Sydney’s large harbour ferry network is one of its many attractions. Few visitors to Sydney fail to take a ferry to Manly, Taronga Zoo or Darling Harbour.
The natural setting of Sydney puts it among the world’s most beautiful cities, being built around a sunken river estuary. This means that the ocean flooded what were long ago two rivers with many tributaries, so that what we have now is a 55 square km area of seawater with countless bays and a 317 km shoreline, and sheltered by relatively high ground, with only a 1500 m (or mile wide) opening to the Pacific. From the time of European settlement in 1788, traffic across this natural asset was of course by small boat, and from this has grown a large fleet of ferries. Although the development of road traffic with bridges and a tunnel has limited the growth of Sydney’s ferry fleet, the little ships continue to be popular with commuters and tourists alike and continue to work hard and be replaced at the end of their service life.
During our recent 8 week stay in Sydney we travelled by Manly ferry and bus countless times, but also managed to ride most of the main routes and all of the classes of the largest ferry fleet on the harbour.
The typical Sydney ferry became a double ender quite early (starting with paddle steamers in the later 19th century and screw steamers from the 1890s), as turning a single rear-screwed vessel in restricted spaces and surrounded by other water craft was time consuming and often hazardous. However, the development of fast, manoeuvrable and more economical catamaran ferries towards the end of last century has tipped the balance in their favour, although the 30 minute Manly run (which involves crossing the Sydney Heads and its sometimes rough seas) looks like remaining the domain of large double-ended vessels.
The catamaran vessels are also shallower in draught and create less wash, which has prompted the Government to open up the Parramatta River, the largest river running into Port Jackson, making it possible to travel by ferry 23 km up river to Parramatta, Australia’s oldest inland settlement, established in the same year as Sydney Cove. This service includes several commuter stops and is very popular also with locals and visitors alike.
Much of the romance of the steam-powered ferries of my boyhood has sadly gone. I loved most of all the graceful looking Many ferries Curl Curl and Dee Why with the sight, sound, and smell of their pulsating reciprocating steam engines and stylishly built with lots of timber fittings in Scotland back in 1927-28. But I am glad that I can still enjoy the beauty of Sydney Harbour, the restfulness of water travel, and the excitement of being on a working ship, however small.
Readers who are interested in the management, history or current fleet list of Sydney’s ferries will find their Wikipedia page a good place to start. For Sydney ferry history and nostalgia enthusiasts The Ferries of Sydney website is a goldmine.
Those who enjoy ship modelling may be aware that Jeroen van der Worm, a Dutchman with links to Sydney and a love for its ferries, has published a beautiful cardboard model kit of the First Fleet ferries (and of Balmain Wharf – a free download – and two old Murray River paddle steamers to boot!) and may add to this excellent work.
Below are some of my photos of the ferries and sights we enjoyed. I also post my photos of the general arrangement elevation and deck plans of each class of ferry (except the two Harbourcats I haven’t managed to catch yet) as displayed on board each. As always, clicking on my images will enlarge them in a new window.
“Freshwater” Class – four Manly ferries, 1982-88
Lady Northcott (1975) & Lady Wakehurst (1975, sold)
Lady Herron (1979) & Lady Street (1979, sold)
The “First Fleet” Class– 9 inner harbour ferries built 1984-86
The Rivercats – 7 catamaran ferries built in 1992-95 to navigate the Parramatta River and named after Australian Olympic athletes
Two smaller “Harbourcats” were added in 1998 to supplement other catamaran ferry services
The “Supercats” – 4 fast catamaran ferries built in 2000 and 2001 for distance runs: two were also named after Olympians, one after Australia’s first Roman Catholic saint, and the other? “Supercat 4”!