A platform for a new generation of Indigenous seafarers
It was a late afternoon in March when CJ Manjarres-Wahlberg, a Royal Australian Navy veteran and ACU graduate, received an unexpected phone call from a polite gentleman with an English accent.
“So I’m on the phone and the man introduces himself and says to me, ‘I was wondering if you were free to take a few people on the ship tomorrow?’”
While his days are often spent working offshore for a major drilling company, CJ is also a co-director of the Sea Heritage Foundation, a not-for-profit that manages the historic lighthouse tender vessel, MV Cape Don.
Part of his role with the foundation is to host tours on the ship, which acts as a living museum of Australia’s maritime history at its berth at Balls Head, near North Sydney.
Thankfully, CJ was available, so his answer to the gentleman on the phone was ‘yes’.
“Then we speak a little further and he mentions Her Royal Highness, and I say, ‘I’m sorry?’ And he replies, ‘Oh dear me, they haven’t told you, have they? In a few weeks, you’re going to be hosting Her Royal Highness, the Princess Royal, on the ship’.”
Once he picked his jaw up off the floor, CJ expressed his utter excitement that Princess Anne, the Princess Royal, would visit the Cape Don as part of her tour of Australia in April, undertaken on behalf of Her Majesty The Queen in her Jubilee year.
So, a few weeks after that phone call, Princess Anne and her husband, Vice Admiral Sir Timothy Laurence, toured the Cape Don as guests of the Sea Heritage Foundation and Prince’s Trust Australia.
“It was a fantastic day,” says CJ, who described the process of organising and hosting the royal visit as “an incredible experience”.
As part of the tour, Redfern-based Indigenous social enterprise Tribal Warrior delivered a traditional Welcome to Country, led by Yuin, Dharawal and Ngarigo custodian Leslie McLeod. Also present was the former master of the Cape Don, Captain Richard Island, as well as representatives of the Royal Australian Navy, Shipping Australia, Serco Maritime, Thales Australia and various other dignitaries.
CJ with Princess Anne on board the Cape Don.
“We took the Princess and the Vice Admiral on the Cape Don and spoke about the vessel’s history,” says CJ, “of how it was one of a unique class of ships that were purpose-built to serve lighthouses and other navigational aids, but also of her future as maritime training vessel. We showed them how the ship will be used by students, providing opportunities for those who might not otherwise have the chance to pursue a career in maritime.”
While she undoubtedly has a proud status as a relic of Australia’s maritime history, the Cape Don now has a new lease on life.
A new project titled ‘Get Into Maritime’ has been developed by the Sea Heritage Foundation board with the support of TAFE NSW and the Prince’s Trust Australia, a national charity founded by the Prince of Wales with a mission of inspiring veterans into entrepreneurship, and helping young people to prepare for the rapidly changing world of work.
CJ was himself a beneficiary of the Prince’s Trust as part of its Enterprise for Veterans program.
“After I left the navy, I was a little bit lost and I did a couple of programs with the Prince’s Trust and they were fantastic,” says CJ, who went on to study Occupational, Health, Safety and Environmental Management at ACU, and credits the latter for kickstarting his career in safety.
His relationship with the Prince’s Trust helped to open doors when the Sea Heritage Foundation hatched the plan to use the Cape Don as a platform for a series of maritime training courses aimed specifically at First Nations people. The initial program, a Certificate I in Maritime Operations General Purpose Hand course beginning in October 2022 and running for eight weeks, will enable graduates to register as general deckhands on a variety of vessels including tugs, charter boats and ferries.
“It acts as a window of opportunity into the maritime industry, enabling graduates to continue to train as they progress their professional development pathway,” says CJ, who adds that the support from the Prince’s Trust has been “amazing”.
The origin of the project goes back to 2020, when the Sea Heritage Foundation’s board discovered that of the 18,000 Australians employed in the maritime industry, less than two per cent were Indigenous.
Princess Anne meeting members of the Sea Heritage Foundation’s Indigenous Advisory Committee.
As an island-nation, shipping is integral to Australia’s prosperity, yet the country faces a shortage of maritime professionals. At the same time, many of the Closing the Gap targets established by the Federal Government are not being met, including in areas such as Indigenous employment and education.
“We saw the potential to contribute to changing those statistics and using the Cape Don as a way of engaging Indigenous Australians in a meaningful and culturally-appropriate way,” says CJ, who points out that First Nations people have a long history of seafaring.
He says that the courses could contribute to raising the rate of Indigenous employment in maritime to five per cent within a decade.
For the moment, the foundation and its Indigenous advisory committee (which includes lawyer, academic and filmmaker Professor Larissa Behrendt, Master Mariner Ryan Cobb, Ronald Jones, and naval veterans Matthew Jones and Glenn Ritchie) is focused on delivering courses that are both practical and relevant to First Nations people.
“The idea is to put something together that Indigenous people are interested in, and that has a purpose,” CJ says. “It’s all about giving people the opportunity to gain skills that will benefit their career and their life, in a way that they find fulfilling and satisfying.”
In the meantime, the Sea Heritage Foundation has a series of other community projects in the pipeline. The first is a program to introduce schoolkids to the wonders of maritime in conjunction with North Sydney Council. The second is a project that will engage community members to help with the restoration of an old wooden workboat, enabling people to learn basic skills in the traditional boat-building trade.
“There’s so much to be excited about in shipping and maritime industry,” says CJ, “and we relish the chance to share our love of it and allow younger generations the opportunity to gain an appreciation for it.”
As for the Cape Don herself, she will go in to be dry-docked at the Garden Island navy yard in 2023, enabling a thorough inspection and clean of the hull, repairs where necessary, and a new coat of paint. Once restored, CJ hopes the ship will live a long life of service – not on the high seas, but nonetheless worthy.
“While the old ship looks a bit rusty at the moment, she’ll definitely outlive you and I,” he says.
“The Cape Don has met celebrities, dignitaries and even a princess, and she still has a big future, doing lots to help people for the benefit of the wider community. It’s going to be exciting to see all that happen.”
Discover where a degree in occupational health, safety and environmental management could lead, and learn more about CJ’s work with the Sea Heritage Foundation.