IT was the saddest sight of all for lovers of maritime history.
It was the sudden sinking of the 99-year-old former Manly ferry Baragoola at its tie-up berth at Waverton, on Sydney Harbour, a fortnight ago.
The 61-metre long vessel, which once carried passengers for 60 years, sank in about eight metres of water just six weeks short of its centenary. Now, the beloved Baragoola (or "flood tide") is likely to be dismantled for scrap after heritage items onboard, like its prized bell, are recovered.
The ageing, privately-owned 498-ton ferry was last in service on the Circular Quay to Manly run in 1983. The sinking was a drastic warning of what could happen to such historic vessels without government and widespread community support.
Launched in 1922, the Baragoola was the sixth and final Binngarra model ferry built to ply the passenger route to suburban Manly. All the ferry names began with a 'B'.
Now let's examine the fate of a giant sister ship, the old former Manly ferry MV North Head (previously called SS Barrenjoey). It once operated on the same route for 72 years - up to 1985 - and could carry 1572 passengers.
It hasn't sunk, but is grounded and deteriorating in a Cairns inlet, although it's being slowly repaired by its owners when funds permit.
This brings us to the highlight of the old Manly ferry fleet, the majestic South Steyne, which is famous globally and has strong Newcastle links.
Built in Scotland in 1938, the huge, triple-decker ferry sailed across the oceans under its own steam to Australia in just 64 days.
The South Steyne then cruised more than 100,000 times between Manly and Sydney's Circular Quay in its 36-year career carrying more than 92 million passengers.
When built, the double-ended ferry was the world's largest steam-powered passenger ferry and at 67metres was six metres longer and more than twice as heavy as the slightly older Baragoola.
But even the legendary South Steyne, the pride of the Manly ferry fleet, was retired in 1974. Yet it wasn't the end as this undisputed queen of Sydney Harbour refused to die.
Two days into retirement though, a mystery fire at the Balmain ferry depot gutted her. The future at first looked grim.
At one stage, a fan of the old ferry paid $30,000 to try to save it. The South Steyne then spent almost a year quietly moored in Newcastle Harbour in 1982-83 before going to Ballina on the North Coast for repairs.
A vintage travel company headed by former Novocastrian, the late Michael Wansey, apparently then saved the vessel from being scuttled when he took it over in 1986. The South Steyne had become a great survivor. About $1million was spent on initial refurbishment to convert the ship into a luxurious cruising restaurant.
The Victorian government soon became involved with renovations over about five years, presuming the classic steamer would stay down south.
There was talk of the steamship being the flagship of Melbourne's dockyard development and a 1996 Melbourne Olympics bid. No expense was spared on refurbishment.
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The mammoth task was reputed to have cost more than $9million, and by 1990 the restored South Steyne was insured for $13.3million.
But Victorian government support dried up by July 1988 and company receivers impounded the ship. Soon, a Hunter Valley Consortium headed by Newcastle hotelier Brian McDermott snapped up the classic vessel at a reported bargain price of $1.5million. Another $200,000 was spent on minor repairs, insurance and seaworthy certificates to sail the ferry to NSW.
The vessel, with its opulent art deco interior, then cruised to Newcastle to operate as a floating restaurant/cabaret and function centre, arriving in port on January 11, 1991, as the city's newest tourist attraction.
Owner Brian McDermott, however, said business, not sentiment, was behind buying the unique steamship. He'd even stumbled on the South Steyne by accident. He'd originally wanted to buy a floating Chinese pagoda in Sydney Harbour.
The rebuilt South Steyne graced our foreshore up until December 1994. McDermott was enticed to bring the vessel back to Sydney's Darling Harbour in the lead up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
The moored ship became a Sydney Games information centre and was added to the State Heritage Register in 1999. Afterwards the ship operated as a Sydney floating restaurant and convention centre until 2016.
A Darling Harbour upgrade then forced the graceful vessel to relocate "temporarily" to a berth at Berrys Bay on the lower north shore.
The berth, however, is still inaccessible to the general public and it is costing $200,000 a year for daily upkeep and insurance without any income now for about five years.
McDermott told Sydney media recently he now also faced a ship bill of up to $400,000 in the next 18 months for dry docking, an inspection and a hull repaint.
He said he'd repeatedly tried to get a permanent berth for his heritage vessel, possibly at Manly or at Pyrmont's maritime precinct, but without luck. And at some stage money would eventually run out.
This mighty ship of Sydney harbour is truly a national treasure, although the superstitious among us could be concerned the South Steyne's engines were made by the same builders of the ill-fated Titanic.
But this grandest Manly ferry has more lives than a cat, already surviving earlier ocean tempests, financial storms and crashing into the warship HMAS Melbourne in 1970.
When the rebuilt South Steyne arrived in Newcastle in 1991, it was a marvel to behold. It still is with its sheer size, riveted steel hull, Burmese teak decks, brass fittings and tasteful design. My memories of this elegant vessel back then during a tour were also of silk wallpaper, a glass pyramid ceiling, cherry oak and poplar burl inlaid panelling, cleverly concealed electrics, never unpacked Wedgewood crockery ($32 a plate), a grand staircase and being able to seat 500 people for dinner.
No expense was originally spared to make this ferry of ocean liner proportions luxurious. No detail was overlooked. That extended to two magnificent brass handles on a set of glass doors. During the major refurbishment (pre-1991), the big mermaid-shaped handles came from Italy at a cost of $900 each, and the story goes that the original versions didn't give a good enough grip.
The next thing you know was that the handles were returned to Italy . . . . for breast enlargements, believe it or not.
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