock, and the cranes, which ran on rails like any steam train, would slowly ease the ship forward.

When the Dock Master was satisfied that the vessel stood centred in the wet dock over the position where the keel blocks had been prepared for it, he would order all lines made fast to hold her steady.

In small docks, the Dockers then brought the caisson, or dock gate, into position by hauling on lines attached to it. The position was pre-determined by what was known as "the fit". This comprised two slots, one each side of the dock, which ran vertically down to the dock floor where they joined another slot, like a gutter, across the entrance to the dock. When the caisson was in position, also held by rope lines, the Dockers set up a large turncock in its deck, with a long steel handle. Two or four, or more, men, depending on the tide which made for greater or lesser pressure on the valve, they walked round and round, like donkeys on a treadmill, raising the sluice gates which allowed water to run into the ballast tanks and slowly sink the caisson into its fit.

While this procedure was followed at Mort's Dock and in the Fitzroy Dock at Cockatoo Island, in the Sutherland Dock at Cockatoo Island, the caisson had been built into one side of the dock with machinery which drove it into place in its fit.

When the caisson was settled in its fit, the Dock Master ordered the pumps to begin removing water from the dock. The water level slowly lowered until the after end of the ship, its heel, just touched the keel blocks below. The Dock Master could determine this by watching the water line until he saw water falling away from the ship. The pumps were then stopped and the Dockers, with the aid of the steam cranes, placed one shore in place on each side of the ship at its after end. When they were in place, one end against the ship's side and the other against the dock wall on one of the altars, or steps cut into the dockside, the shipwrights drove wooden wedges in behind the dock end of the shore to tighten them.

The shores were of oregon, 8" or 10" square and any length from 8 feet to 24 feet, depending on the beam of the ship. For the large ships, small shores were required, and so on.

The pumps were then started again, and the ship slowly sued on its after end until the fore end also touched down on the keel blocks, when the pumps were once more stopped. The Dockers then proceeded to set a series of shores in place along each side of the ship, which the shipwrights tightened in place with their hardwood wedges.

At that stage, the Paint Shop Gangs, numbering anything from 20 to 50 or 60 men on each side, depending on the size of the ship, boarded flat-top wooden punts, about six feet wide and 20 to 30 feet long, and began cleaning the marine growth from the ship's side. They worked along the ship and when that area was cleaned, the pumps were started again, and the water level lowered a few feet to allow another area of growth to be cleaned off. This process continued until no more cleaning could be done from the punts which were then pushed away from the ship over to the dock side, where the men could climb out of the dock and wait until all the water was removed.

The Dockers then came into the picture again, in order to sweep what water remained on the floor, into the drains which ran along each side of the dock floor. As well, it was the dockers’ task to sweep up all the marine growth which had been scraped from the ship’s sides and which had sunk to the dock floor. This foul mess had to be shovelled into large skips which steam cranes lifted out of the dock and emptied into barges for dumping at sea. When the dock floor was finally swept comparatively dry, the Paint Shop crews went into the dock and began cleaning off the marine growth down the remainder of the ship's side and through, in a stooped position, to the keel blocks. The dockers’ brooms for sweeping were the heavy millet type also used by Council street sweepers.

In the early days, the Paint Shop crews were expected to go into the dock regardless of what water still lay on the floor after pumping ended. And some of the older members related cases where they were obliged to enter the dock while there was still a foot or more of water there, taking off their boots and socks for the purpose. However, from about 1910, the men insisted on the dock floor being properly swept before they entered the dock, and it was included in the first Wages Board award. It was part of the ritual of ship cleaning that no man entered the dock until the Dockers had completed their sweeping.

Among the duties of the Docking Gang was the splicing of manilla or hemp ropes for use as slings for lifting and placing shores, for guide lines on each end of the shore and for other purposes around the docks and slips. The Docking Gang rarely spliced wire ropes, this being a duty for the Riggers.

Divider: rope
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Last modified: January 19, 2003

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