Cliff visited Australia as a young man and met Cath Buggy. They corresponded for some years and eventually married in England. As he recalls, “British shipping was in massive decline in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and virtually disappeared in the 1980s, in the same way as Australian shipping has disappeared in this decade.
“Bit by bit, shippers have prevailed upon the government to scrap Australian shipping which is expensive to run, and use foreign shipping…very few Australian captains now come here for training.”
Most of Cliff’s working life has been spent in Australia, firstly in Sydney, and moving to Newcastle in 1973. For 27 years he was a Newcastle Harbour pilot, and his son, Andrew, followed him.
Approaching 60, an age when many seek a slower pace, Cliff and his family conceived an entirely new venture, and it’s this that was recognised by his Australia Day honour. With Cath’s support, Cliff spent several years establishing Port Ash, ‘Ash’ representing Australian Ship Handling. He says, “At least starting at that age, you have some idea what you’re doing.”
While electronic simulators are used to good effect in pilot training, Cliff explains, “The need for models came in my last ten years as senior pilot in Newcastle as the new pilots didn’t have the experience because of the shrinking of the Australian merchant fleet and the greying of the workforce. Simulators were starting to blossom, but there are things you can’t teach on a simulator – it has no depth of field for example.
“My hobby of making model ships overlapped with my profession, and led to Port Ash.” There are only five such centres in the world.
Port Ash is essentially a small harbour hosting six ships, eight scale replicas of tugs, two large barges and a destroyer under construction. The 2.5 hectare man-made lake, constructed at 25:1 scale, has deep and shallow areas. Trainee pilots from the merchant and Royal Australian navies come for five days, alternating ‘on water’ experience with the classroom. While it all looks like great fun, it’s serious business – but far safer than the ‘real thing’!
“In hindsight, Port Ash has recreated the well-tried but expensive training ships that were hastily thrown away when the age of computers dawned in the 1980s,” said Cliff.
Now in his 70s, Cliff is still working hard but his commitment and passion are obvious. He enjoys living in Port Stephens and he and Cath are members of St Brigid’s Parish community.
They’re the only people I know who can look forward to sailing a destroyer in their own backyard!