Obituary: Captain John Foley

Britain April 30, 1940 - Brisbane, Queensland, Australia June 22, 2015

Captain John Foley

Published Jun 27, 2015 8:50 PM by The Maritime Executive

Family, friends and colleagues of Captain John Foley, Master Mariner and Great Barrier Reef “Grand Pilot” gathered together at St. Augustine’s Church, Hamilton, Brisbane on June 26, 2015 to farewell John and commemorate his life.


It was said of his passing “Captain John Foley enjoyed a full life that would have been more than enough for two lesser men.”

For a man who achieved so much in his lifetime, Captain John Foley was remarkable for one thing above all - his modesty.

Well spoken, polite and scholarly, Captain Foley was a fountain of knowledge on his favorite place, Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef, his “office” being one of the most challenging sea passages on earth.

Never a day passed that he didn’t thank his good fortune for a life long association with the Reef.

At the tender age of 15 John first went to sea as a fresh-faced young cadet, travelling the world to Japan, Venice, South America and Vancouver where he met his wife Denice - and Australia, where he had his first encounter with a marine pilot and the Great Barrier Reef; and its allure charted the course of the rest of his life.

“That was enough for me,” he said. “The calm tropical seas, the maze of reefs, rocks and coral cays through which we weaved our way…I was hooked.”

His desire to get back to the Reef was evident in his rapid escalation through the ranks and by 26 years old he was in command of general cargo ship Alagna servicing Queensland coastal ports and outposts in the Gulf and Arnhem Land.

On board he was the “Old Man,” and younger than the rest of the crew.

By age 27 he’d qualified as a pilot but his dream of guiding ships through the Great Barrier Reef was proving elusive.

Despite his qualifications and experience, it transpired the authorities considered him too young to fulfil such a demanding role.

At age 35 he finally saw the realization of his energetic pursuit and received his ticket to pilot his first ship, the Blue Funnel liner Rhexenor through the Reef.

It was the first of more than 1,500 reef pilotages over the next 40 years.

Some ships were fine vessels, but others could be politely described as second rate: “…absolutely nothing working on the bridge, inedible food, a vermin infested pilot’s cabin and hostile bridge personnel.”

The filthiest ship he had ever seen, the illegal longline fishing vessel Lih Yih 202, had to be piloted under arrest to Cairns.

The skipper was about to make a run for the open sea when a federal policeman aboard with Captain Foley drew a pistol and defused the situation.

To manage the ships’ shortfalls, Captain Foley developed pilotage techniques based on the compass alone, a depth of local knowledge and the best radar available: two Mark 1 eyeballs.

As demanding as life at sea can be, John humbly felt that the history of the Reef should be recorded for posterity, and he set about committing to paper some of the Great Barrier Reef’s remarkable stories.

He wrote of being aboard the World Jade when it became the first ship to traverse the history- making Hydrographers Passage off Mackay, the story of the Quetta, Queensland’s worst shipping disaster, the WW2 hospital ship Centaur, a history of Thursday Island and reef pilots.

He was made a fellow of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland.

But Captain Foley’s life was also marred by tragedy, his son David was diagnosed with a brain tumor at age 15, but more than 25 operations later he died aged 24.

Captain Foley and his wife Denice made the emotionally-charged decision to donate his organs and as a result became actively involved in the donor movement.

He was also a major force in establishing the cruise ship industry in Queensland, identifying new anchorages in places like Kingfisher Bay and Hamilton Cove and consulting on the Brisbane Cruise Ship Terminal.

In recent years he has been sharing his love of the sea and history with passengers aboard cruise ships by giving informative onboard lectures on nautical points and places of interest.

He hung up his binoculars only a few years ago, but continued on in an advisory capacity for Australian Reef Pilots and the global cruise ship industry.

He saw the most dramatic changes in his lifetime at sea; from using a sextant like Captain Cook to radar to satellite to GPS to electronic charts.

He was also an inaugural director and a major figure in the growth and development of Australian Reef Pilots Pty Ltd and was always there to mentor and advise a new legion of pilots.

Captain Foley made little of his remarkable contribution to maritime safety and history, the economic prosperity of Queensland, and indeed Australia, and for this he was held in the highest esteem by all who came in contact with him.

To quote Captain Foley’s co-author of the book Hospital Ship Centaur:

“Rest in peace dear friend. You have done Australia proud and your written works are a testament to your character, courage and love of the sea. You have now become part of Australian Maritime history!”

He was a true “Guardian of the Reef.”

He is survived by his wife Denice, daughter Lisa and three grandchildren.