January 21, 1988

Article at The Sydney Morning Herald

NEWS | Darwin keeps a date with history

The HMAS Darwin returns to Sydney Harbour


At 7.35 am on Monday, HMAS Darwin left Garden Island and made for the Heads. Behind us was the destroyer escort HMAS Torrens and the patrol boat HMAS Wollongong. The warlike vista made me imagine we were setting out to engage, rather than to welcome, the ships of the First Fleet re-enactment. 

We cleared the Heads by 8 am and continued due east, fighting what had become by now a strong south-easterly at between 15 to 20 knots. Soon the Darwin swung south, and from our perch above the ship's bridge, we watched the beaches of Bondi, Coogee and Maroubra breeze past.

Half an hour later we neared the Water Board's converted oil rig. The Darwin began a missile-testing procedure, rapidly retracting and reloading the missiles, all the while pointing and repointing it at the rig - a convenient practice target.

Just then the salute guns were tested, pointing at the rig. I could imagine more than a few anxious engineers aboard it wondering about the Navy's motives.

At 8.39 the Warfare Officer, Lt-Cmdr Gerry Christian, called out. Five tiny white specks were just visible on the southern horizon. The thought struck me: 200 years ago, there was no-one here to meet the the First Fleet. The nine square-riggers were alone in this part of the world in 1788 - except for La Perouse, of course.

It was surprising how quickly we were upon the ships. We suddenly had the Bounty 80 metres to portside. Of the ships in the fleet, this would have to be one of the most inspiring, and certainly a pleasure for Lt-Cmdr Christian to see – he is a direct descendant of Fletcher Christian.

The Anna Kristina was less than 100 metres away. We were about four kilometres to sea off Cape Baily, and could make out a plethora of craft amassing in Botany Bay. After rounding the two square-riggers, we steamed into the bay and dropped anchor.

At least 600 launches, schooners, yachts, cruisers, ferries, inflatable boats, jetskis –almost anything that would float - crammed the water. A sea of people covered Cook's Landing, and substantial crowds were perched on rocks at Bear Island, at Frenchmans Bay and Yarra Bay. An Aboriginal flag the height of three men was layed-out on a grassy knoll near Yarra Point, and a small ketch flying peace and Aboriginal flags darted about.

The Soren Larsen, flagship of the fleet, appeared on the horizon. Barry Crocker and Simon Gallagher were singing Australiana from Cooks Landing, and a mass of pleasure craft swarmed as the ship sailed in.

The Darwin fired a 15-gun salute. Eleven helicopters buzzed the airspace above Botany Bay.

In came the R.Tucker Thompson, followed by the One And All. Ship after ship entered the bay, and soon water police and Bicentennial Authority boats were hard-pressed to keep the way clear for the square-riggers.

Atop a small river barge converted into a pleasure cruiser I noticed a 10-year-old Asian child happily waving an Australian flag at the passing bulk of a square-rigger. It struck me - if anything symbolised a desirable next 200 years for Australia, this did.