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I’ve been reading an article about seafaring and trade between Australia and Papua New Guinea that describes the distinctive boats of the Motu people, with crab-claw shaped sails, and their well-established trading set-up dating back at least two thousand years. But the boats I want to talk about are the Sydney ferries, that have been operating for about 150 years.

In 1861 the North Shore Ferry Company started running the first formal ferry services on the harbour, between Circular Quay and Milsons Point. By the early 1930s Sydney Ferries Limited was the world’s biggest ferry operator, carrying 40 million passengers per year. When the Harbour Bridge opened in 1932, patronage dropped to 14 million passengers per year and the number of ferries was reduced by half.[1] The ferries were recycled to a number of different uses, with Kuttabul being converted into HMAS Kuttabul to house seamen at Garden Island. On May 31 1942 three Japanese mini-submarines entered Sydney Harbour and released a torpedo – possibly aiming at the US warship USS Chicago – that hit the sea wall at Garden Island. The explosion sank HMAS Kuttabul instead. While the incident was kept as quiet as possible, eventually 19 Australian and two British men were declared dead from the action.

Sydney ferries still carry about 14 million passengers every year. In the twelve months April 2018–March 2019, over a million trips were made on Sydney Ferries each month. The highest month was January, with 1,620,000 trips made and the lowest month was August, with 1,103,000 trips.[2]

There are currently 29 wharves in the ferry system throughout Sydney, from Manly to Parramatta, but ferries were used far more widely in the past. In 1900 there were ten different ferry wharves for Balmain alone, from Elliott St on the north side of the peninsula, round to Reynolds St on the south side,[3] and in the 1940s there were eleven public wharves on the Hunters Hill peninsula.[4]

These days eight lines of Sydney Ferries have routes around the harbour and to Parramatta along the Parramatta River, with seven of them running from Circular Quay and one from Pyrmont Bay to Watsons Bay. There are six classes of ferries, with three of those being catamarans. The Freshwater class ferries are the large ferries that operate in and out of Manly (when Sydney hosted the 2000 Olympic Games, Collaroy (Freshwater class) carried the Olympic torch across Sydney Harbour); the First Fleet class ferries are the smaller, jaunty little ferries that ply their trade back and forth across the harbour to destinations such as Taronga Zoo and Mosman; Emerald class ferries are the latest introduction to the fleet, replacing the “Lady’ class ferries in 2017, on inner harbour runs; the RiverCat class ferries operate on the Parramatta River and all seven are named after famous female Australian athletes; the HarbourCat class ferries operate on both the Parramatta River and inner harbour lines, and are also named after famous female Australian athletes; and finally the SuperCats which operate on the eastern suburbs and cross harbour lines. A number of private ferry companies also run ferries on Sydney harbour, including the fast ferries to Manly.

International company Transdev has been running Sydney’s public ferry routes (‘on behalf of the NSW government’[5]) since 2012, and has recently won the contract to continue until at least 2028. To celebrate their extended contract they have quietly changed the name from ‘Harbour City Ferries’ to ‘Transdev Sydney Ferries’. They have also raised doubts about keeping the Freshwater class ferries running after next year[6], despite the mooted replacement ferries (Emerald class) only carrying 400 passengers compared to the Freshwater class’s capacity of 1100 passengers. In more privatisation news, developers and infrastructure groups have been asked to submit plans to redevelop and run the wharves at Circular Quay.[7]

[1] https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/ferries

[2] https://www.transport.nsw.gov.au/data-and-research/passenger-travel/ferry-patronage/ferry-patronage-top-level-chart

[3] Max Solling and Peter Reynolds 1997. Leichhardt: On the margins of the city. Allen & Unwin.

[4] Ewald, C. 1999. The Industrial Village of Woolwich. The Hunter’s Hill Trust, p24.

[5] https://www.transdev.com.au/media/14136/190227_press-release-transdev-australasia-to-operate-sydney-ferries_final.pdf

[6] https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/sydney-s-beloved-manly-ferries-face-prospect-of-last-sailings-20190404-p51awh.html

[7] https://www.realcommercial.com.au/news/shortlist-for-sydney-ferry-wharves-overhaul-narrows-to-two