Sydney’s working harbour
by Ross Bray, Photographer
From the arrival of the Europeans in 1788 until recently, Sydney Harbour was primarily a place of industry – of wharves, cranes, warehouses and working boats. By the late 19th century, the tug boat was a ubiquitous part of harbour life.
Big ships steamed in and out of the harbour bringing goods from around the world to disgorge their contents on the docks of Sydney. Australian produce steamed out. Sydney Harbour was import and export central – the economic lifeline to a globalising, increasingly connected world. It was always a visual reminder that there was a big wide world out there somewhere over the horizon.
Pushing and pulling those ships in and out of their berths were the tug boats. Powerful little boats with big hearts and heaps of attitude. They were much loved the workhorses of the harbour.
This pulsating picture of maritime industry on Sydney Harbour carried on its daily routines until 2005, when it was decided that heavy industry would be shifted from Sydney and the wharves and foreshores would be used for other purposes. Like harbours and ports around the world, the real estate value of what Governor Phillip back in 1788 thought of as ‘the finest harbour in the world’ was too great to waste on maritime industries.
When it was announced that most of the big ships – and with them the tug boats – were going to leave Sydney Harbour, a poll found that 78 per cent of Sydney residents opposed the move and Australia wide that figure was an incredible 98 per cent.
But still, it happened. So, as a photographer, I thought I could be useful in capturing some of this history before it changed forever. I decided I would attempt to record, through photographs, some of the work of the tug boats in particular. After all it was the end of an era.
In the comings and goings of big ships it was the tugs pushing them around that most people loved to watch. So did I. So I proposed a photo journalistic project to a tug boat company, who had no problems with the idea.
The tug boat skippers and crews however took a little more persuading. After all, they had many times seen photographers line up a tug boat with the Harbour Bridge or the Opera House in the background, take a few shots, go home and that was it.
But I wanted a bit more, and it wasn’t until I had shot a few rolls of film and shown the tug boat crews the results that things changed rapidly. The crews couldn’t be more helpful once they understood that it was all about the work they did and how they did it.
Discussion flowed over their radios from tug to tug; ‘Where do you want us? How close in?’ They shepherded me out of the way when the work was tight or dangerous, which it often was. They dropped me off or picked me up from ferry wharves as needed, much to the surprise of people waiting for ferries as a huge tug pulled in and then pulled away leaving a foaming trail.
Once I asked for a close shot of another tug boat tight in against the side of a ship travelling down the harbour. The skipper promptly tucked us in so close under the ships bow that the ship sounded its horn as a warning while the crew leaned over the bow to make sure we weren’t run down. But the skipper kept pace with the ship and just ahead of its bow. Tug boat skippers know their stuff.
Tug boats work in all weather, at all times. They move the big RoRo’s (Roll On Roll Off) cargo ships, they welcome the big passenger liners, they move historic ships to their moorings and grab some of the most powerful warships in the world by the scruff of the neck and push them into place.
When I started photographing the tug boats, people would often stop me and ask what I was doing. When I explained the project, they said how much they loved the working harbour, these little working boats.
I think the loss of Sydney as working harbour and the loss of the wonderful tug boats make this beautiful city and its stunning harbour just that little more insular and certainly a little blander.
About the author
Ross Bray is an Australian photographer from Sydney, now resident of Myocum in Northern New South Wales. He worked for 30 years as a photojournalist and TV reporter/producer. Ross prefers to work in the classic format of film photography, rather than digital.
Tug boats in the Australian National Maritime collection
by Dr Stephen Gapps, Curator
Ross Bray’s collection of photographs of tug boats working Sydney Harbour is part of a long Sydney love affair with these iconic vessels. From the late nineteenth century, tug boats were a feature of the landscape of maritime industry that dominated the waterways of Port Jackson. They were the subject of artists – especially photographers – and were popular with model-makers and as children’s toys.
The Australian National Maritime Museum holds a significant collection of all sorts of material relating to tugboats – from records, plans, and reports to paintings, photographs and models. Below is a selection of some images from the long history of these much loved vessels.
This 1909 oil painting by Reginald Arthur Borstel shows the clipper ship Port Jackson and the tug Heroic. The two vessels were not in Sydney at the same time in 1909. Borstel may have included Heroic in the image as it was a new, modern tug.
Ross Bray’s collection of photographs of tug boats working Sydney Harbour is part of a long Sydney love affair with these iconic vessels.
The tug boat Sydney Cove was built in England in 1956 for J Fenwick of the Sydney Harbour Board and operated on the harbour until 1977. This clockwork model of the tug was built by Arthur Joel Cole circa 1960. During the twentieth century tug boats were a favourite of model makers, expressing an appreciation of these vessels that were a favourite with children as well.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, Samuel Hood and photographers from his studio were in the business of selling photographs of visiting ships. But Hood in particular was also careful to document scenes of the harbour, in particular the working vessels and their crews. The Hood Collection of over 9,000 glass plate and nitrate negatives and photographs from the 1890s to 1950s is an outstanding historical resource of the working life of Sydney Harbour.
Built in 1909 in Glasgow, this Fenwick and Co., tug boat was named Heroine. Due to the nature of their work, tugs were given names reflecting bravery, strength and endurance. There were several tugs that operated in Sydney Harbour with names such as Heroic and Forceful. The Heroine’s sister tug Hero was arguably the iconic tug boat of Sydney Harbour, well-known for its incredible rescue of the American barque Abby Palmer in 1905 off the cliffs of South Head in horrendous seas.
In the 1920s Sydney Harbour was still graced by declining numbers of the famous windjammer vessels. In this photo, the German four-masted barque Pommern is being towed through the Glebe Island swing bridge by the tug boat Wellington.
One of the earliest types of steam driven tug boat is this side-paddle wheel vessel from around 1880. The Yatala was built in 1877 for the Adelaide Steam Ship Company.
The work of tug boats was varied. This tug guides the container ship Australian Endeavour under the Sydney Harbour Bridge, in about 1970.
The P&O cruise ship Oriana being turned in front of the Sydney Opera House in the early 1970s. One tug-boat is pushing the starboard-bow, a second is pulling the port-bow, and a third is pushing on the port-quarter.
About the author
Dr Stephen Gapps is a Curator at the Australian National Maritime Museum. In 2011 he won the NSW Premiers History Prize for Regional and Community history with his book Cabrogal to Fairfield – A history of a multicultural community.