70 years of service - The Curranulla story by Rob Gawthorne

On the twelfth of May 2009 M.V. Curranulla celebrated 70 years on the Cronulla to Bundeena ferry run. She remains the oldest commuter ferry in Australia working a regular timetable.

Curranulla was designed and built by the well-known shipbuilders Morrison and Sinclair of Balmain, Sydney for the Cronulla ferry service owned by Captain Robert Ryall and was purpose built with a 3ft 6ins draft for the shallow and rough water of Port Hacking.

The 56ft timber ferry was constructed using the nail and rove system through Oregon planking and was powered by a 66hp 3-cylinder K3 hand start Kelvin diesel giving a top speed of seven knots.

Curranulla was first commissioned on May 12, 1939 with a private cruise on Port Hacking … selected guests and dignitaries striding onto her decks for the first time. At the time of commissioning she was the largest, fastest and the most modern vessel ever seen on Port Hacking and could complete the crossing from Cronulla to Bundeena in half the time of the older ‘well-deck’ ferries that had been running since the service first started in 1915.

The Kelvin diesel engine was painted green with many brass fittings polished by her crew daily and could be seen from the main deck through a glass and timber deck-to-deckhead casing. Growing up in Bundeena our family travelled by ferry regularly and on many occasions I watched other Mums and children looking out the windows at the passing shoreline as Dads spent the entire trip watching the Kelvin tick over.

Curranulla on Gunnamatta Bay 1981. In 1985 the ageing Kelvin was replaced with a 78hp, 5LW Gardner diesel which still gives great reliable service today consuming 4.5 litres of fuel an hour and giving the ferry a top speed of nine knots. Her original rod and chain steering was replaced with hydraulic steering in 1989.

Curranulla still handles a full workload making 13 return trips a day Monday to Friday and 40 trips on Saturday and Sunday for fifty weeks a year… that’s 8,500 trips per year. The other two weeks are for maintenance and weather. Having been in service for seventy years, that comes to a total of 595,000 trips.

It’s a 2km trip making 1,190,000kms in total. Given the equator is 40,025kms, the faithful little Curranulla has circled the globe 29 times … and the Grand old Lady of Port Hacking won’t be retiring anytime soon.

Together with her Port Hacking colleague MV Tom Thumb III both ferries run across to Bundeena for the 8am service to carry 200 school children out and both ferries return to Bundeena at 4pm to take them all home again. Then in the mornings at 10.30am Tom Thumb III heads up river on a scheduled scenic cruise to fill in her day.

The Bundeena ferry run is occasionally influenced by heavy weather, wind and big seas to the extent of waves crashing over the landings on Bundeena wharf. Today the service is cancelled in big seas but in the ‘old days’ the service would run in most conditions.

One occasion, in June 1948, is known as the "The Great Crossing at Bundeena". Curranulla departed Cronulla for Bundeena but the huge seas made it impossible to cross the bay.

Curranulla about to be washed onto the rocks in 1986. The ferrymaster was determined to get his passengers home. He turned the ferry around and returned to Cronulla to pick up three rowboats. He towed them behind Curranulla but instead of heading seaward to Bundeena he turned and surfed up river to the township of Maianbar – adjacent to Bundeena.

The passengers were helped into the rowboats and rowed ashore with waves crashing over the ferry and onto the beach. An artist was one of the first to go ashore and recorded the scene in a painting.

In July 1986 Curranulla was enroute from Cronulla to Bundeena in a winter gale and big seas to pick up the 7am commuters, but the huge waves made it virtually impossible to make the crossing.

Curranulla arriving at Bundeena 1939.The ferry turned back for Cronulla and was picked up by a huge roller and washed onto the rocks at Hungry Point. Fortunately the next wave came through and lifted her free. The ferrymaster beached her at Bull Street wharf in Gunnamatta Bay where a police launch kept her pumped out as she was holed badly.

Current owners, the Rogan family, purchased the service on August 2, 1989. Carl Rogan owner/master has a true passion for timber boats, especially Curranulla. Carl has restored most of her superstructure maintaining her classic original look. He has re-fastened and sister-ribbed all of her planking and keeps a high level of care and maintenance throughout the year.

Two weeks a year for three years Carl restored the main cabin. In 1993 the stern forward to midships, 1994 the bow aft to midships and 1995 the deckhead was rebuilt keeping the original 18ins of camber in her deckhead beams.

The Great Crossing at Bundeena June 1948. Prior to restoration work it wasn’t an uncommon sight to see passengers sitting inside the main cabin on a wet day with their umbrellas up!

Over the past 20 years Curranulla has undergone extensive work under the waterline, fifty percent of her hull planking has been replaced including the garboards. The sponsons on both sides have been replaced, the port side twice due to the nature of the Bundeena wharf and five years ago her shaft log was replaced leaving the wheelhouse as the most original part of the vessel.

Most of the restoration was carried out by two shipwrights – the late Ken Gervens who worked on both ferries for over 40 years and Bruce Gault, for the past 20 years. Bruce is still looking after the ferries today and returns to Curranulla and Tom Thumb III every year at refit.

"Both ferries have many years of service left in them," Bruce said.

For many years the Kelvin and the Gardners were kept in fine tune by the late Jim Parkinson. In recent times when engines and or a gearbox are due to be exchanged or require general maintenance, Carl takes on this role himself.

David Fenwick (left) and ferrymaster Rob Gawthorne on the Curranulla at Bundeena wharf. I served my time on both ferries Curranulla and Tom Thumb III with Carl and long time ferrymaster Murray Halgren. I was a full-time ferrymaster for six years mainly on the Curranulla. I am now a ferrymaster with Sydney Ferries on the Manly service and love it – but Curranulla is my clear favourite. She has so much character, I was privileged to obtain all my maritime knowledge on such a fine vessel. She is in great shape and handles the adverse weather conditions really well.

Bundeena wharf in the 1974 storms. Ferries were shut down for over a week. The old wooden ferries are often a talking point with the passengers. Longtime Bundeena residents and regular ferry users say, "I’m glad some things haven’t changed and go for a trip just for old times sake."

Curranulla is one of the finest examples of a timber ferry from her era and is a real credit to her owners Carl Rogan and family.

Many chapters could be written on the Port Hacking ferries … a task I hope to undertake sometime soon. If anyone has any old photos or information that would help in our further research on the Cronulla—Bundeena ferries, please contact Christine at Cronulla Ferries on (02) 9523 2990.
Curranulla 2001 working at Bundeena wharf, low tide.
MV Tom Thumb III enroute to Bundeena.