During the 1980s the State Dockyard in Newcastle was under great political and economic pressure. Established in 1942 to service the war, it had been run down by a combination of political ineptitude and union recalcitrance and by 1987 when it was closed on the orders of the Unsworth Labor government, it had few supporters. One politician of the day was quoted as saying that it should be closed because it didn’t build very good ships!
This month I’d like to tell the story of one of those ‘not very good ships.’
The Princess of Tasmania was in almost constant use as a passenger ship from 1959 until 2005 – more than 46 years. The PoT was built in Australia by Australians and she was, obviously, a very well-built ship indeed.
The Princess was the first ro-ro ship (Roll on – Roll off) to be built in Australia and was one of the largest of that type afloat when she was commissioned in September 1959. The much-maligned State Dockyard built her from scratch and had her in service in a little under two years.
The PoT made her only visit to Sydney on September 14, 1959, probably to whip up some press publicity for the radical new ‘sea-road’ service between Melbourne and Tasmania.
Pre PoT, anyone who really needed to carry a car across Bass Strait was required to have it loaded by crane into the hold of the Bass Strait ferry Taroona. Taroona was old and obsolete and Tasmanians were keen to have a better service joining the Apple Isle (as it was generally known) to the rest of Australia.
The idea of driving one’s car on and off was new. Not long before the PoT was built a similar ferry had sunk in the Irish sea when waves had smashed the rear door. There was criticism and the new ship’s owners, the Australian National Line (ANL) was much more forward thinking in matters maritime than was then general in Australia.
On October 2, 1959 the Princess made her first crossing. It was a great leap forward for Australian shipping. At a cruising speed of 16 knots the 3,964grt new ship could carry 178 passengers in private cabins and another 156 in reclinable lounge chairs. On the vehicle deck a maximum of 142 standard cars could be carried, or combinations of cars and other vehicles including trucks.
Princess of Tasmania ran unsupported and almost continually for 10 years until joined by the new Australian Trader which was almost twice her size. The PoT was becoming too small for the increase in trade that she had generated.
In June 1972 the bright yellow ship was withdrawn and offered for sale, her place being taken by the much larger Empress of Australia (built at the now defunct Cockatoo Island yard) which had been running a loss-making service between Hobart and Sydney.
On October 7, 1972 Australia’s first ro-ro left Australia for good, heading for Nova Scotia, Canada. By 1975 she had the first of many name changes – to Marine Cruiser. No doubt the critical politician would not be aware of this, the PoT was starting a much longer period of hard work.
Between 1972 and 2005 she worked on the east coast of Canada and Maine, she crossed the Atlantic and worked in the Mediterranean, island hopping on the tourist trades, she worked in the Adriatic and later served the Moslem to Mecca pilgrimage service until finally, in 2005 she went to the ship breakers under her own power.
The PoT worked as the following: Princess of Tasmania 1959-1975, Marine Cruiser 1975-1984, Majorca Rose 1984, Equator 1984, Nomi 1984-1985, Adriatic Star 1985-1988, Lampedusa 1988-1991, Shahd Fayez 1991-1992, Al Mahroussa 1992-2000, Tebah 2000-2005.
When the Princess was built, she was a large ro-ro. When scrapped such ships were counted in the hundreds and many were nearing 50,000grt, compared with her modest almost 4,000.
By comparison, fifty-odd years later Australia has two large passenger ro-ro ships. The 1998 built Spirit of Tasmania I and II were bought by the Tasmanian government in 2002. They travel at about 24 knots and are rated at more than 29,000grt and carry more than 1,000 passengers and four decks of trucks and cars.