Spearmen Went In After the Fish Spear fishermen formed an association yesterday to educate the public in the sport and then gave a demonstration at Long Reef to show how they caught fish.
Mr. Dick Charles, of Hurstville, who is president of the new body – the Underwater Spear Fishermen’s Association of New South Wales – told the meeting the public did not understand spear fishing. He told members they were in danger of having it banned. For this reason the association was being formed.
About 50 enthusiasts expressed willingness to join.
Mr. Andy Armstrong of Neilsen Park, last week annoyed an orthodox fisherman by his success with the spear and received a blow on the head from the butt of the rod. He agreed that the interests of spearmen must be protected.
About 40 members gave the demonstration. Conditions were cold and overcast, but the spearmen caught about 30 fish up to 4 ib. in weight. They included red carp, black-fish, morwong and one big stingray, almost three feet across, which was earlier thought to be a shark. The spearmen, watched by hundreds of spectators, were not deterred. “See you later if a shark doesn’t see me first,” was one characteristic comment as the took to the water.
All types of spears were used from a simple barbed rod with bamboo handle, with which Mr. Don Linklater, of Bondi, landed a fish within a few minutes, to elaborate spring guns like that of Mr. Charles. Most of the fishermen wore face masks and held their breath while submerging for short periods.
Others had more elaborate apparatus, including small rubber floats to which tubes were attached, carrying air down to spearmen below the surface.
One man wore a “frogman’s suit” of rubber, with a diving helmet and air tube which enabled him to stay below indefinitely.
Mr. Jack Egan of Potts Point speared the stingray, using a rubber-powered sprin-gun.
JOE BROMWICH RICHARD S. CHARLES RON CLISSOLD NEVILLE COOK FRANK CUNLIFFE A. DE GRUEN BRUCE DIXON TIM EALEY JACK EGAN JIM FERGUSON RALPH FLEMING LES GLEESON ALLAN GREEN TERRY HAGLEY LES HAWLEY BILL HEFFERNAN G. JEFFREY DON LINKLATER LOIS LINKLATER ROLLO MOORE COL MYLES GEORGE OWERS NOEL PETTIFER D. PHIBBS J. PHIBBS B. ROGERS J. SHAFFRAN GEORGE SHEEN DENNY WELLS M. WELLS L. WILSON R. WISE
This storey reprinted from the June 1949 issue of “Outdoors and Fishing” magazine documents the first recorded outing by spearfishers to Jibbon Point on Port Hackings southern headland. At this time fins were unknown in Australia. My how things have changed.
Spearfishing has caught the imagination of the adventure – loving Australian and the ever increasing membership of the Underwater Spearfisherman’s Association of NSW is indicative of the growth of this sport.
To many who are familiar with the formation of the rocky foreshores along the coast, the task the spearmen have set themselves in seeking this sport under the ledges and among the caves in the reefs, leaves the average angler aghast at the daring and adventurous spirit of these aquatic dare – devils.
It would be foolish to ignore the element of danger in respect of this sport and, while the spearfisherman may take every precaution against attack, it is agreed that the Wobbegong shark is a prevalent danger. Quoting from “The Fishes of Australia” by G.P. Whitley, F.R.Z.S. this shark is described as follows, ‘The Wobbegong Shark, or carpet shark, is noted for the beautiful colour patterns of its skin, which is ornamented with symmetrical designs in brown and greys. They live among weed – covered rocks where they feed on whatever swims their way and generally lie dormant on the bottom.
They have long, sharp teeth and curious weed – like outgrowths around their mouths. Unless by chance a wader’s foot or hand comes within reach, these sharks are not dangerous to man.”
Despite the hazards attached to this form of fishing, three members of the spear fishing fraternity recently made an investigation of the rocky foreshores of Jibbon Head.
One of the party, Ron Clissold, dived into eight feet of water and, in the process of investigation, found himself sharing the vicinity with a huge Wobbegong shark. Ron surfaced, called his companions and a plan of action was decided.
David Rawling was sent down to reconnoitre the proposed scene of battle. The Wobbegong was still in his lair and after further discussion with John McColl, the third member of the trio, they decided to attack in force. With spearguns loaded, the daring trio prepared to go below and engage the shark. Adjustments to belts and knives were made in case of urgent need and an inspection of the surrounding reef was made in readiness for the possibility of a quick escape if required.
