Doug Hislop has seen a lifetime of action, capturing national attention in the 2011 floods. But it’s not all been smooth sailing.
Doug Hislop has seen a lifetime of action, capturing national attention in the 2011 floods. But it’s not all been smooth sailing.

Troubles that almost sank 2011 flood hero

Look into the wheelhouse of the Kookaburra Queen on a Saturday and chances are the skipper you'll see is Doug Hislop, the tug captain hero of the 2011 Brisbane floods.

At 76, there's no keeping Mr Hislop off the Brisbane River but while the paddlewheel party boat has her charms, it's Mavis, the snub-nosed tug that stopped a concrete torpedo from walloping the Gateway Bridge 10 years ago, that has Hislop's heart.

In fact, there's a photograph and caricature of the little tug above his bed at the retirement village in bayside Manly that he and wife, Lorraine, moved into more than two years ago.

"Not a picture of me," jokes Mrs Hislop. "Mavis, his girlfriend."

Doug Hislop with his tug Mavis at The Yard Slipway at Hemmant on the Brisbane river. Picture: Brad Fleet
Doug Hislop with his tug Mavis at The Yard Slipway at Hemmant on the Brisbane river. Picture: Brad Fleet

It's been a love affair of close to 50 years, a love and trust that was on display for the world to see when Mr Hislop powered Mavis out into the swollen river in the pre-dawn hours of January 12, 2011 to stop a 300m section of the flood-destroyed Riverwalk from smashing into the Gateway. By his side, watching out for the flotsam in the water, was fellow skipper Peter Fenton, a mate for decades.

Tragically, in December of the year they became heroes, Fenton was killed in a workplace accident.

"That nearly finished me," says Mr Hislop, wiping away tears as he talks about the highs and lows in his life since the day he and Mr Fenton decided to take Mavis out to save the bridge.

On that January morning about 3.30am, the two men were at the Murarrie depot of Mr Hislop's company, Bowen Tug and Barge, keeping vigil over the company's vessels as the floodwaters rushed passed. Then the news came over the radio: the Riverwalk had broken apart and a 300m slab was heading down the river, bound for the iconic Gateway.

It was not unexpected. The day before, they'd been on standby at New Farm as the army assessed if explosives could be safely used to destroy the buckling Riverwalk and tow it away. It was deemed too dangerous. Now Mr Hislop was firing up Mavis, saying to Mr Fenton, "We'd better get out there and see what we can do."

Peter Fenton and Doug Hislop, who stopped a 300m section of the Riverwalk from smashing into the Gateway Bridge. Picture: Annette Dew
Peter Fenton and Doug Hislop, who stopped a 300m section of the Riverwalk from smashing into the Gateway Bridge. Picture: Annette Dew

First, they had to get from the depot, located on the bay side of the Gateway to under the bridge. It was a hard slog, with the flood current clocking 10 to 12 knots on its way out.

"The tide was running that fast, there was no way we were going to get through the Gateway Bridge," says Mr Hislop. "Mavis does about 12 knots and that wasn't enough."

So Mr Hislop applied a lifetime of maritime knowledge and skill that began when he was a kid from Norman Park sailing skiffs on the Brisbane River. He headed Mavis towards the pylons of the bridge, using the eddies around them to gain momentum.

"The water was in whirlpools and because the water, in places, was travelling the direction I was, we got that extra speed," he said.

Not long after getting beyond the bridge, the water slowed down a fraction - and they spied their quarry.

The concrete walkway was lying across the river, opposite the bulk sugar terminal, about 500m away from the bridge. It had lumps of timber and shrubbery on its edges where it had scoured parts of the riverbank.

"It was coming quick," says Mr Hislop, who estimates it weighed about 3000 tonnes. "We didn't have much time."

Mr Hislop manoeuvred Mavis to the walkway and put on the revs.

"We had to push pretty hard for a while to get it turned," he says. "Pedal to the metal."

His greatest concern was that Mavis wouldn't be able to get the walkway perpendicular in time, risking Mavis being squashed between the walkway and the bridge pylons.

The floating boardwalk is guided down the river below the Gateway bridge. Picture: Nine Network
The floating boardwalk is guided down the river below the Gateway bridge. Picture: Nine Network

But the 800 horsepower, 55 tonne, twin-propeller tug dug deep and turned the missile, ushering it safely under the bridge as the sun peeped over the horizon.

"Within 15 minutes, it was all over," says Mr Hislop, who is uncomfortable with his hero status.

He's unconvinced the bridge would have been structurally damaged if the walkway hit the pylons but accepts that if it had hit, it would have had to have been closed for days while engineers assessed it.

To Mr Hislop, it was just another challenging day on the water, something he thrives on.

"That's the trouble with him," says his wife and mother to their three sons. "He loves risk."

He's put the navigational light in at the notoriously dangerous Break Sea Spit off Fraser Island, laid the massive cable between the island and mainland River Heads, spent years dredging sand in the unpredictable Moreton Bay and was a sand and gravel barge operator in the Brisbane River back in the "wild west" days of the '70s and '80s.

"Yeah, we got shot at," says Mr Hislop, whose work was not appreciated by some farmers. "We've had bullets in the water around us when we were steaming up the river."

But the most traumatic day was the day Mr Fenton died after being struck by a 98kg food container that slipped from its slings as it was being lowered on to a barge.

A coroner found fault with the cargo ship's boatswain but also concluded Mr Fenton, the workplace health and safety officer, had contributed to his own death by standing in a danger zone.

Doug Hislop with Mavis. Picture: Brad Fleet
Doug Hislop with Mavis. Picture: Brad Fleet

His death led to a fracturing of relationships between Mr Fenton's family and Mr Hislop, his employer, and soon after, the emotional toll and legal disputes led Mr Hislop to sell the business he had built up over 40 years. Then the deal went sour.

"I sold it to some people who took it over and were supposed to pay me out but they went broke. It just fell over." The Hislops lost millions of dollars. Plus Mavis. Not for long. Determined not to lose his "girlfriend", Mr Hislop entered into a partnership with others to get her and another tug, Ella, back. Now, along with his Kookaburra Queen shifts to "earn a few dollars", he skippers Mavis for contract work and is rebuilding Ella. His new company is called Rising Phoenix. Like the river, there's been twists and turns for the reluctant hero, but Mr Hislop's got Mavis - and the loyal Lorraine - and that's what matters to the man who saved the Gateway.

Originally published as Troubles that almost sank 2011 flood hero