Dictionary of Sydney

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The story of Sydney's tugboats is one of adventure, danger, sadness and hilarity – of brave men and those of dubious ethics. 'Towage', as it is known, has kept commerce moving, but its romance lies with the people and the iconic vessels that inhabit its history.

The first powered tugboats in Sydney

The beginning of the towage industry in Sydney – and, indeed, in Australia – can be traced back to 12 June 1831, when the UK-built Sophia Jane – Sydney's second steamer after the locally-built Surprise – performed Sydney's first powered tow, escorting the 429-ton ship Lady Harewood out of port on a miserable, squally day. [1]

In 1825, 85 ships arrived in Port Jackson. With the arrival of steam tugs and the new flexibility they allowed shipping, this figure rose dramatically, to 709 in 1850. [2]

Early steam tugs oiled the metaphorical wheels of trade by freeing sailing ships to make or leave port in unfavourable winds or by towing them between ports when there was insufficient wind. When oversea ships became powered, tugs assisted these large, unwieldy vessels to manoeuvre in ports, and also provided valuable salvage and fire-fighting services.

J & T Fenwick

Andrew Fenwick arrived in Sydney from Scotland in 1849 and established the towage firm of J & T Fenwick, named for his sons, John and Thomas. In the 1860s, Andrew bought land in Weston Street on the eastern end of the Balmain peninsula (adjacent to what is now the Darling Street ferry wharf) and he built a sandstone store, which still stands. On Andrew's death soon after, Thomas moved to the northern rivers of New South Wales, where he earned a reputation as a ruthless tugboat operator who would stop at nothing to secure a tow, including ramming his competition, 'showing his spite because he didn't get the vessel'. [3] John, the more principled brother, stayed to manage the Sydney arm of the partnership. Fenwicks was the main player in large towage in Port Jackson, despite being challenged from time to time by the Newcastle-based firm of J & A Brown, owned by the coal baron John Brown.

Before radios, tugs would 'seek' tows by steaming out to meet an incoming ship. In Sydney, seeking was almost a sport, albeit an expensive and sometimes dangerous one. Representatives of the towage companies reported each day at the General Post Office to view the 'Shipping Intelligence' list. Tug companies also kept lookouts at the Heads. If a ship's arrival was noted as imminent when the list was posted, bedlam broke out as crews raced to their tugs – always held ready in steam – to be the first to reach and make fast to the ship. Usually the first tug to reach the ship won the job (and, more often than not, the return tow as well), but if there was haggling over the price or dubious tactics were employed to be first to the scene, things could turn ugly.

Paddy Brinkworth was one old salt from the steam era still in the industry in the 1960s. He remembered the days of seeking and 'just watching'. If the crew weren't back from the pub when he'd spotted a ship, Paddy's favourite lament was 'The ship is rounding Bradleys and there's not a whore in the house dressed!' [4]

Fenwicks remained in family hands for a century. After John Fenwick's death in 1901, his sons, Andrew and James, took the helm and their descendants retained control until Brambles Industries Limited – which was keen to expand into towage – staged a hostile takeover of the by then-public Fenwick Holdings Limited. In 1973, the remaining family members on the Fenwick board were asked to resign.

Fenwicks was in partnership with Waratah Towage (a joint venture between Howard Smith and Adsteam) in Wallace Tugs from 1963 until the Brambles takeover. In 1996, Waratah Towage bought Fenwick's Port Jackson and Botany interests from Brambles, and Fenwick ceased towage in those ports.

Sydney's iconic tug, Hero

[media]Arguably Sydney's best-known steam tug was Fenwick's 32.2m Hero. Built in England, Hero arrived in Sydney in December 1892. The tug went on to have an impressive career.

In 1905, the American barque Abby Palmer ran into a heavy southerly gale on her voyage from Melbourne to Sydney. When she was only about 10 kilometres from Sydney Heads, Abby Palmer's master accepted a tow from the J & A Brown tug, Gamecock. Unfortunately, little way was made with Gamecock, and the Abby Palmer began to drift. Soon, the towline parted and the ship, having lowered her sails when the tow was taken up, was uncontrollable. Gamecock tried unsuccessfully to attach another line to the ship before giving up and returning to port to alert the more powerful Brown tug, Champion, of Abby Palmer's plight.

Meanwhile, the ship continued to drift and the men on board were openly terrified. The ship was only about 30 metres from the cliffs of Bondi, and thoughts of the Dunbar's wreck weren't far from their minds. An anchor with 45 fathoms (82.3 metres) of chain failed to hold, and unrelenting waves were breaking over the ship. Against orders, Abby Palmer's terrified crew were preparing to launch the lifeboats when the Hero appeared. So fierce was the storm that Hero's crew were lashed to the deck of the tug for fear of being washed overboard. Hero's master, Alexander McKenzie, positioned the tug under the cliffs but Hero was lifted by a wave and thrown into the stern of the ship. Despite damage to both vessels, Hero's master persevered and finally a hawser was secured, but the ship's crew were panicking. In their attempt to cut away the lifeboats they cut the hawser connecting the two boats. Fortunately, Hero's crew were able to able to secure another line, which was made fast to the stern of the Abby Palmer. In all, four hawsers parted before the Hero managed to tow the barque – which still had the anchor trailing – to safer waters.

