Tale of an Australian Trader

At daybreak on the 17 February, 1969, media crews arrived at Newcastle’s State Dockyard site at Carrington’s Dyke End peninsular.

Above ~ Walsh Island at dawn, taken from Eastern Wharf’s crane on launch day.

In three hours time another historic vessel would slide into the basin to uphold the city’s reputation as a nation-building manufacturer.

Local television station NBN Channel 3 had cameras set up the day before for its live telecast of the event, that would also be relayed to Sydney networks.

The event was well publicised in local and Sydney newspapers.

The day before, however,  had seen frantic activity on several fronts. The media scrambled to prepare for the telecast. Dockyard officials, though now old hands at this sort of thing, nevertheless began feeling pre-launch nerves and obsessed more and more over smaller and smaller details. 

Perhaps most embarrasing of all, the funnel could not be properly secured in time and had to come back off.

Above and below ~ Views from dockyard’s Eastern Wharf cranes. South east across the harbour to Newcastle’s hill, and north west towards BHP Steelworks. These were taken on the day before launch.

Most of the photos that illustrate this article were taken by NBN’s stills photographer who, on this occasion, instead of documenting the setup of the television broadcast equipment, was on site to gather promotional images. They provide an interesting record, nevertheless.

But First…

Until drive-on ferries were introduced, any mainlander tourist wishing to drive their own car around Tasmania would have it lifted by crane onto a ferry - in this case the venerable but aging SS Taroona.

Built in Scotland in 1934 for the Bass Strait trade, the 4000 tonne Taroona had a wartime stint running troops and supplies from Australia to Pacific islands, during which she squeezed onboard around 600 troops, and once managed over a thousand. During her absence, the 1914 TSS Nairana worked Bass Strait.

The SS Taroona did the Bass Strait passenger, freight, and mail run from 1935 until 1959 and took time off for war duties.

As decades wore on and Taroona aged, Tasmanians and mainlanders were increasingly at the mercy of maintenance outages, sometimes for months, weather (for which the little steamer was more often the loser), and industrial disputes. Flying became the only passenger and mail option, while perishables and produce were simply unable to move, to considerable detriment of Tasmania’s economy.

In 1956 the Australian Shipbuilding Board (ASB) placed an order for an as-yet unnamed ship with Newcastle’s State Dockyard - a “6000-ton vehicle and passenger ferry for the Bass Strait service.” A new era in Australian shipping had begun.

That ship was, of course, the Princess of Tasmania - a tribute to Newcastle shipbuilding with its 46-year life at sea.

Australian Trader

A decade later - 18th August 1967 - the keel was laid for a mixed passenger, vehicle, and container ferry to join the Princess. She was to be known as the Australian trader.

The 8113-tonne vehicle deck-passenger ferry was commissioned by the Australian National Line (ANL) for the Melbourne to Devonport passenger trade.

Built to carry 190 passengers, 125 cars, and more than 2000 tonnes of cargo, it was the most expensive ship built at the State Dockyard at $8.7 million (or over $100 million today)
One of the roll-on-off pioneers in a tradition of Australian Bass Strait ferries, she joined her smaller 3,600-tonne Newcastle-built sister, Princess of Tasmania (1959) after handover to ANL on the 17th June, 1969.

And, after a long and proud service, unlike most of her companions on hand-me-down slides to eventual scrap or sinking, the Australian Trader was blessed with a second distinguished career as a navy ship.

Launch Day

Three days before launch, the last major section of the ship, a 15-tonne funnel, was lifted into place, to complete her graceful balanced outline.

The ceremony was scheduled for 8:45 am on the following Monday and would be live telecast by three Sydney commercial channels using vision from Channel 3’s outside broadcast (OB) unit.

Above ~ Perhaps an hour before the moment. Pennants and regalia in place. But where’s the funnel? 

Below ~ Cine cameramen Barry Nancarrow - as was their wont in those pre-OH&S days - must choose this hair-raising vantage to best suit the craft.

Crowds who chose to view launchings from across the basin - from docks where the present Honeysuckle development is - were advised that on the day “a ship would be berthed at Lee Warf 4, but Merewether Street wharf and Lee Wharves 1 and 3 were expected to be empty."

That morning, the Newcastle Morning Herald had advised:

The launching of the Australian Trader at Newcastle State Dockyard to-day will be a high point in the Australian shipbuilding industry.

An estimated 1,500 people took the Herald’s word for it and crowded around the slipway. 

They watched Lady Williams, wife of Sir John Williams, chairman of the Australian Coastal Shipping Commission, smashed a bottle of champagne over the ship’s yellow bow and pulled the launching lever.

And then... nothing.

After an eternity of dead silence (actually, only a few seconds) a dockyard official leaned over the official dais and signalled to two workmen below to, you know, pull that launching pin out, if they could be so kind as to.

Fifteen seconds later the ship began its purposeful slide into the harbour to the strains of “Advance Australia Fair.” 

An hour before launch time the crowd assembles, NBN’s cameraman at standby (visible on scaffold at lower left) and workers onboard look down to the ceremony dais.

Still, something was amiss. As the Newcastle Herald dutifully explained:

The Australian Trader slipped into the water with ease - if not with total dignity. The funnel was still on the wharf. An ACSC official said a strike last week made it impossible to secure the funnel before the launching.

A few hours after the Australian Trader was launched, two of the dockyard’s top executives left for Japan.

The commercial manager, MR. H.D. Harding, and the shipbuilding manager, Mr. I.G. Butler, were to spend three weeks negotiating with Japanese shipbuilders for a technical cooperation agreement to make the Newcastle yard more efficient.

