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DOWN in the heart of Yelta, the his­toric old steam tug tied up at McLaren’s Wharf in Port Ade­laide, a bunch of grey-haired men in boiler suits are gath­ered around, do­ing what they do best. Fix­ing things. On the Yelta, there’s al­ways some­thing to fix or re­store. In this case it’s the air reg­u­la­tor for one of the fur­naces. We go be­low decks, mak­ing our way along steel mesh walk­ways be­side the triple ex­pan­sion steam en­gine, then down a lad­der to the ex­posed gi­ant crankshaft and for­ward to the boiler and the air reg­u­la­tor, a heavy steel disc fit­ted with half a dozen ta­pered iron flaps. It’s part of the three-fur­nace Scotch ma­rine boiler that pow­ers the tug.

“Ev­ery­thing was OK un­til we fixed it,” quips one. They are a cheery bunch, part of a team of a dozen or more who de­scend on the boat on Wed­nes­days and Fri­days to pro­vide the kind of con­stant ten­der lov­ing care that a big boat like this needs in or­der to re­main sea­wor­thy. Be­tween them, they rep­re­sent many life­times of ex­pe­ri­ence in and on boats. They are the peo­ple who stand be­tween Ade­laide’s com­mer­cial mar­itime his­tory and a pile of rust, or saw­dust.

South Aus­tralia’s small and hap­less fleet of his­toric and tall ships has been kept in­tact for a quar­ter cen­tury by a few dol­lars and a lot of pas­sion and vol­un­teerism, but in 2011 there are plans and hopes for a flip in pri­or­i­ties. Next year is the state’s 175th an­niver­sary. As the cen­tre­piece of cel­e­bra­tions we are likely to see mil­lions of dol­lars go into the es­tab­lish­ment of a ma­jor mar­itime his­tory park at the Port, with the world’s old­est sur­viv­ing com­pos­ite clip­per ship, City of Ade­laide, as the key per­ma­nent at­trac­tion.

That is the vi­sion splen­did for Port Ade­laide: a his­toric sea­port vil­lage that en­ables the in­ner har­bour to re­new it­self and come alive by mak­ing the most of its re­main­ing her­itage.

The old boys in the Yelta have al­ready been made Her­itage He­roes for their labour of love. Peter Roberts is the chief en­gi­neer. John Gresty is a steam en­gine driver, and Ernie Ed­wards has his steam en­gi­neer’s ticket. Ed­wards is a liv­ing and walk­ing part of the his­tory of the steam age, and sail. In his day, while serv­ing on a three-mas­ter, he has seen an al­ba­tross knocked out of the sky by rig­ging overnight and found dead on the deck in the morn­ing by a dis­traught crew.

He an­nounces that al­ba­trosses are the souls of dead chief stew­ards, clean­ing up all the dis­carded food. “And what about dead en­gi­neers?” asks Gresty. “They’re a loss to hu­man­ity,” says Ed­wards, with mock grav­i­tas.

The boats they look af­ter are part of the state’s mu­seum col­lec­tion, prize ex­hibits of the SA Mar­itime Mu­seum. But their ban­ter should be part of the her­itage cul­ture of SA, since their mem­o­ries, knowl­edge and skills are in dan­ger of dy­ing out, like the technology they tend. Through the SA Mar­itime Mu­seum they have be­come the train­ers of the next gen­er­a­tion of tick­eted en­gi­neers

ca­pa­ble of look­ing af­ter ex­traor­di­nar­ily com­plex “ex­hibits” such as Yelta.

It falls to mu­seum di­rec­tor Kevin Jones, who runs an en­ter­prise with a to­tal turnover of barely $1 mil­lion, to find a bit of spare cash to keep the Yelta and her sis­ter ships afloat, or at least in one piece. With most of his at­ten­tion fo­cused on the in­come-earn­ing dis­plays in his mu­seum in its his­toric old bond­stores in nearby Lip­son St, the boats are al­ways at risk.

The Yelta is tied up at McLaren’s Wharf, the most prom­i­nent wharf­side area on the Port Ade­laide docks, just a stone’s throw from the old city cen­tre. As the multi­bil­lion-dol­lar New­port Quays res­i­den­tial devel­op­ment grad­u­ally erases the his­tory of the In­ner Har­bour, this is be­com­ing the fi­nal fo­cus of in­ter­est for vis­i­tors and tourists.

We drive out of the old port and past the wool stores, past Dock One, and past the ap­proaches to the new Tom “Diver” Der­rick bridges, and turn into Dock Two, an in­dus­trial dock­side with Rap­tis fish­ing trawlers drawn up on one side and the Port’s work­ing tugs on the other. There, sit­ting on top of the wharf is the Nel­cebee, which in Kevin Jones’s eyes is the pride of SA’s col­lec­tion of mar­itime his­tory. She looks un­gainly but still dig­ni­fied sit­ting up­right on wooden props. Her patch­work iron hull is now so thin that it can’t take the rigours even of just float­ing in the har­bour. Three years ago she was fi­nally taken from her McLaren’s Wharf moor­ing and all 35m, 170 tonnes of her lifted out of the wa­ter.