Hero's brushes with mortality continued when she almost came to grief in a collision near Woy Woy in 1908, and her run of luck almost ended when, in 1929, she was holed by the Howard Smith liner Canberra near Goat Island in Sydney Harbour.

As she was escorting the Canberra to her Darling Harbour berth, Hero was hit and sustained a hole almost a metre wide in her hull. Hero's crew slipped the tow-rope and her skipper steamed as fast as he could to Johnstons Bay, where he managed to put her ashore on a beach. The Sydney Harbour Trust fire tug, Pluvius, arrived soon after and was lashed alongside to keep the Hero on an even keel, while Pluvius's pumps worked hard to keep the tug from filling with water. Eventually, a temporary patch was put in place over the hole, and Hero was taken for permanent repairs.

Hero's greatest challenge began on 23 September 1940 when, while berthing the British freighter Northumberland , the tug collided with the ship's bow. Hero rolled, turned turtle and sank off Blues Point, in the deepest part of Sydney Harbour.

Hero's engineer, John Downie, was killed in the accident – some say because he was determined to shut down Hero's engines before saving himself.

The rest of the crew were rescued, though some were injured. The captain, Sid Weldon, suffered burst eardrums. In a parent's worst nightmare, Captain Weldon's mother had been watching the berthing from her home in Balmain. It was some time before she learned that her son had survived. [5]

Salvage of Hero was considered too difficult at the time, but by late 1943 there was a shortage of vessels and the American navy was keen to test new salvage technology. Divers attached a number of rubberized canvas air bags to Hero's hull. Slings were passed through holes burned in the tug's hull and the bags were attached.

When the bags were inflated, they rose to the surface and Hero was suspended by the slings about 10 m below the surface. From there, Hero was towed to a dock, where she was pumped out, repaired and returned to work. Amazingly, after three and a half years at the bottom of Sydney Harbour, a light bulb from Hero still worked! [6]

On 13 July 1960, Hero finally met her end when moving the ship Bulwarra in 50 knot winds at Port Kembla. When Bulwarra was driven onto rocks, Hero's crew leapt for their lives as the tug capsized. Fenwick's insurance company paid ₤21,663, but still Hero wasn't left to rest in peace. The grand old Hero, which had towed the clipper ships Cutty Sark and Thermopylae, was dismantled for scrap in 1963.

Sydney Harbour Trust and the Maritime Services Board

With Federation in 1901, the Sydney Harbour Trust came into being. Later known as the Maritime Services Board, the Trust operated a number of tugs as part of its fleet. Their duties included moving floating plant and providing fire-fighting and emergency response services. The Trust's tugs played an integral part in keeping the bubonic plague at bay, when their fire-fighting tugs, then known as 'rat boats', cleaned the port's wharves with their powerful water pumps. Sydney Harbour Trust tugs were also deployed to pick up garbage that had been dumped in the harbour. The Sydney Harbour Trust, and then the Maritime Services Board, based many of their vessels on Goat Island until 1995, when the Board was replaced by independent port corporations. Sydney Ports Corporation's bright yellow and orange emergency response tugs, Shirley Smith and Ted Noffs , can be seen on Sydney Harbour and Botany Bay.

The 1962-built, wooden Maritime Service Board tug, Bareki , is on display at the Australian National Maritime Museum. The former Public Works Department 1902-built steam tug Waratah is operational. In 2011, cruises on the Waratah are run by the Sydney Heritage Fleet.

Smaller operators

A number of smaller towage operators came and went during the twentieth century.

Bailey & Jorgenson was founded by Charles Bailey when in 1897 he bought a former ferry, Saucy Jack, to use as a Sydney Harbour tug. William Jorgenson joined Bailey just before World War I. From 1924, the firm had its base on Union Street, Balmain. The partners also leased a slipway in Drummoyne. By the end of World War II, the firm owned two large steam lighters and a handful of small steam tugs, as well as more than 50 flat-topped lighters. Jorgenson retired in 1948, and Bailey in 1952, when JA Hemphill & Sons Pty Ltd bought the firm. The 1877-built Saucy Jack was finally broken up in 1961 but other Bailey & Jorgenson tugs, including BJ, Throsby and the 1898-built Lena are still afloat. Lena is moored in Berrys Bay.