Months later, in July of 1969, the NSW Minister for Public Works, Mr. Davis Hughes, flew to Tokyo to negotiate a technical construction agreement between the State Dockyard and the Hitachi Shipbuilding and Engineering Company.

“We’ll compete with all-comers, no matter what their origin,” said Sir John Williams, ACSC Chairman, speaking at a Newcastle function later that day following the launching.

He said the Australian Trader was an important ship, but he believed the Bass Trader to be the most important ship built at the State Dockyard.

The Bass Trader, built in 1961, had been the first of her type in the world. While the Princess of Tasmania and Australian Trader were primarily passenger ferries, with drive-on facilities for cars, the Bass Trader was the first roll-on, roll-off cargo ship.  Eleven ships of her type were being built for the north Atlantic trade.

Sir John said the dockyard was building another world “first” - a combined bulk carrier and container ship for trade to Darwin, the Darwin Trader.

Then, ominously, he warned that the success of Australia’s first oversea trading ship in 30 years depended on Australian seamen and freight consignors.

Sea Trials and Service

Stuff happens with new ships. As the Australian Trader left Newcastle port to begin sea trials, the new twin-screw roll-on-off ferry ran aground on a mudbank, reviving an almost forgotten seaward tradition at the port.

Then, on Sunday, 1st June 1969, off the NSW coast, she tried an emergency stop that damaged the starboard engine’s crankcase doors, forcing the ship to limp back to Newcastle on a single engine.

On the bridge of the Australian Trader.

It had been expected that the vessel would be delivered by May and be in service between Melbourne and northern Tasmanian ports in June. This was realised when she departed Melbourne bound Devonport on 24th of June in 1969.

When she began plying the strait, all went well for barely 2 years, but her timing was unfortunate because ANL were having trouble making the Sydney-Hobart run pay.

So when the Empress of Australia was moved from the ailing Sydney to Hobart service to the Melbourne-Devonport route in 1972, the Australian Trader was tried as a replacement on that route - one of the longest open water trips in the world for this type of service.

It would have been a hard decision for ANL, as the Trader was clearly unsuited for long-haul voyages. To bunk more crew, passenger complement reduced from 190 to 172. While lucky passengers enjoyed single or double berth cabins, the less affluent had but aircraft-style recliners for the day-long trip.

Furthermore, she had low ceilings, enclosed dining and lounge, no child-minding or laundry, and breakfast-only catering with beverage vending machines. There were of course a smoke room, a bar, and a tavern - the brochure-boast was now rather embarrassing in this new and greatly extended role:

...the Bass Strait passenger and cargo ferry Australian Trader is one of the most expensive and lavishly fitted ships to be built in this country.

Within five years the writing was on the wall, if not the deck plating, and prospective buyers were sought. So, what did hard-working Australians do when job prospects became poor? They…

Joined the Navy

As the song goes:

I joined the navy,
to see the world.
And what did I see?
I saw the sea.

In 1977 the Australian trader was bought by the Royal Australian Navy for training and troop transport.

Australian Trader shows off her new colours as the Royal Australian Navy's Jervis Bay. Image supplied by RAN.

For knock-about naval folk used to utilitarian digs, the Trader was a step up indeed.
The following is lifted from Wikipedia, with thanks to the highly-informed article author.

Starting on 6 October 1976, the RAN began to show interest in acquiring Australian Trader for use as a training ship and troop transport. The ship was sold to the RAN on 28 January 1977 for $5.7 million, and began $720,000 worth of modifications for naval service, which included the installation of a new navigation bridge and the refitting of some passenger cabins into classrooms.

The vessel was commissioned into the RAN as HMAS Jervis Bay on 25 August. Modification was not completed until January 1978. Jervis Bay replaced the destroyer HMAS Duchess in the training role, with Duchess decommissioning in October 1977.

Jervis Bay's primary role was to facilitate the seamanship and navigation training of officer cadets, with logistic transport of Australian Army soldiers and equipment seen as a back-up capability. In RAN service, the ship's company consisted of 14 officers and 163 sailors, with up to 76 trainees embarked at any time.

The ship did not carry any fitted weapons, and relied on small arms for defence. The vessel's first training cruise occurred in February 1978. In December 1980, trials to mate Jervis Bay with the landing craft HMAS Balikpapan were successfully performed in Sydney Harbour.

In 1987, the deckhouse was removed, and the ship's aft deck was strengthened to allow a single Sea King or similar helicopter; more extensive plans to allow for a flight of six helicopters were shelved. In December 1992, Jervis Bay was deployed via Townsville to Mogadishu in support of 1RAR and the US-led Operation Restore Hope.

HMAS Jervis Bay during Operation “Morris Dance” from HMAS Stalwart. Image supplied by RAN.

Her 17 years of service made such an impression that the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) dedicated a website just to her memory. Refer also to RAN's page describing Jervis Bay's role in relief aid to Somalia, 1992: RAN Operation Solace
RAN Communications Branch Assoc. (link broken!) references a "Navy News" clipping:

Australian Navy ship HMAS Melbourne conducted hundreds of boardings during its stint in The Gulf, but none were quite like the time they boarded the passenger ferry MV Ajman City.

Usually teams found their way around a foreign vessel by reading deck names in either Greek, Arabic, or Russian. However during one such boarding in February the team discovered the deck markings to be all too familiar. The vessel boarded on that day was the former logistic support ship HMAS Jervis Bay.

Jervis Bay paid off on 18 April 1994.


Some excellent colour pictures illustrate an extensive article on the history of Bass Strait ferries. For example: Wikipedia and Uni Tasmania

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