Prepared for the task ahead, the lads went down. Approaching the lair with care the trio spread out to give each other cover. The baleful eyes of the shark watched the swimmers with a calculating gaze that boded ill for careless mistakes; and the hunters were on the alert for the sudden rush that might come at any minute.
The first spear flashed through the water and found its mark in the tough hide of the shark, followed by two more as the guns were brought into action. The force of the spears as they entered the body caused the shark to be dislodged from its position, but it quickly regained its place ready to charge. The spearmen surfaced for air, keeping a sharp lookout for attack from below as they regained their breath. Ready for a renewal of the hunt, David went down and approached the wounded shark with caution.
The blood from its wounds misted the water with a thin film of red as the hunter grasped the spears in an effort to force the shark away, but it charged him as he stood on the uneven sea bed. With the threshing shark fighting against his grip on the spears, David saw his mates enter the fight.
A tough battle ensued and the shark was finally forced into shallow water and held down on a ledge three feet under the surface with the help of David pushing from below. With super – human effort their quarry was finally manoeuvred on to the shore.
The estimated weight of the “catch” was in the vicinity of two hundred pounds while its length was seven feet six inches. The danger in this episode can be fully appreciated by the following extract from Mr. Whitley’s book:
“As long ago as 1789, Phillip wrote of the Wobbegong in his ‘Voyage to Botany Bay’ , he stated; ‘this fish was met with in Sydney Cove, Port Jackson, by Lieutenant Watts and is supposed to be as voracious as any of the genus, in proportion to its size; for having lain on the deck for two hours, seemingly quiet, on Mr. Watts’ dog passing by, the shark sprung upon it with all the ferocity imaginable, and seized it by the leg; nor could the dog have disengaged itself had not the people near at hand come to its assistance …’ “
The spear fishermen of Australia will no doubt continue their adventures, and let us hope that only pleasure will be the result.
Frank Cunliffe of Waverley NSW applied for a patent for a diving mask in June of 1941, ‘for use for short periods by trochus, pearl and beche de mer divers and also for use in fish spearing and generally seeing underwater as in the location of submerged objects’. The patent was granted on 7th April 1942 (Australian Patent No 114,992).
According to the patent document ‘This invention has been specifically devised to provide a simple and handy diving mask which is adapted to be slipped in place on the face and covers an area thereof embracing the eyes and nose and is suited for seeing things underwater in a clear and comfortable manner as long as the diver can stay down without breathing, also it is of cheap and durable construction’.
Frank Cunliffe became interested in diving after seeing a youth wearing diving goggles, which he borrowed and tried out. He experimented with goggles and finally made a single lens mask which covered the eyes and nose and gave something like normal vision underwater. He began spearfishing in 1940 and tried out many different speargun designs before settling on a successful model, which he also patented. He began making sets of spearfishing equipment consisting of a mask, weight belt and speargun which he sold for six pounds and ten shillings.
Aquamatic DiagramThe brothers, George and Trevor Davies, pioneered spearfishing in the Newcastle area taking up the sport in 1946. They were certainly talented and inventive. They made facemasks from car tyre inner tubes, started the Newcastle Neptune’s Spearfishing Club, made one of Australia’s first Scuba sets and designed the Aquamatic speargun.
On new years eve of 1960 Trevor was killed in a tragic accident when, whilst filling a cylinder with air, a water trap on the compressor exploded, spraying jagged fragments of metal over a wide area.
Trevor was the inventor and designer, George the engineer. They experimented with several speargun designs and during 1948 the design principles of the Aquamatic were conceived by Trevor and then further refined by George during the next five years.
Over this period every spare minute of the brother’s spare time was put to use with exhaustively testing and refining the gun, experimenting with it until George was satisfied, proclaiming “This speargun is, without fear of contradiction, the most powerful in the world”.
The first Aquamatics produced had a two inch diameter cylinder with a one inch bore and when charged to 359 PSI of pressure contained 45 cubic inches of compressed air. Later the cylinder was changed to one made of stainless steel, one inch in diameter with a one half inch bore. This cylinder, when fully compressed by the spear contained about 1800 PSI.
The gun has an overall length of twenty two inches, with the barrel extending eighteen inches behind the handle. The gun’s barrel was made to take any one of three spear shaft sizes of either five sixteenths of an inch, three eighths of an inch or seven sixteenths of an inch in diameter. Spears were usually 54 inches (four and one half feet) long with 23 loading notches.
