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All Hands On Deck

How a group of volunteers are setting a course to secure the M.V. Cape Don’s future

Ship’s caretaker, Daniel Callender, top left, and views of the M.V. Cape Don in Balls Head Bay.

It comes as a surprise to many that a major piece of Australian maritime history is tucked just behind the Coal Loader Centre for Sustainability in Waverton.

Completetd in 1963, the M.V. Cape Don is one of the last ships built in Australia. She spent her working life navigating the coastline as a Commonwealth Lighthouse Service Ship transporting essential items, lighthouse families and maintenance teams around Australia.

In 1973, she also assisted in the recovery of Flinders’ Anchors. The two anchors were jettisoned from HMS Investigator by Matthew Flinders in 1803 and are now on display in museums in South Australia and Canberra.

“Cape Don kept the lights burning and our coastline safe,” onboard caretaker Daniel Callender says. “She was left round here in the bay a few years ago. A crew member on one of the river cats saw her and put a note in the newspaper asking for help.”

As a result, the Sea Heritage Foundation got involved and they now oversee the restoration work returning Cape Don to her former glory.

Today, from the outside, it’s hard to fathom how she tackled Australia’s coastline with 51 crew and passengers on board. But beneath the rust and peeling paint, is a majestic ship receiving a tonne of TLC from passionate volunteers who are breathing new life into the weather-beaten beauty.

Daniel has lived onboard the Cape Don for the past four years and has been involved with the ship since 2008.

“I was the first ‘young person’ on the team,” he remembers. “At 15 or 16, I was gobsmacked seeing the engine room. It’s incredible!”

Now, half of the 30 volunteers are under 30 and a quarter of them are female – all focussed on getting Cape Don ship shape again.

Daniel and the team conduct tours of the floating museum and these always reveal surprises, both for guests and volunteers.

“A lady was telling me her grandfather had been a lighthouse keeper,” Daniel recalls. “She used to visit him when she was a child and when she stepped into the lounge room on the ship, she stopped in her tracks. She realised she’d travelled on the Cape Don because she recognised the chairs. She even had photos of them from her childhood!”

“We’d love to have more volunteers,” Daniel continues. “You don’t have to have a maritime background. Painting, plumbing, mechanics, electrical work – there’s plenty to be done.”

As well as manual work, help is needed with organising and conducting tours. “And if you’re keen to learn and have a go at anything then that’s great too!” Daniel adds.

“There’s not really any other ships around like the Cape Don,” he concludes. “It’s 19 years since the engines were last run and we really hope that one day she will sail again. I’d love to see her back out on open water.”

Thanks to dedicated volunteers like Daniel and the hard-working team, maybe that day won’t be too far away.

To find more out about the M.V. Cape Don’s tours and how to volunteer, head to

WORDS: Anna Gordon PHOTOS: Belinda Spillane

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