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Wattle runs out of steam in Docklands

30 Oct 2009

Wattle runs out of steam in Docklands Image

Docklands is fast becoming a home for historic vessels in need of a bit of TLC. The latest is the magnificent and unique steam-driven tugboat Wattle – an Aussie battler who plied Sydney Harbour from her launch in 1933.

Built in the midst of the great depression, she was the first tugboat to be completely designed and made in Australia. Today she is owned by the Sorrento Steam Company, a group of nine businessmen who, according to director Steve Eleftheriadis, “have a passion for rescuing our history”.

“She’s been classified by the National Trust, and any Trust property belongs in part to the people. Which is why we wanted to obtain a site next to the water and restore her in a public manner, where volunteers can be involved and passers-by can enjoy her.”

Mr Eleftheriadis compares the building of the Wattle by Australia’s Commonwealth Dockyards and Engineering Company based at the Commonwealth Dockyards at Garden Island, Sydney, to more recent developments under the current government’s stimulus package – as a way to get people back to work.

“If it wasn’t for the depression she never would have been built. The country was downtrodden and on its knees, so they wanted to build a boat that would knock ‘em dead. They couldn’t afford a big one, but they wanted to build the best one they could.”

Until then, tugboats built in Australia were based on English, Scottish and European designs and constructing Wattle put many “shipwrights, metal workers, boiler makers and other ship building related apprentices into work. She signified Australian pride”.

Having served with the Royal Australian Navy until her decommissioning in the 1960s, she retired from towing duties in 1970. She was then converted to historic steam charter and tourism duties and in 1978 the Bay Steamers Maritime Museum brought her to Melbourne.

“The Bay Steamers didn’t have the capacity or ability to restore her properly and couldn’t raise the funding needed which was quoted at $180,000,” Mr Eleftheriadis said.

Wattle had been tied up at Victoria Pier since about 2001 but, according to Mr Eleftheriadis, if she’d stayed there she would have perforated and sunk. After taking her to Crib Point for quotes for engineering she recently returned to Docklands where the Bay Steamers and volunteers will be doing the restoration work.

Wattle is now sitting out of the water on North Wharf, just upstream of the Bolte Bridge.

“Once she’s in ship-shape condition she can do tourism duties, which will generate the income to keep in her in top condition,” Mr Eleftheriadis  said.

Mr Eleftheriadis estimates that Wattle will be out of the water for a least a year, and maybe as long as two years.

“The restoration will be done in heritage fashion. Of course we need to install things such as environmentally-friendly loos and galley with a modernised power generator, but, where we can, it will be as close to authentic as possible,” Mr Eleftheriadis said.

All volunteers are welcome. And for anyone interested in steam this is a great opportunity to get some authentic training.

If you are keen to volunteer or finding out more about the Wattle, contact either the Wattle’s captain, Dick Francis on 0413 797 791 who, together with the members of the Bay Steamers Maritime Museum, is in charge of the restoration or Steve Eleftheriadis on 0419 334 868.

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