A life in boats

Mark Rothfield | VOLUME 30, ISSUE 5

With a boating heritage that spans generations, John ‘Messo’ Messenger is a yachtsman, marine surveyor and salvage expert par excellence.

At a tender two years of age, John Messenger slipped aboard his dad’s timber putt-putt and gripped his tiny hands onto the leather strap around the cold steel flywheel of a Blaxland Pup. As it spluttered into life, a career course was charted, its rhumb line leading inexorably towards marine assessing.

It’s a job John is still performing with aplomb after four decades, to the benefit of countless Club Marine members requiring his services. He’s a panacea to the perfect storm; the Bear Grylls of boat salvage – no job too big or too wild.

The Messenger surname is not just famous in Sydney yachting circles, but is also synonymous with seamanship, as boating heritage is rooted deeply in the family tree.

John Messenger’s great-great-grandfather served as royal bargemaster to Queen Victoria in the 19th century, plying the River Thames. His grandfather founded a Sydney Harbour boatyard that would ultimately be integrated into the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia (CYCA) marina. Father Charlie joined the business, as did John.

Charlie’s cousin, Englebert Messenger – better known as ‘Boy’ – made a name for himself as a shipwright, coxswain and bluewater yachtsman. So did great-uncle Dally, both a rugby league player and 18-footer sailor of legendary repute.

Today, for our interview, John the sailor and salvager is relaxing in the CYCA boardroom, reliving and relishing a lifetime of hell and high water. There’s a stark juxtaposition between the gale-lashed wheelhouses where ‘Messo’ plies his trade and this haven of opulence, but rarely has a man looked so at home or as hosed.

As a past commodore and life member, he fits in like part of the plush furniture. The 72-year-old was actually born in a house right next door, Rushcutters Bay’s waterfront becoming his playground, musty boatsheds his favoured haunt.

Father Charlie Messenger ran the slipway, operated a hire fleet of half-cab putt-putts, and ferried workers from Rushcutters Bay to Garden Island, Goat Island and Cockatoo shipyards.

One of the slips was powered by an engine still attached to a car chassis. It was a manual, and young John had to engage the clutch to change gears. On ferry rides he would perch on Charlie’s lap, hands on the spoked wheel, or practise lassoing the bollards.

These were hard, but hedonistic post-war days, rife with friendly waterfront rivalries.

“The Stannards operated ferries as well and there’d always be races between us,” John chuckles. “They were faster, but I remember going with Dad to an Army disposal store where he bought a massive Matilda tank engine to replace the old Vivian diesel in our ferry.

“On the first run, the Stannards came alongside. They gave us a wave and off they raced. Dad then asked me to take the wheel while he went down to the engineroom to turn the governor off … then we just zoomed away from the Stannards.”

Jack Davies, a radio star of the day, kept his motoryacht on the Messenger wharf and John remembers his first trip offshore – a delivery to Port Stephens. “I got seasick because one of the crew was smoking cigars,” he recalls. “Dad gave me a shot of rum to basically knock me out. I’ve been drinking ‘em ever since …”

Messo cut his sailing teeth on a snub-nosed 12-footer he began skippering at the age of five. Next came an old VJ sporting cotton sails, a canvas cockpit, iron centreboard and stirrup pump to purge the bilge – there were no swing planks at that stage.

As the VJs advanced, so did John. He ventured across the Nullarbor in 1958 and came fourth in the nationals, then tasted success in the NSW championship.

With Modern Boating founder Colin Ryrie skippering and sailmaker-turned-Olympic-coach Mike Fletcher as sheethand, John served time as for’ardhand on a Dragon. That was until a new and sleek 30-footer cleaned up everything on the Harbour.

“It was an Etchells. I bought myself one and became fleet captain at Royal Prince Edward,” John tells. “I raced this class in world championships in Australia and the USA with some success.”

ALMOST A SYDNEY HOBART

His first offshore race came with the late Don Mickelborough on Southerly. In 1982 John joined Jack Rooklyn’s Apollo crew for the Sydney Hobart, being pipped in the famous seven-second victory by American maxi Condor. Since then, he has competed in most major offshore events worldwide.

By 1998 he was Rear Commodore of the CYCA and sailing master on the 80-foot sled Marchioness for that year’s ill-fated Sydney Hobart.

“We led the fleet into the storm after flying down the coast with a nor’easter,” John remembers. “The sea began to get really bad. We were hit by a horrible wave, broached and laid her in the water.”

The mast’s baby stay broke during the turmoil, but the maxi continued. Entering Bass Strait the navigator came to John bearing a weather fax and grave expression.

“The low-pressure zone looked like someone had dipped a thumb in an ink well and stamped the page,” John says. “Because we’d broken the stay and couldn’t control the mast, I told the owners we were retiring. We had a crew of 24 and I didn’t want to be responsible for them.

“The owners resisted, but I said ‘I’m the sailing master, we’re going back – there’ll be other Hobart races’.”

They safely retreated to Sydney, although John sailed into a media frenzy that would grip the club for several years.

His working life has been plain sailing by comparison. Or not …

BUDDING MARINE ASSESSOR

Charlie sold the waterfront business in 1960 to what is now the CYCA and became a pioneer of charter fishing in Sydney. At the same time, they received an unexpected phone call from Outboard Marine.

“They wanted Dad to become a Johnson outboard dealer so we started a marine centre at Sylvania, near Port Hacking. It was called Messenger’s Marine – we also sold MerCruisers, Savage aluminium and fibreglass boats, and Caribbean boats.

“We sold the business after a while and Dad said to me ‘What are you going to do?’.”

