ALMOST 50 years ago, three unique vessels of Newcastle’s maritime history vanished overnight.
Two of the familiar vehicular ferries, Koondooloo and Lurgurena, were the last operating ‘punts’ to each make a final seven-minute trip across Newcastle Harbour. Crossing the water had suddenly become much easier in late 1971 when the new Stockton Bridge made all vehicle punts obsolete.
The 58-metre long Koondooloo, built in Scotland in 1924, was the flagship of the ageing fleet. Her crew then took her on a sentimental last voyage, sailing up the harbour and under the new bridge.
She’d only joined the fleet in 1952 but could carry up to 56 vehicles per trip. For here was the challenge facing her owner, the then DMR (Department of Main Roads). The sheer volume of Hunter traffic was increasing beyond the capacity of the vehicular ferry service, despite it operating 24-hours-a-day.
On some peak days in 1971, almost 5000 vehicles used the port crossing service. By 1988, however, Stockton Bridge, carried an average of almost 14,700 vehicles daily. The old punts alone could never have handled the increased traffic volume.
The harbour’s big car ferries faithfully served Newcastle Harbour for decades and represented a colourful period in its history, being loved, and cursed (for regular long traffic delays) in equal measure.
Many older Novocastrians even remember the romantic era of the DMR’s three regular ‘seagoing main roads” better than the Stockton Bridge opening itself.
“But I’m surprised at the number of people today who still don’t know these ferries ever existed,” Paul Harris, of Adamstown Heights, said.
I’m surprised at the number of people today who still don’t know these ferries ever existed.Paul Harris
And Harris, now 74 years, is in a privileged position to know about the now lost ferries, recently giving an insight into their operation.
As a DMR maintenance fitter, he worked on the big, old steam-powered punts for nine years before they finally became redundant and sold off to be reused overseas.
“The ferries were RS, ageing and riddled with rust. Cement blocks (patches) were put on until a vessel could be docked for repair. Parts would then cut out and replaced,” Harris said.
“Some test plates would also be drilled in the hulls to check metal thickness and then bolts inserted in the holes to keep them watertight.
“Up until about 1962, all six month and 12-month maintenance and overhauls of these DMR ferries was carried out at the floating dock, at Carrington. Then work went to Stockton.
“Our sheds were on Stockton’s Ballast Grounds and the regular maintenance crew during non-overhaul periods consisted of 12 people,” Harris said.
“There was a senior engineer, a storeman, two fitters, including myself, two shipwrights, one boilermaker, one rope splicer, a foreman and three painters and dockers.
“I always remember looking up the river to see the bridge getting longer and closer to Stockton, meaning the end of the ferries we were maintaining.
“During the 12-monthly overhauls of the three vessels, which each took 6-8 weeks, work crew numbers would be increased, with up to seven fitters and about 35 painters and dockers.
“During six-monthly overhauls to keep the ferries running, most work was carried out by the permanent maintenance crews. Marine surveys were still carried out at the [then] floating dock,” Harris said.
“If any running maintenance was needed, it was done while the ferry was operating. If major maintenance was needed, it would be left until the tie-up at night (at Stockton berth).
“The ferries normally ran across the harbour to Stockton and back every 15 minutes but overnight it became about an hourly service as there wasn’t the same number of vehicles wanting to get over to, or back from, Stockton.
“A fitter or fitters would come in at 11.30pm and carry out necessary repairs which could include repacking leak steam glands, main engine top or bottom ends, leaking boiler valve glands, repack the gauge glass cocks on the boilers and work on all auxiliary machinery.
“If all was OK, the ferry would leave the tie-up to return to the daily run, departing Stockton berth about 5.45am.
“When operating, the punts shook throughout every time when going astern, like coming into dock. Another thing was all the boiler pipes being lagged [wrapped] in asbestos rope. But this was the middle 1960s and we never thought anything about it. We didn’t know of any potential danger then.
“Any work done had to be thorough. The [relief] ferry Kooroongaba, for example, had been built at Newcastle’s old Walsh Island shipyard (now Kooragang) in 1921. All the DMR ferries were all around 50 years old in 1971.
“The Lurgurena (from 1925) had come up from Tasmania and the Koondooloo (from 1924) came out from England. They had to put a false bow on her to deal with waves on the voyage out, I believe.”
And on Friday afternoons, after his Stockton shift had ended, Paul Harris said he often drove home to Newcastle, but via Hexham.
“It was quicker. The long waiting car queue would be lined half-way back to the Boatrowers Hotel (at North Stockton). You’d wait an hour, or four ferry trips, before your car got onboard,” he said.
“I think they bunkered on the Newcastle side with coal trucks tipping coal down through opened deck grates for fuel to the boilers. They’d maybe load coal every second day.
“It was a top job working on the punts. This was a time in Newcastle remember when BHP took on 200 apprentices a year and the State Dockyard about 110 apprentices, like shipwrights. That’s all gone now.”
The three retired ferries and a former showboat Sydney Queen were sold and left Newcastle under tow bound for the Philippines in January 1972. To make the vessels seaworthy, portholes were covered and steel sheets welded over deck grates.
But off Crowdy Head, the punt Kooroongaba sank suddenly in deep water. Some Stockton residents later claimed she may have sprung a plate before even leaving Newcastle Harbour by running too close to inshore rocks.
The remaining three vessels limped into Trial Bay, near Kempsey, but soon ended up stranded on the beach, unable to be salvaged.
“They’re stuck there to this day, but there’s very little left now, except for two car ramp posts sticking out of the sand,” Harris said.
The abrupt sinking of the Kooroongaba was a shock and a bad omen. When Stuart White, the owner of the ferries, was asked by media back in 1972 why the Kooroongaba sank he was puzzled.
“She may have been a little tired,” he said.