During the 1830s and early 1840s, the days of early European settlement in Victoria, most regular traders were sloops and schooners of around 12 to 25 metres, carrying everything from sheep, cattle, timber and general cargo; and in the early days, all the passengers and mail.
In 1842 regular steam services between Launceston, Melbourne and Sydney commenced first with Benjamin Boyd's wooden paddle steamer Seahorse, replaced in 1843 by the Hunter River Steam Navigation Company's iron paddle steamer Shamrock. Although under 50 metres in length, these vessels provided reliable transport and soon carried most of the passengers and mail between the colonies. In 1851 the first full-time Bass Strait steam ferry service commenced with the wooden screw steamer City of Melbourne. With the onset of the Gold Rush later in the year, large numbers of steamers arrived from the U.K., many taking up running across Bass Strait.
The Tasmanian steam Navigation Company was formed in 1853 to operate steamers between Sydney and Hobart, but in later years ran several well-known steamers on the Bass Strait ferry service, including the Derwent, Flinders and Pateena. After being taken over by the Union Steamship Company of New Zealand in 1891, that company operated the Rotomahana across Bass Strait from 1894. The 1879-vintage steamer, well-remembered for its clipper bow, graceful lines and later modifications that allowed up to six cars to be carried on deck, remained on the run until 1921.
Another well-known vessel from the period was the former Tasmanian Steam Navigation Co. Oonah, which was transferred from the Sydney-Hobart service to the Bass Strait service.
Nairana: A brief History
In 1915 a new turbine steamer Nairana was under construction for Huddard Parker, and nearing completion, at the yards of William Denny & Brothers at Dumbarton Scotland. Before it was completed, the First World War broke out and consequently the British Admiralty ordered the cessation of the building of merchant ships. In 1917 however, the Admiralty took over, and Nairana was completed, but as a sea plane carrier. It then became part of a battle cruiser force, based on the Firth of Forth, and Nairana was utilised in 1918-1919 in the White Sea.
Nairana was a twin screw turbine steamer of 3042 tons and able to pace it out with Loongana with which it shared the run until Loongana and Oonah were retired in 1935. During World War II when Taroona was on war service duty in the North, Nairana was the main link and being in high demand, operated three return trips per week with military personnel being given preference over ordinary passengers. Nairana's maiden voyage to Tasmania, was in April 1921. Heavy weather was encountered in both directions which limited the average speed to 16.75 knots outward, and 15 knots on the return. The Melbourne Argus of the time however, described her second return trip as a "smart voyage", as after having passed Low Head at the entrance of the Tamar River at 5:30PM, she reached Port Phillip Heads at 3:30AM eventhough a strong north-west wind and choppy seas were encountered for some five hours into the voyage. She had maintained an average of 18 knots.
September 15 1934 was another occasion which saw saw Nairana battling heavy seas; and Captain John McIntyre, who was feeling unwell before the ship left Launceston, collapsed on the bridge while his ship was entering Port Phillip Bay. He had retired to his cabin after clearing Low Head, but came onto the bridge to navigate the dangerous waters of Port Phillip heads. The engine room was called on for more steam and it was claimed Nairana reached speeds exceeding 20 knots steaming up Port Phillip Bay for medical assistance, eventhough into the northerly gale. When Nairana berthed in the Yarra, the Captain was rushed to hospital. Fortunately, his health recovered.
On April 3 1936, at 7:30AM, and in relatively calm conditions, Nairana, under command of Captain McIntyre, was approaching Port Phillip heads with a full load of cargo, while most of the 88 passengers were either in their cabins or having breakfast in the dining saloon. A few passengers were on the deck to experience their passing from Bass Strait into the Bay. Suddenly, and without warning, a huge wave rose up from the calm waters and and struck her starboard quarter. She rolled over to such an extent that the water came up to the boat deck, more than 40 feet above the water line. A passenger named Parsons, his wife and 20 year old daughter were swept from the promenade deck and were never seen again. (A fleet of small craft later searched). Robert Gillow, another passenger, was killed when the wave smashed him against the ship. His wife and infant daughter had a narrow escape as did stokers in the boiler room who became pinned against the bulkheads by barrows, shovels, and loose coal. Many passengers received injuries while in the dining room, food and crockery were thrown around and some were scalded by hot water.
The helmsman on the bridge, was taken by surprise and was wrenched from the wheel and thrown into a corner. Still steaming ahead, the ship was for a short time, out of control and slewed about, travelling on its side. It was feared it would capsize. There was 100 tons of cement in the hold and if it had shifted, recovery would have been more difficult. (A later inspection found the cement had not shifted; the Tasmanian stevedores had done their job well). Captain McIntyre managed to grab the spinning wheel and take control and slowly, Nairana righted itself.