Six months later, following a labouring stint, the answer came. John fielded a call from Marine Hull Insurance offering him a marine assessing role. That was in 1975.

“I’d had plenty of practical experience on the waterfront, but no formal training,” John says. “I ended up formulating the claims procedures and trained other assessors around Australia.

“Around 1982, I was made a director of Marine Hull, which was eventually bought out to become Club Marine. I started my own company, Marinassess, and have been assessing for Club Marine as a contractor ever since.”

With his old-school skills, Messo is highly regarded for his hands-on, sleeves-up approach to retrieval operations.

“One of the first major storms I remember came at Mornington Peninsula in Melbourne, where about 26 boats had either dragged or broken their moorings,” Messo says. “Many of them tore their keels on the reef – some were write-offs, others were total constructive losses.

“I flew down from Sydney to take over the salvage and mobilised every bit of heavy machinery I could get my hands on. It’s critical to get boats off the water – they’re not like a car that can stay on the side of a road for a week.”

HORN OF A DILEMMA

The Marinassess office is now adorned with shots from the hundreds of salvages John has completed around Australia and the world. The biggest was a 350-tonne aluminium superyacht that grounded off the Horn of Africa en route from the Mediterranean to Australia. Somalian pirates had cunningly disabled the nearby lighthouse to deceive passing boats.

Originally built for Jackie Onassis, the $5m vessel was called The Lotus – a name John will never forget.

He commissioned a salvage tug and eventually chartered a plane to fly in via Nairobi, Kenya and Somalia. Like Lawrence of Arabia, Messo was transported by camel to a nearby camp, where he commandeered a small boat to access the stricken ship. It hadn’t budged an inch because the salvage crew had neglected to lighten the load.

“I needed concrete to fill the voids that had been holed – I finally found some at a French aid camp in the desert,” says John. “While all this was going on, the Somalians were taking pot-shots at us from the clifftops. We had to buy them off with fuel for their fires.”

After several futile months the food supply dwindled, so there was nothing for it other than to dive for lobsters. Finally, a Norwegian fishing boat arrived and together they managed to haul the hull off. Dodging Somalian gunships, they then limped to Djibouti for initial repairs.

“I was clocking up expenses, but the funds were slow in coming – at one stage they threw me in prison until the money came,” says John. “I had to collect $250,000 in US notes from the bank in a township where they’d slit your throat for five cents.”

If that wasn’t enough, Messo’s hotel was bombed by a revolutionary – police nabbed the suspect and, after a quick trial, executed the perpetrator alongside the building rubble.

John finally had The Lotus towed to Singapore for more repairs. It was reinsured with a different company and sadly, on its ensuing voyage, the ill-fated vessel sank at sea …

Other salvages have been easier – for instance, a racing yacht bound for the Gold Coast that was beached on the NSW mid-north coast. The owners left the boat then continued by land to Southport.

“I drove up to Port Macquarie, organised a bulldozer, a crane and a low-loader and had the yacht back here at the CYCA while the owner still thought it was on the beach,” John laughs.

Often devising plans on the run, Messo removed a Swan 65’s rig in the Cook Islands using coconut palms as levers. Summoning fishing trawlers, still with their catches aboard, he salvaged the upturned trimaran Umi Maru off Newcastle – at the time, the largest multihull ever to be righted with a rig still in it.

Recently, a luxury cruiser hit rocks while heading north from Melbourne. Though reduced to matchwood, Messo still had to air-lift the engines out via helicopter.

And there’s one vessel still causing grief – last year it drifted into a cave on an island off Port Stephens and became wedged 10m above the tide line. It’s completely inaccessible, but the authorities are pressuring him to somehow move it.

“As a boating man it’s always sad to see what becomes of them,” John laments. “I often have owners crying over their pride-and-joy, but I remind them that no one’s been killed and most damage can be repaired.”

Rarely is Mother Nature solely implicated, in John’s view: “People buy boats thinking of palm trees and sunsets, but lack basic sailing or navigation nous. They get fatigued and the shore becomes very appealing – and that’s where they end up, on the shore.”

Marinassess now employs four staff as Messenger eases his hand from the salvaging tiller, although life is far from quiet – for six months we’d phone-tagged to find this time to chat. Storms had intervened, and in the lulls that followed there had been operations – both salvage and medical. The ultraviolet has taken its toll on John’s skin and, after almost 30 sun cancer procedures, his body is struggling to tolerate anaesthetics.

He now flits between Sydney’s eastern suburbs and a property at Orange, NSW, where he dabbles in Angus cattle. He also owns a Sydney 38 called Utopia, which he bought in 2001. There are three dams on the farm – one has a pontoon dubbed Eel Pie Yacht Club after the island on the Thames that John’s great-great-grandfather was gifted by Queen Victoria. Idyllically, they race onemetre yachts and fish for trout.

Neither of his daughters possesses the sailing bug – Kate has a six-year-old daughter, while Lisa is editor-in-chief of her own motivational magazine called Renegade Collective.

Old Charlie succumbed in 1998 at the age of 92, “Fit as a fiddle to the end, with all his own teeth and pill-free.” It’s likely, then, there are more sea miles in Messo yet.

“Having the name Messenger has brought me a level of respect and an appreciation of us as boating people. Through Dad, my uncles and cousins I’ve had a huge advantage,” John admits.

“I was taught a healthy respect for the sea and my work has constantly reminded me of it ever since. I don’t do as much salvage work as I used to because of age, but I still like to work with my hands … I’m not fully ready for a ‘tree change’.”


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