Sydney Heritage Fleet - Waratah - a stunning emblem of shape and grace by Gregory Blaxell
Just before Christmas, I was asked by the Australian National Maritime Museum to give the commentary on places of interest along the Parramatta River onboard the restored steam tug, Waratah, one of Sydney Heritage Fleet’s vessels. I had done a similar cruise earlier in the year and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Evidently so did the passengers because the second trip was organised.
I spoke with the skipper and we decided that we might get about as far west as the Ryde Road Bridge and back to base in the four hours allocated for the journey.
We set off from Rozelle Bay, the current base of the Sydney Heritage Fleet, after collecting the crew of volunteers and the passengers.
Right from the time we stepped on board there is something different about being on a steamer. It was the smell of the coal-fired boiler, the wisps of steam escaping and the sound, or lack of sound, from the engine that seemed to be panting, waiting for a chance to show its stuff. A safety demonstration was delivered to all passengers.
As we cast off and the propeller started to spin, there was no vibration and none of the familiar thudding/thumping sounds that are associated with the running of an internal combustion engine.
There was almost silence as the screw turned and the ship effortlessly slid away from its tether point alongside the ferry Kanangra, another vessel being restored by the Sydney Heritage Fleet.
With appropriate blasts from the steam whistle, we turned and headed up Rozelle Bay, slid under the Anzac Bridge, negotiated the narrow gutter made by the opening span of the now disused Glebe Island Bridge and proceeded via Johnsons Bay, Goat Island, Snails Bay and crossed the imaginary line stretching from Long Nose Point to Manns Point. On official charts, this marks the transition of the waterway from Sydney Harbour to the Parramatta River.
Waratah in Parramatta River with Ryde Road Bridge in the distant background. Restored machinery and decking are a feature. / The top of the mighty steam engine.
And I can tell you that there was plenty to talk about as we proceeded upstream – Iron Cove, Cockatoo Island and the adjoining islands, the Hunters Hill shoreline including Woolwich Dock, Drummoyne, Tarban Creek, the massive concrete span of the Gladesville Bridge (opened 1964) and the abutments of the old bridge (completed 1881). As an aside, the skipper gave a long blast on the whistle as we passed under Gladesville Bridge. The echo was remarkable.
Then we steamed down the Abbotsford Reach past Five Dock Bay, Chiswick, Henley, Abbotsford and Hen and Chicken Bay, Cabarita, Mortlake, and Concord with Gladesville and Putney to starboard. As we neared the former Halvorsen boatshed at Putney, the skipper decided that we should not proceed further west as there was not a lot of water under the keel. As we turned, the mighty screw stirred the mud. The skipper was spot on.
Enough of the trip up the river. I was interested to learn something about the history of this mighty vessel and its restoration.
Steam-driven, paddle-wheeled vessels provided early towage in Sydney but as technology changed and as tugs ventured further offshore in search of customers, propeller-driven steam tugs replaced the paddle-wheelers.
Steaming past the Thomas Walker Convalescent Hospital (now Rivendell) at Concord. / Waratah after its major refit in 1956 that prepared it for work as a buoy tender. [Photo: M. Dippy, found at p 22, Mori Flapan, The Australian seagoing Tug Waratah – A Century of steam, Sydney, Mori & Kham Flapan, 2002]
One of the early prop-driven tugs was Thetis, built in Sydney in 1869. With some major refits it was used as an ocean-going tug and also as a vessel to convey dignitaries to coastal ports. After only ten years of service, the authorities decided that Thetis was inappropriate as a VIP conveyor and Victoria, a magnificent steam yacht, was purchased as a replacement. Victoria was less than satisfactory in her dual roles and authorities decided that a purpose-built steam tug should be built to carry out normal towage tasks.
Burunda was built at Cockatoo Dock and launched in May 1902 amid much fanfare and newspaper attention. Her major role was to be towage especially of barges used in the dredging of the many bars that made river entrances dangerous places. She was based in Newcastle.
From about 1906, Burunda also took the role of part-time pilot steamer and during WWI became an examination vessel for Sydney Harbour from December 1914. This entailed standing to and monitoring any vessel wishing to enter the port.