To load the gun the trigger is depressed and the spear, with notches facing upward, is pushed into the barrel until it contacts the piston. The lever is then raised and lowered with a pawl engaging the notches and using a ratchet action forces the spear into the cylinder.
The nose of the aquamatic has a line discharge attachment clamped to it. The line is attached to the spear and wound around the rear movable arm and forward to the fixed arm. This is repeated several times with the other end of the line terminating at a reel.
The air in the cylinder lasts indefinitely. The gun has been used continuously for twelve months without any loss of pressure. When fired there is no explosion underwater and no discharge of bubbles as in a CO2 gun. It has tremendous power, propelling a spear for 350 ft out of the water. Its spear, with the head removed, can penetrate two inches of seasoned hardwood.
George considered the main essentials for a speargun were power, accuracy, manoeuvrability, balance, reliability and durability and believed the Aquamatic encompassed all of these traits.
Fifty to sixty Aquamatics were made, with most being sold in and around the Newcastle area. Dick Charles, the founder of the USFA bought one and one was sent to America, however it was never paid for, the purchaser denying ever receiving it. Later a similar gun was produced and sold in the USA as the “Airmatic”.
With his ever present yachting cap perched jauntily atop his balding head, burly 5 feet 11 inches tall, hazel – eyed Dick Charles was an imposing larger than life character.
Richard Stanley (Dick) Charles was the youngest son of Laura and Edward, a master builder and was born in England at Moseley Worcester on April 23rd 1901. The family moved to Canada and Mexico before settling in Hobart during 1913. Dick was successful in obtaining an apprenticeship as a fitter and turner with the IXL Jam and Sauce company and went on to become an aircraft mechanic, being employed as a ground engineer with the Australian Aircraft Engineering Co. at Mascot, obtaining licence no. 15. During 1923 he married Ruth Kelly and in 1924 they moved to Hurstville where he established a motor trading business.
In 1927 he was a founder of the St. George Motor Boat Club. Having a need for speed he built his own boat which he named the ‘Eagle’. Powered by a 360 hp Rolls Royce aircraft motor it could attain a speed of 89 mph and for a time held the record as the fastest boat in Australia.
In 1937 he began to manufacture and sell caravans from premises in McEvoy street Alexandria. Named the “Charlavan” it was Australia’s first pop – top van (Australian patent no. 3587) and was produced in 3 models, the Charlavan Junior for 67 pounds, the Charlavan Senior for 95 pounds and the Charlavan Senior Deluxe for 120 pounds.
During World War 2 he joined the National Emergency Service and became chief instructor at the Hurstville branch. He heard that the Australian Government was looking for inventions to assist the war effort, so he invented a special pulley system which was used for carrying injured soldiers down the Owen-Stanley Ranges of New Guinea.
During his time with the NES he was informed that Vaucluse Council was in need of cliff rescue apparatus to be used by the Police Rescue Squad to retrieve bodies from the bottom of the Gap.
He drew up plans for a system and was asked to construct it which he did, building it at Hurstville. It was found to be satisfactory and put into use. The apparatus was later improved by Hurstville Council Engineer, Mr. Webster.
It was during 1937 while on a camping holiday to Lake Conjola that Dick’s interest in spearfishing was born. He described it in these words:
I had been out hand fishing in my 10ft dinghy. Coming into the bank, I could see fish darting all over the place – mostly blackfish. On impulse, I got into the water, but as every skin diver knows, you can’t see much with the naked eye.
This set me thinking; you can see alright when you look through the sides of a fish tank, so if you looked through a piece of glass, kept water out of your eyes, you should be able to see under water.
You know what it’s like when you’re away camping, fellas! Something new gets into your bonnet and you can’t rest until you try it out.
By using a round piece of glass, in fact an old mirror with the silver scraped off, fitted into an old tyre tube, I made my first mask and, at the same time opened up an entirely new world to me. I bet all of you got a great thrill out of your first sight underwater! I know I did.
There were all the big niggers swimming about, getting me excited. I grabbed an oar from the boat and tried to stun one underwater. How silly can you get!
Next, I sharpened a six feet stick and prodded at them. I actually hit one, to my amazement, but didn’t get it.
We were due at Burrill Lakes the next day, so we packed our gear and, on the way down, I bought some shark hooks, straightened them out and fixed them on an eight feet piece of wood. There were always plenty of fish under the bridge at Burrill, so I went down after them. I got one or two, but it was always a job to stay down because I was too buoyant”.
