Just about 50 years ago a small yellow and green ‘submarine with windows’ arrived in Sydney.
Bravely it bustled up the harbour to its arrival berth at the Maritime Services Board Commissioner’s Steps at the western side of Sydney Cove. Here a gaggle of the usual political figures, press and senior public officers, waxed lyrical about this first of a new type of Sydney ferry. The press quoted statements about “50 more of this type” and the VIPs piled aboard for a demonstration run.
Kooleen’s blunt bow rolled the harbour waters aside and Sydneysiders looked, looked again … and scratched their heads and laughed.
For the next almost 30 years Kooleen was a lonely ferry. The other 49 other type were never ordered and Sydney’s commuters continued to ridicule her.
Her reversible seats were recycled from Sydney’s recently retired tram service.
The engineer sat at his big diesel, safe within his gazebo, passing the occasional comment about the weather with those passengers known to him.
There were no outside seats on Kooleen and her windows were of the sliding type and sometimes salt encrusted. They were often hard to open, of which more later. High above the ferry, standing in his wheelhouse was the Master, set apart in his Tardislike box – well away from contact with the Australian public.
When she was running, Kooleen’s big Crossley diesel caused her to vibrate and to resonate, making handling a newspaper something of an acquired skill and she did not provide good vision of the harbour. She shared this lack of vision with most of the same organisation’s more modern catamaran ferries.
Scheduling Kooleen was something of a problem as she could carry fewer than 300 passengers (a little more than does the 2006 catamaran fleet) and could not cope with peak hour loads. In 1956 when the ferry was delivered by her builders State Dockyard in Newcastle, her owners were Sydney Harbour Ferries. This was the stateowned organization which had finally taken over the business of the long established commercial ferry company, Sydney Ferries Ltd (SFL).
SFLhad never been able to get over the opening of the Harbour Bridge (1932) and by the end of World War Two was running an elderly and obsolete fleet of ferries, badly in need of work or replacement.
Kooleen was intended to be the first of a new fleet, government was so discouraged that it did not try again until 1968 when it built the very successful Lady Cutler class and several followon types.
Kooleen got on with the job and worked efficiently around the inner harbour although she was kept away from peak hour trips. Many times I explored the harbour in off-peak times always needing to stand in the doorway if I intended to photograph anything of interest.
I too used to ridicule the ‘submarine’, but in the future I was able to learn much more about the good aspects of the ferry.
Kooleen got on with her work with little publicity of any type until 1974. In that year her state owners trading as Sydney Harbour Ferries, took over the Manly ferry service. To cope with this extra responsibility the state government formed the Public Transport Commission (PTC). This organization combined buses, trains and all ferries and was under the control of one Philip Shirley. First signs of the new-found efficiency was the painting of all public transport in blue and white. ‘Italian fishing boat blue and hospital ward cream’ did nothing for the railway’s ‘red rattlers’ and less for the ferries. Ferry proximity to sea water meant that green slime soon covered the light blue at the ferry bows, and the rust that sea water rapidly produces on steel gave an eyecatching red trim to both colours.
All the ferries soon looked dreadful but it took the government several years of quiet modifications to reach a new livery without admitting that the new scheme had been a visual mess.
The ‘submarine’ made front page in January 1978. She had been lying alongside the Quay wharf with a few passengers aboard and with her engine running (in drive) and the ferry held by one spring line. The Master went to the wharf toilet and did not tell anyone. The deckhand let the line go on time and away went Kooleen at low speed with no skipper! By the time the engineer and deckhand had noted the error Kooleen was about to curve gently into Walsh Bay were she came to rest alongside a wharf.
More than 20 years of hard work created a need for remedial hull work in 1978 when thin hull plates were ‘doubled’ at Sydney Slipway. In January 1980 Kooleen’s engine failed in Mosman Bay. Later that year an electrical fire caused a passenger evacuation and in 1981 the whole hull plating was replaced.
Kooleen was getting old and showing the strain but she went well on trials in August 1981.
Odd boat she may have been but the little ferry was still needed as all the other ferries were much older. In 1980 I was employed as her Master for several weeks. Now I could find out about the other aspects of her.
Passengers still did not like her but I found that she handled very well. Vision from her wheelhouse was a full 360 degrees – something no other Sydney ferry has ever had. I soon found out about her limited loading capacity.
One day we did the Cockatoo Island–Valentia St–Long Nose Pt–Sydney run and, mid-afternoon, were lying alongside the ‘Codock’ wharf. A dockyard official raced down to the ferry with the warning:
“They’re all going out!”
He meant the dockyard workers – and there were thousands of them!
Kooleen could legally carry 278. The usual peak capacity ferry for Codock was the 1,000 passenger Kanangra. Along the wharf we could see a flood of people all carrying Gladstone bags. The deckhand re-rigged the line so we could let it go from inboard and we started the engine. I started counting. At 250 I yelled “Let go!” knowing there would be many jumping on – anywhere.
We surged away from the wharf to a chorus of abuse with people hanging on to the wheelhouse ladder and others standing on the sponsons of the hull. How many? Three hundred plus? All went well.
Being aloft in lordly splendour in the wheelhouse had its benefits.
Heading from Cremorne Point to Sydney during a stiff afternoon westerly, the deckhand went forward and closed the sliding window just in front of a middle-aged woman. She chose to be insulted, presumably because he had not asked her leave. She berated the deckhand who took the path of least resistance and retreated, after he re-opened the window. Minutes later the insulted lady became infuriated – several litres of cold wet sea water landed in her lap. Of this I knew nought – until we reached the Quay. The screeching on the wharf could not be avoided and threats of ‘going to the Premier’ soon produced a letter of apology and payment for everything to be dry-cleaned plus a taxi home (to Cremorne Point) for a change of clothes. Passengers!
Kooleen was withdrawn in May 1985 as the first of the new First Fleet class catamarans came into service. She was sold to a J. Crawford in January 1986 and plans to use her on the Hawkesbury River as a cruising houseboat were announced.
Somewhat later, somebody explained to me a plan whereby a Federal grant would be used to employ Seniors and Pensioners to overhaul the ferry which would then be a tourist attraction on the harbour. Oddly enough that did not happen.
More recently in June 1998 she sank in Majors Bay and since then, several times alongside in Rozelle Bay. Eventually, 20 years after she retired, Kooleen was broken up early in 2006.
*Graeme Andrews’ book The Watermen of Sydney can be had from Boat Books, ABC books and all good book stores. Mail order enquiries may be made to Stannard Marine at 02 9418 3711.