The ‘not so’ Grey Wanderers - Tea and scones on Lake Wallis in 1976 by Winsome and Graeme AndrewsIn 1976 we spent several hours pottering around Lake Wallis near Forster in NSW, aboard an elderly well-decked launch. Her Master was a gentleman by the name of Stan Crocker. In addition to providing a gently humorous description of the locality and its history he provided tea and scones, the latter fresh made before he opened his boat for travellers.
Come with us now as we re-run a slightly-reduced version of most of Stan’s story, first printed in Australian Seacraft in April 1977 …
Stan Crocker of Forster is a throw-back. In 1976 he is probably the last of the travelling storemen who once could be seen on most of Australia’s waterways.
These water-borne carriers could be found on any river. They brought stores and religion. They collected produce outbound and replaced it with passengers inbound.
The small ferry blends into the Forster waterfront of 1976.Stan still does something like that. Along with his tourist passengers he carries beer, bread, mail and vegetables and at various wharves around the lake he is met by the locals. Meanwhile his passengers watch the process with interest, probably unaware of just what they are watching.
Stan’s small well-deck ferry Lake Wallis is one of the last of the small working craft of the Forster area, her lineage goes back to the time when Forster was a thriving coastal shipping port. The small ferry’s days are numbered as Forster’s population is increasing and new waterfront businesses are growing, along with bigger, faster and more obvious cruise boats. Stan reckons he will not be able to compete but he and his little boat might last long enough, particularly as her shallow draft allows her to reach places out of bounds to bigger craft.
In 1976 only one other boat competed with Stan for the tourist trade. The ex river milk boat Sun with her liquor license and great size carried a different load to Stan and their paths rarely crossed.
In 2011 Sun was based in Brooklyn on the Hawkesbury River and serviced Dangar Island and the settlements such as Little Wobby.
Stan collects his goods and passengers from almost the heart of Forster. The trip is advertised as starting at 0900hrs but Lake Wallis and her amiable Master are no longer young and not in any hurry.
The ferry seems to have been built about 1944. She carries up to 38 passengers with a crew of one. A Lister diesel can give her about eight knots but six or seven will do her unless the wind and the lake look like whipping up. When we travelled with Stan he was contemplating buying a newer and bigger boat but was bothered that this would mean he would have to increase his prices.
At about 0920 the Lister rumbles into life and Lake Wallis moves away from her berth with perhaps 20 adults with a dozen or so kids. Passengers and crew are seated low in the hull. She is like an old private launch with the engine covered by a large flat-topped box, slap in the middle of the boat.
Nearing the Forster-Tuncurry bridge the launch swings sharply to port and skirts a steep sand island where kids are sliding down the sand dune to end up with a great splash. The launch crosses the next channel past low-lying Cockatoo Island towards the ‘Cut’ which is the entrance to the Wallamba River. A considerable tidal outflow can be felt there and the Lister picks up a few revs to cope.
Stan has done this many times but he still keeps his ship’s head lined up on the various official and local knowledge navigation markers and piles.

Coomba Island – a shop and pit-stop along the way. 

Along the top of Wallis Island the ferry plods. In the area between Regatta Island and Wallis Island the local people once held picnic regattas. Paddle steamers, early motor launches and sail craft of all types – private and commercial- competed in picnic races while the families ashore tucked into the goodies and egged on the contestants.
At Coomba, a hamlet on the western shores of Wallis Lake, a small jetty pokes out from the shore. Here a cluster of people await their purchases. A run-down public toilet attracts some sighs of relief from some of the intrepid crew. Coomba was to be a glamour development but something went wrong and the 20 or so homes house retirees in considerable peace.
Stores and money change hands and Lake Wallis backs carefully out into the channel and heads onwards.
On the south-western end of Wallis Island is a grand and remarkable two-storey house. It is obviously old and apparently houses a Finnish family who have crops, cattle and the obligatory sauna. Their ‘wharf’ consists of the remains of the steam paddle lighter, or ‘drogher’ Queen. About 40m long by 10 or 12m wide, this craft is a wooden boat enthusiast’s dream. Much of the exposed timber remains showing grown timbers and adzed wood working. Stores and monies change hands and off we go again.
Stan Crocker arranges his workplace for the morning’s run.Out in the middle of the lake the Lister’s muted growl suddenly fades into silence. Skipper Crocker puts down his microphone, takes off his Captain’s hat and replaces it with a chef’s hat. A white apron mysteriously appears, while from a large white locker, good china cups and saucers appear. Within a few minutes Stan is passing around, via the ladies, cups of very hot tea or coffee, biscuits for those that want them and scones for those who prefer. The children get cold soft drinks and or cordial.
As the boat drifts Stan tells us more about the lake, his boat and of the locals. Fifteen minutes after ‘Tea-Oh!’ the diesel awakes, tea remnants disappear into the locker, the tablecloth leaves the top of the engine box and we press on somewhat refreshed and impressed.
The homeward, northward run takes us into shallows. Clumps of weeds slide past close to the hull and Stan keeps his eyes on his marks. He tells us about ‘The Step’.
Between the mainland at Wallis Point and Wallis Island is a sand bank known as ‘The Step’. ‘Tea Oh!’ – cuppa and scones mid-lake.Here the incoming tide rolls over the edge of the Stockyards Channel and forms a sand ‘lip’. Here it is that deeper-draft vessels baulk but the little launch slides up and over, the Lister going flat out. All aboard feel the bow then the rest of the boat lift and then drop as we bump into deeper water. Lake Wallis has nearly completed her run.
She swings to starboard off the rarely-used airfield on Wallis Island and heads down Breckinridge Channel. Past Godwin Island Stan swings to starboard and eases in towards his pile berth.
The remains of drogher PS Queen made a good wharf for a family from Finland.Lake Wallis’s stem settles into the low-tide shore-line mud as Stan secures his berthing lines before waving us ashore over a plank that is strong enough but makes one wonder anyway. Stan makes his personal farewell to every person leaving and then, as we straggle away, turns to and cleans up his place of work.

 

Stan Crocker and his comfortable little launch provided one of the best-value tourist dollars the Grey Wanderers have ever had. More than 30 years later we sometimes talk of him, wondering what became of him. Perhaps one of Afloat’s amazing knowledgeable readers can complete the tale?