WHEEL OF FORTUNE
A ROTTING CLIPPER – AND A PILE OF CASH – ARE THE KEYS TO CREATING AN HISTORIC SEAPORT VILLAGE THAT COULD REVIVE PORT ADELAIDE
HOW ONE OF THE WORLD’S MOST HISTORIC SHIPS COULD TURN PORT ADELAIDE AROUND
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.