After WWI, many of the Public Works Department’s vessels were renamed and Burunda took the name Waratah, a suburb of Newcastle. Up until the beginning of WWII, Waratah continued on with barge towing, laying navigational buoys and as a relieving pilot vessel at both Newcastle and Sydney. With the outbreak of the hostilities of WWII, Waratah once again took on the role of an examination vessel for the port of Newcastle.
By 1943 she was described as being in a ‘very fair’ condition but in need of major repairs. These finalised, she returned to duty late in 1944.
Waratah underwent a major overhaul in 1956 at the State Dockyard, Newcastle. The modifications equipped her as a specialised buoy tender around Newcastle Harbour but her days were numbered.
By the early 1960s, it was self-evident that steam-driven vessels would be replaced by ships powered by diesel engines. By 1961, a Sydney group was formed to preserve and operate at least one steamship before ships like the Waratah disappeared.
Burunda in Newcastle Harbour c.1910. [Photo: Gene Dundon/Sydney Heritage Fleet found at p 8, Mori Flapan, The Australian seagoing Tug Waratah – A Century of steam, Sydney, Mori & Kham Flapan, 2002]
In 1966, after lengthy negotiations, the group acquired the steam launch Lady Hopetoun. To restore and maintain this vessel, the group formed the ‘Lady Hopetoun and Port Jackson Marine Steam Museum’ which has evolved into the Sydney Heritage Fleet.
Waratah leaving Newcastle Harbour for Sydney as step one in the restoration process. [Photo: Buster J. Browne, found at p 24, Mori Flapan, The Australian seagoing Tug Waratah – A Century of steam, Sydney, Mor i& Kham Flapan, 2002] / Cutaway of Waratah built 1902. [Photo: Mori Flapan, found at back cover of Mori Flapan, The Australian seagoing Tug Waratah – A Century of steam, Sydney, Mori & Kham Flapan, 2002]The Waratah was bought by the Museum for $600 in 1968. She was still in full working order and, although in need of substantial repair, she made her own way to Sydney where she was surveyed to estimate the cost of restoration.
A budget of $60,000 was allocated for the repairs to the hull, but once Waratah was docked at Cockatoo in October 1976, it was clear that there had been a considerable underestimation the real costs. It was also clear that work could not be carried out by commercial yards so it was decided that any restoration would have to be done by the volunteers associated with the Museum.
To carry out this work, the Museum had to access a dry dock. One was found almost abandoned in Blackwattle Bay. It had formerly been used to service the Electricity Commission’s barges but was in need of substantial restoration itself. This was organised by Ray Throssel and volunteers.
Waratah was placed in the restored dry dock in September 1977 and remained there for 21 months during which time much of the hull plating and structure, bulwarks and deck structure were replaced. In line with authentic restoration protocols, all plates were fastened with rivets, not welded. Many traditional skills had to be learned by the volunteer restorers.
It was very fortunate that original plans for Waratah had survived and these proved invaluable for authenticity.
New decks were laid, a new mast, hewn from Douglas fir, was built using traditional methods and a new wheel house constructed. Crew accommodation was restored to replicate that originally built. Two boats were acquired, one built the other restored. Davits were obtained and modified and many other items of outfit were restored, sourced or replicated.
Work also progressed on the restoration of the boiler and engine and all the associated mechanical parts of the ship. This work was undertaken by Andy Munns and a team of volunteers, aided by several practising and retired engineers.
Waratah finally left the dock in May 1979 and steamed for the first time in September 1981.
To complete the voyage, Waratah took a detour east of the bridge. Even the crew were very relaxed.In 1983, the ship was given a permit to carry up to 49 passengers. The successful restoration to this point had taken thirteen years from her time of purchase from Public Works and her subsequent arrival back in Sydney. However, progressive restoration continued until 1993 with additional plates replaced in 2007.
A wonderfully informative book written by Mori Flapan and titled The Australian seagoing Tug Waratah – A century of steam is available from the Sydney Heritage Fleet or by contacting the publishers at Mention should also be made of the web page where a list of outlets for the book is given.
Information about cruises or chartering Waratah is available from the Sydney Heritage Fleet, Wharf 7, Pirrama Rd, Pyrmont 2009 or Phone 02 9298 3888.

* Gregory Blaxell is an historian and author. His new book A Pictorial History City of Canada Bay was launched on December 10.