Harbour Lighterage was originally known as Harbours and Rivers Lighterage and based in Rozelle Bay. Harbour Lighterage's roots can be traced back to the turn of the twentieth century, when an expanding, privately owned Sydney Ferries Ltd created a subsidiary to operate its many support craft. The company flourished until the ferry company's business took a pounding with the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932. By 1951, Sydney Ferries was facing financial ruin and was sold to the New South Wales government but Harbour Lighterage – then known as Harbour Land and Transport – was still profitable. The tug and lighter arm became a separate entity and at various times owners included Fenwicks, Waratah Towage, Adsteam, and Brambles in varying levels of partnership. After being a major player in small towage on Sydney Harbour for nearly a century, Harbour Lighterage's assets were divided up for sale in 1992. The Harbour Lighterage tugs Sydport, Throsby, Valiant and Van are still on Sydney Harbour.

Daleys was one of the first small towage operators in Sydney and began operations around the turn of the twentieth century. The firm's tugs became known as 'Daley's ever-readies', because they were always kept ready in steam. Daley tugs handled the smaller jobs such as carting water and towing small ships, or floating cranes around the harbour. The company was taken over by Wallace Tugs in 1947 but their 1917-built, steam-powered tug Bustler served the port until the 1970s.

Two Danes, Axel and Harold Petersen, jumped ship in Australia just after Federation. During the Great Depression, Axel joined forces with engineer Harold 'Mack' Mackenzie to form Mackenzie & Petersen. Mackenzie ran the office and Axel the fleet. Harold Petersen worked for the firm until 1951 when, somewhat the worse for drink, he forgot to add water to the boiler of the Gosford and was killed in the ensuing explosion. Axel employed dubious practices and managed to purloin almost everything. 'Macpete' had the contract to deliver coal to the Maritime Service Board's base on Goat Island. By 'accidentally' dropping some of each delivery into the water – where he would recover it later under cover of darkness – Axel didn't have to pay for fuel until 1957, when the Board converted its fleet to diesel. [7] Mack Mackenzie died in 1954 and his share passed to Axel Petersen. In the 1960s, Axel sold the firm to Smith Bros.

William Stannard arrived in Australia in 1835. By 1881, William's son, also William, was a waterman based at the Man o' War Steps near Circular Quay. The family entered the towage business in 1937 with the converted launch Blackheath. William's descendant Alan Stannard pioneered the operation of small steel tugs in ports around the country. By 1970, Stannards owned 26 tugs, including six on Port Jackson, two in Port Botany and one in Port Kembla. The same year 50 per cent of the company was sold to Adsteam. Alan Stannard retired in 1979 and his son, Chris, now operates tugs in South Australia and the Northern Territory.

Sydney tugs and the two world wars

Australian tugs served in the Great War with the newly-formed Royal Australian Navy and the British Admiralty. The Fenwick tugs Heroic and Heroine were stationed in English waters but some, like John Brown's Champion, were engaged in mine-sweeping or coast watch at home.

During World War II, once again Australian tugs were sent to assist the 'mother country'. Some did not return. Waratah Towage and Fenwick tugs found themselves with the Royal Australian Navy or the Commonwealth Marine Salvage Board, but commercial ship-handling tugs were still required to handle the large number of ships damaged off the coast of Sydney. So as not to frighten people, most of these ships were brought in for repair at the Cockatoo Island dockyard under cover of darkness. As Harold Gardner, a crew member of the salvage tug St Aristell , recalled: 'If ships couldn't keep up, the submarines would just pick them off as they passed.'

Many smaller diesel tugs were built on Sydney Harbour during the war, including a number of 45-footers (13.7 metres), the so-called 'US Army style'. Some of these are still operational. Probably the smallest tugs built during that period were the 39-foot (11.9-metre) Canadian-designed V-Series, of which six were built: the first by Cockatoo Island Dockyard and the others by Lars Halvorsen Sons on the Parramatta River.

Recent history

After many years of complex joint ventures in the towage industry, by 2000 Adsteam's acquisitions and takeovers gave it domination of large towage in every major port in Australia, as well as having substantial interests in the United Kingdom. In a controversial move, in 2007 the Danish company, Svitzer, bought out Adsteam. Other companies are making inroads and smaller, privately owned firms continue to be a strong presence in non-shiphandling work. The towage industry continues to evolve.


Randi Svensen, Heroic, Forceful and Fearless: Australia's Tugboat Heritage, Citrus Press, Sydney, 2011


[1] Sydney Gazette & NSW Advertiser, 14 June 1831, 18 June 1831

[2] John Bach, A Maritime History of Australia, Thomas Nelson (Aust) Limited, Melbourne, 1976, p 29

[3] Susan Alley, The Battle of the Bar, published by Susan Alley, 2002. Quote by Capt Lachlan McKinnon

[4] Peter Morgan, former tugmaster, interviewed by Randi Svensen

[5] Kevin Weldon, nephew of Sid Weldon, interviewed by Randi Svensen

[6] Sydney Morning Herald, 6 May 1944

[7] Gordon Petersen, former tug skipper and grandson of Axel Peterson, interviewed by Randi Svensen