Dave Rowling described Dicks first attempt at breathing underwater “Snorkels were unheard of and Dick tried one memorable day at Minnamurra to put a full face contraption on with an air hose attached to a free floating 4 gallon kerosene tin and with a typical ‘she’s apples fellas’ jumped off Minnamurra rail bridge.
It was after that day he became aware it is impossible to suck air down 12 to 15 feet underwater. With 30lb. lead round the middle and safety catches completely unheard of, it was a very bulgy – eyed, purple faced Dick some two minutes later who clawed himself to the mangrove edges’.
At the time Dick began spearfishing there were very few others, but as the numbers slowly grew, so did the complaints and harassment. The angling clubs were up against us and everywhere they went spearfishers were met with a hostile attitude. Finally the last straw came when Dick Charles and Bill Heffernan were spearfishing in the channel at the entrance to Tuggerah Lakes. Hearing a loud voice yelling at them they looked up to find it was the local sergeant of police telling them to get out. They were then told they were being arrested and to get dressed before being taken to the police station. Then the arguments started. Why were they being arrested? Where was the law to say they could not go in the water? Where was the law that they could not spear fish? After quite a lot of argument on both sides the old sergeant didn’t know if he was coming or going and in the end away he went.
The pair then agreed they will have to do something or they will be stopped altogether and the only thing to do would be to form an association to regulate the sport properly and to protect our rights. At the time they only knew two or three other spearfishermen between them.
On going home Dick pondered the situation and then ‘phoned the chief of staff of one of the Sunday papers and told him that a meeting had been called for all those who were interested in spearfishing to be held at 3 pm at Long Reef on April 4, 1948, for the purpose of forming an association. Afterwards there would be a mass dive of over 100 spearmen. The newspaper gave the story a run on their front page.
When the day arrived it was cold and showery and Dick remarked “it’ll be a bit funny if no one turns up”. They arrived early and set up a table and erected a calico sign. Lunch time came and went and it was still raining and no one had turned up. About an hour later cars began to arrive and then more and more cars. By three O’clock there were hundreds of people there and Dick got up and addressed the crowd, telling them why we would have to form an association and band together if we wanted to continue spearfishing. It was a case of “United we survive … divided we fall.”
After a few others spoke it was decided to form the association with Dick Charles being elected the president, Frank Cunliffe and Bill Heffernan vice presidents and Les Hawley Secretary-treasurer. A committee of 15 was also appointed. The meeting was then closed so that about 50 men could brave the shark infested waters. Bill Heffernan created quite a bit of interest with a shallow water diving suit as the public had never seen anything like this before, a large ray was speared and the news boys were having a field day. Everyone had a good time, the association was off to a good start and the newspapers played it up. Dick was well pleased with the way things turned out.
Dick continued to guide the association through its formative years and was president from 1948 to 1953 when he organised the first Australian Spearfishing Championships at Tweed Heads that same year. He donated a perpetual trophy for the event and to this day it still attracts keen competition from Australia’s best.
During the championships Dick Charles chaired a meeting to form the USFA of Australia with representatives from other states. Dick was elected the first President and Dick Barton the first Secretary.
Also during 1953 concerned about the near drowning and tragic deaths of skindivers Dick announced at a USFA meeting that he was working on a device to make spearfishing safer.
Shortly afterwards tragedy struck when at Harbord on Saturday 5th September 1953 a very popular USFA member Merv Caulfield got into difficulties while spearfishing and lost his life. Two others also got into trouble while trying to assist and only just managed to make it to shore. Merv left behind a young wife and infant son.
By October Dick’s device was at the point of going into full production and an advertisement of the time announced “The Dick Charles Safety Belt has been specifically designed for all spearmen and anglers who at times are in danger of losing their lives. A pull of the trigger and you float to the surface. Easy to wear you don’t know you have it on. All belts fitted with shark repellent. The first 500 belts should be ready end of October”.
The Safety Belt was of plastic construction and worn around the waist. It was inflated by triggering a small CO2 cartridge and had a pocket that contained a shark repellent dye of copper sulphate.
During its production it was credited with saving 20 lives and assisting many more in difficulty. Worried about its plastic construction Dick discontinued production, but re-introduced it during 1960 this time made from “the best insertion rubber money can buy’.
Dick withdrew from active involvement after a few years, but always maintained his interest. He suffered a fatal heart attack in July of 1994 and was cremated at Woronora Crematorium.
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