Coastal barges provide an essential service for Australia’s remote northern outposts.

Story By Kerry Sharp

Paul Cox scans an ominous blue-black sky from the wheelhouse of the MV Jane Virgo and talks of his “beautiful girl”, his “lady with long legs”. The object of his pride is the 500-tonne barge he spent a year helping to build. Her “long legs” mean good speed in boat-talk.
Less than two years old, MV Jane Virgo is the technically advanced baby in a fleet of a dozen sturdy workhorses that steam fully loaded from the Port Darwin each week – and sometimes twice weekly – to maintain vital supply lines to communities spread from Kalumburu in the northern Kimberley, WA, to Groote Eylandt, NT.
“She can average nine knots, which makes her pretty close to being the fastest barge in the Northern Territory,” says Paul, the ship’s captain and longest-serving employee of Shorebarge. “It’s handy for keeping ahead of our big tides up here. Being just 10 minutes late to catch a tide onto or off a landing ramp could throw out our schedule right along the coast by at least 12 hours. Customers would get their goods late and crew would lose airfares by missing booked flights home to their families. We pull out all stops to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
The men at the helm sometimes pick up speed to be first at a landing ramp, especially when blips on their radars suggest that other vessels could be hot on their heels. There’s a friendly rivalry between crews, all aimed at giving customers the best possible services. But they’ll happily share an off-duty beer in the pub back home.
Watching his deckhands unload the last cargo crate at Maningrida, on the Arnhem Land coast, Paul says: “This is always a lovely sight. We’ve landed, the freight’s gone, there’s no damage and it’s theirs!”
Top End crane driver, logistics specialist and business visionary Arthur Hamilton launched Shorebarge with the 120-tonne MV Cooma Cooma in 2004. The move guaranteed reliable aviation fuel deliveries to the Truscott and Troughton Island airbases, which he leases and operates in the Kimberley to service Timor Sea oil and gas-field customers. MV Cooma Cooma also got into coastal-freight transport after Arthur paid $3 for an apple in a Kimberley store and decided remote communities were being ripped off in freight costs.

This story excerpt is from Issue #84

Outback Magazine: Aug/Sep 2012