Ballina gives Navy ships a last hurrah

TWO ROYAL Australian Navy ships have honoured Ballina as the destination of their final decommissioning voyage.

HMAS Wewak and Betano arrived this morning to a warm welcome from onlookers lining the Ballina breakwall and boardwalk.

The ships will be staying over the weekend for celebrations to honour decades of service before making their final voyages back to Cairns and Darwin.

First deployed in the mid-1970s, the vessels have seen numerous humanitarian operations across the Solomons, Papua New Guinea, and East Timor.

Both ships raced to deliver emergency humanitarian aid to Darwin in the aftermath of Cyclone Tracy in 1974.

As flat-bottomed heavy landing craft, the ships are one of the few Navy vessels able to enter the shallow waters of Ballina.

"The reason why their flat bottomed is so that we can drive up into areas that other ships don't dare to go... we can drive through shoal waters, though coral waters, and even drive up on to mud flats," Lieutenant Cockerill, commanding officer of the Betano said.

"We can drop the army off - tanks, artillery, infantry, where the enemy doesn't suspect they're going to appear."

"In the big ports we're often overshadowed by the larger ships, so it's nice to come into a small town and come out of the shadows."

Chief Petty Officer Craig Daly from the Wewak said there was a friendly rivalry between the two ships, joking that the Wewak 'was using the Betano as its fender' while anchored in Ballina.

Over the weekend they'll be sorting out their differences via a round of lawn bowls.

They'll also be participating in a dinner alongside some 170 Navy veterans who happen to be in town for their annual reunion.

Merv Stevens, President of the Ballina Sub-Section of the Naval Association of Australia, said the event coincided perfectly with the annual All Ships Reunion dinner for Navy veterans from around the country. It's always held in Ballina on the third week of November.

"On the October 24 we received a letter from Naval Headquarters saying due to budget cuts no ship or guest speakers were available," Mr Stevens said.

"Then yesterday we found out the Wewak and Betano were arriving... they didn't know our dinner was on and we didn't know they were coming in!"

"It's really put us back on Cloud Nine."

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