We clam­ber up some scaf­fold­ing to get aboard, dodg­ing the clam­our­ing seag­ulls that have laid eggs in nooks and cran­nies on the boat. There are small, wor­ry­ing signs of de­cay ev­ery­where, but she is ev­ery bit a lit­tle ship. There are holds fore and aft, two masts, en­gine room, and one of the most salu­bri­ous and roomi­est saloons on any of the old coastal ketches that drove SA’s mar­itime econ­omy from the 1850s on­wards, fi­nally pack­ing it in 30 years ago. They were the pack­horses of the set­tle­ment of re­gional SA and they helped keep the many coastal com­mu­ni­ties in touch with Ade­laide and the world.

“It’s a mini-his­tory of ship­ping,” says Jones of the Nel­cebee. “It has been pow­ered by steam, by sail and by diesel.” She lies at the heart of Jones’s view of the func­tion of the state’s col­lec­tion of his­toric ves­sels. He says SA’s is the only mu­seum that has fo­cused on work­ing and com­mer­cial mar­itime his­tory. “This is the old­est pow­ered ship in Aus­tralia,” he says. “In 1883 it was pow­ered by a steam en­gine, while all the older ships are sail­ing ships. When it stopped work in 1982 it was ac­tu­ally the third old­est ship on Lloyd’s Reg­is­ter, so it had a 99-year work­ing life. Orig­i­nally it was a steam tug and lighter. They added the masts later but even on its last voy­age it used sail be­cause you could light up the diesel en­gine but it rolled so badly.”

For a small coastal trader, Nel­cebee has plenty of open deck; some­thing that could come in handy if she were ever to be­come a mu­seum ex­hibit. “That’s kind of the dream: to have record­ings of the crew, and what life was like on board,” Jones says. “There are still 16 or 17 crew left that we have found so far. And there is some nice film of it late in its work­ing life.”

The Nel­cebee is par­tic­u­larly rel­e­vant to Ade­laide be­cause she was made in Scot­land and then dis­man­tled and brought in parts to Ade­laide, where she was as­sem­bled by Thomas Cruick­shank in 1883. She served in Port Ade­laide and then Port Pirie as both a tug and a lighter be­fore work­ing in the coastal grain trade, and end­ing her work­ing life in ser­vice be­tween Port Ade­laide and Kan­ga­roo Is­land.

Cruick­shank was orig­i­nally an Orkney Is­lan­der, and he es­tab­lished his boat­build­ing works at what is to­day known as Cruick­shank’s Corner. It is a strange and for­got­ten corner of the Port, hectares of mostly empty land caught be­tween the Birken­head Bridge and the new Ex­press­way bridge. Port Ade­laide mayor Gary Jo­han­son says it is so ex­posed to nearby in­dus­trial fall­out that it is not con­sid­ered suit­able for res­i­den­tial devel­op­ment as part of New­port Quays. But it has great views across the wa­ter to­wards McLaren Wharf and Port Ade­laide’s city cen­tre. Its sin­gle at­trac­tion is the Birken­head Tav­ern, which is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a new burst of life as a fash­ion­able pub where pro­tected out­door ar­eas give sweep­ing views of the in­ner port.

To one side sits the tug Fear­less, sev­eral years older than Yelta and moul­der­ing on dry land since 1982. The only other build­ing of note is the State Govern­ment’s fish­eries build­ing. Now, the State Govern­ment’s Land Man­age­ment Cor­po­ra­tion, New­port Quays, Port Ade­laide and En­field City Coun­cil, and her­itage and mu­seum stake­hold­ers have been in­volved in a com­mu­nity con­sul­ta­tion process to ham­mer out the fu­ture uses of the land. A de­ci­sion is ex­pected by the end of the year.

There are dif­fer­ent ap­proaches. The vol­un­teers of The City of Ade­laide Preser­va­tion Trust, which is fund­ing the clip­per’s re­lo­ca­tion, be­lieve that Cruick­shank’s Corner could be a fi­nan­cially-vi­able tourist at­trac­tion – a mar­itime ver­sion of Vic­to­ria’s Sov­er­eign Hill gold mine. The his­toric sea­port in Mys­tic, Con­necti­cut, is one suc­cess­ful model. Peter Roberts, one of the vol­un­teers and a naval ar­chi­tect, says mar­itime trades, the first 50 years of SA set­tle­ment, wind-pow­ered ships and lo­cal abo­rig­i­nal cul­ture would be fea­tured, and could link to other his­toric parts of the Port.

The City of Ade­laide in Scot­land.

The Nel­cebee in 1950, left, and with the Yelta.

The Yelta at Port Ade­laide. The Preser­va­tion Trust’s plan for Cruick­shank’s Corner.

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