After the World War II, Taroona returned to the run to Launceston while Nairana returned to the run Melbourne-Burnie, and Melbourne-Devonport. Increasing competition from airlines was amongst reasons Nairana was withdrawn from service in 1948. She was sold to Williamstown firm, W. Mussell Pty Ltd and broke away from its moorings at Williamstown in a 70 mile per hour gale on February 18 1951, and was driven aground just west of Princess Pier Port Melbourne. It was finally scrapped at that location during 1953-1954.
In May 1936, while at 7 North Wharf, a fire, the damage of which cost 10,000 pounds ($20,000) to repair (which was quite a sum in the depression years of the 1930s), broke out amidships, and spread through A deck destroying furniture and fittings. The fire destroyed the smoke room and many cabins, and also damaged the upper deck which bulged in several places. Windows and portholes broke in the severe heat. It was fought by crew with ships hoses, and by men from three fire brigades.
After being repaired, Taroona continued on the Bass Strait run until requisitioned for service as a troopship in World War II. She carried troops from Auckland New Zealand to Suva in January 1942, and in March 1942, she was taken over by the Australian Navy for service in the North of Australia and New Guinea. First trip was to Port Moresby with 480 military personnel and 190 tons of cargo. It unfortunately ran aground on Nateara reef when leaving New Guinea on March 26 1942, near the Basilisk Beacon Port Moresby where it was stuck hard aground to the bridge. Attempts to refloat her failed and Japanese bombers on their way to attack Seven Mile Aerodrome outside Port Moresby passed over on two occasions. But the reason why they did not attack Taroona helplessly grounded on the reef is a mystery, especially as reconnaissance planes preceeded the bombers and surely would have reported Taroona's situation. Finally, three other navel vessels helped Taroona free herself. She refuelled in Port Moresby and headed back to Townsville and provided a shuttle service to various locations to the North. After her war service, Taroona arrived back in Sydney on February 4 1946, bringing back 644 troops. During her war service, she carried some 93,432 troops, sailed 204,535 miles on 94 trips.
She again took up running across Bass Strait in October 1946 after an overhaul in which she lost one of her funnels (as mentioned above). Her companion on the Bass Strait run, Nairana, which had handled the Bass Strait service single handedly during the war in Taroona's absence, was taken off in 1948 because of mounting running losses, and Taroona was then alone on the Bass Strait run. Nairana had operated from December 1947 to February 15 1948 under a guarantee of reasonable profit to Tasmanian Steamers by the Victorian government. In 1959, Taroona was replaced by the drive on drive off Princess of Tasmania operated by Australian National Line. Taroona was sold to the Typaldos Brothers Steam Ship Company, Athens, was renamed Hellas, and survived in the Mediterranean and in Greek waters until the early 1990s.
Click here to see a scanned pdf of a 1946 Tasmanian newspaper cutting of the Taroona at Devonport after resuming the Bass Strait run
Click here to see a scanned newspaper cutting of shipping in northern Tasmania on one day in October 1946 including item about Taroona
More pictures of Taroona -- Victorian Public Records site -- before the loss of one of its funnels during an overhaul undertaken in 1946, just after its World War II troop ship days
Princess of Tasmania could carry 333 passengers and 130 cars. The Bass Trader, a smaller vessel that only carried heavy vehicles and no passengers, soon followed her. They each operated a regular service between Melbourne, Burnie, Devonport and Bell Bay on the Tamar River north of Launceston. In 1969 they were joined by the much larger Australian Trader, which operated mostly on the preferred Devonport-Melbourne route. In 1972 the Empress of Australia, originally built for the Sydney-Hobart run, also entered the Bass Strait trade, and the Princess was sold. Nearly thirty years later Tasmania's pioneer RO/RO ferry is still in service in the Middle East. The Australian Trader was later sold to the Royal Australian Navy for conversion into the training ship Jervis Bay, leaving just the Empress on the Melbourne-Devonport run
In 1985 the Australian National Line decided to pull out of the Bass Strait Ferry service, and the Federal Government, as part of a compensation package for not allowing the Tasmanian Government to build a hydro-electric scheme on the Gordon River, funded the setting up of a new Bass Strait ferry service. The new TT-Line is owned by the people of Tasmania, being operated by a Board of Management that reports directly to the State Government. The first vessel to be acquired was the former European ferry Nils Holgersson, renamed Abel Tasman. She maintained a regular and reliable service until being replaced by the much larger Spirit of Tasmania in 1993. From its beginning in 1985 when TT-Line was a department of the Department of Transport Tasmania employing 250 ship and shore-based staff, the company became a corporation in 1993 and now provides many more hundreds of jobs. In addition, it provides significant indirect employment in a wide range of industries.
From the 1998/1999 summer peak season, TT-Line also provided a faster Bass Strait crossing service with the Tasmanian-built catamaran Devil Cat. In just six hours, the wave-piercing catamaran travelled from George Town in north west Tasmania to Station Pier in Port Melbourne. The Devil Cat operated for the fourth consecutive year in 2000/2001. but with the introduction of the Latest Spirit of Tasmania I and II vessels, the 'Devil cat' service was discontinued.
( Click on picture for a view of Princess of Tasmania arriving at Devonport )