Sydney ferry Kanangra - 100 years afloatBetween 1912 and 1959 Kanangra was powered by a triple-expansion steam engine. From 1959 to 1987 the ferry ran much more economically with a Crossley eight-cylinder diesel engine. For the final 25-odd years she was the ‘heavy lift’ ferry for the inner harbour services run by the government of New South Wales.

In the middle of 1980 I was employed as Relief Master for the NSW Public Transport Commission (PTC) spending short periods as skipper of most of the then PTC fleet, including the Manly ferries. It was an exciting and interesting experience. I was relief master of MV Kanangra for three or four trips, spread over two weeks or so. She was the biggest inner harbour ferry of that time and she was used for heavy load peak hour services and for Tourist cruises and she was a real experience.

My first run with her, unsupervised, was an afternoon run to Cockatoo Island where we loaded the day shift of shipyard workers who were heading home. Earlier that morning she had taken them up to the island.

The loading reminded me of the Pied Piper of Hamlin; these grey clad workers seemed to just pour on board and as far as I could see there were hundreds more coming. Amazingly, the flood stopped just before I began to fret over loadings. We left the wharf and headed for the Quay.

Kanangra shows off her graceful hull lines. 1979.After we rounded Dawes Point and straightened up for the Quay berth Kanangra began, imperceptibly, to lean to one side.

By the time I rang the telegraph to go astern, she had an almost 10 degree list on – workers were standing along the rails holding onto the top deck and I wondered if any would fall in.

No-one did. As soon as the beam of the ferry was less than two metres from the wharf, the workers started jumping. Upon landing they started running towards the gates. They had buses and trains to catch and there was no time to waste.

The ferry deckhands of today, beset by the Occupational Health and Safety Act, might never believe it!

In Afloat March 2010 I explained how the Sydney Heritage Fleet’s crew of volunteers was working towards taking the big ferry out of the water so that the steel hull could be re-plated.

That’s still on the agenda but it can’t happen before the steam Pilot Boat John Oxley’s hull replating has been completed. In the meantime the volunteers work at replacing and renewing above-water structures, the while keeping a very careful eye on that part which is below the surface of Rozelle Bay, Sydney.

Handling MV Kanangra

Kanangra is the last survivor afloat of a design that became the ‘traditional’ (iconic?) Sydney ferry. As the Star ferries of Hong Kong were and are symbolic of the Hong Kong—Kowloon run, so too were the double-ended green and cream Sydney ferries.

Today’s inner harbour fleet consists of many, roughly-similar, medium-speed catamarans. They are not and cannot be considered to be Sydney’s ‘traditional ferries’. In April 2012 Sydney Ferries have only two ferries of the traditional double-ended type in use and as they are both almost 40 years old, they are unlikely to be working as long as Kanangra did.

Apart from using ropes when berthing at wharves, there is little similarity between the handling of the old ferry and the much smaller and faster catamarans.

Kanangra well loaded with anxious Cockatoo Dockyard workers, c. 1965.

There were many advantages in changing Kanangra from a steam ship into a motor vessel. The reduction in crew size was important. Considered too was the speed with which the ferry could be ‘fired up’ from cold to working. Firing a boiler takes many hours to get to working pressure.

There was one major drawback when the diesel was compared to the steam engine and that was the steam engine’s ability to go from Ahead to Astern at the engineer’s direction – without the machinery actually being stopped.

The diesel engines of the 1950s had no gear boxes because they were too powerful for the available gearbox technology. So, the Crossley system used a high-pressure air bottle which was used to start and re-start the engine.

The engineer at the controls in Kanangra.The vessel would be heading towards a wharf – the dead-ends of Mosman Bay and Circular Quay are good examples.

In the wheelhouse the Master was provided with a steering wheel which operated the hydraulic steering engine. A copper and steel voice pipe led from his position to that of the Engineer down in the engine room. The Master’s engine telegraph was a brass pedestal which had various engine actions shown on the top. A handle on the side moved a pointer to whatever action the Skipper wanted. The engine room telegraph would ring its bell and show, via a pointer, what the skipper wanted to happen. There was a built-in delay in the system. It was OK if both ends understood what was expected.

The master would ring on ‘Stop’ and the engineer would stop the engine. Dead! The ferry would continue on almost silently – dead stick – until it was time to go astern. The master would ring on astern (while mentally crossing his fingers!). The engineer would move the appropriate lever, open the air start valve and the engine would kick into life in the reverse direction. This happened nearly all the time. When it didn’t the ferry would smash into stone walls or wooden buffers and get its photo in the evening papers.

Kanangra’s upper passenger saloon.This system generally worked well when the ferry had the right of way to any wharf and could just glide in. If the approach was baulked in any way things became tricky. This is best-illustrated in The Sound, heading for the Spit Bridge on an afternoon cruise, particularly of a weekend or on a public holiday in fine boating weather.

The air bottle was designed to have an air capacity equal to perhaps half a dozen starts. When it was partly discharged it was recharged by the air compressor which was the only audible piece of machinery at certain times when nearing a wharf.

The most nerve-wracking time in Kanangra, when the status of the air bottle was a matter of concern, was when approaching the Spit Bridge on the outward leg of the afternoon cruise. It was vital to near the bridge with a minimum of expected waiting time or it would be necessary to stop the engine.

Kanangra’s long-disused bridge telegraph may again, one day, send the master’s orders. July 2009.A stopped engine meant no control. No control meant that whatever breeze was about would set the big ferry one way or the other as she waited for the green light. When surrounded by small craft there was another worry should it be necessary to fire the engine. The moment it fired the propeller turned and the ferry moved. Sometimes the crews of small yachts would hold on to the ferry hoping not to have to keep sailing around – and that big propeller was dangerously close!

There was not enough air to keep starting and stopping the engine so as to manoeuvre the ferry. And, if you did start up, you risked damage and injury to the ‘riders’.

Usually the bridge gave the green light to the side where the ferry was but that didn’t stop many power driven sailing craft from ‘running the red’. Presumably someone had told them that sail had right of way – in all conditions, at any time!

My first time through the bridge – and my only time with Kanangra – I had two yachts actually bounce off my sponson as they ignored the lights and came through against the red. One of the owners later sent a solicitor’s letter demanding an apology and damages from the PTC. True!

Kanangra as motor ship leaving Mosman Bay, 1971.Kanangra’s wheelhouses were well forward of the gangway spaces and were not full ship width as most now are. The master would line up the intended berth and when he was in close enough, would ring down for Astern. The engineer would put the engine Astern. As the ferry slid past the wharf, he would increase or decrease engine revolutions as required so the deckhands could get their lines on to position the ferry at the correct spot to allow the gangways(s) to be sited for passenger use. Once the Master ‘made’ the wharf it was teamwork between engineer and the deckhands that got you where you were required to be.


* Graeme Andrews OAM joined the (now) Sydney Heritage Fleet in 1970 and was appointed an Honorary Life Member in 2004. His most recent job as a volunteer was to digitise the SHF’s entire 50,000 plus image archive.