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Bass Strait Shipping




TT-Line Company Pty Ltd The History of Bass Strait Shipping

When travelling across Bass Strait in the quiet comfort of TT-Line's Spirit of Tasmania, its difficult to imagine how the sailors who crossed this same stretch of often treacherous sea in small wooden sailing ships would have felt more than 150 years ago.

In the days of early European settlement in Victoria, during the 1830s and early 1840s, most of regular traders were little sloops and schooners in the range of 12 to 25 metres in length. They carried everything from sheep, cattle and timber to shell grit and general cargo, and in the early days when they provided the sole link between the colonies, all of the passengers and the mail as well.

As years went by the passenger, mail and higher grade cargo services were taken over by steamers, and the sailing craft became known as the 'Mosquito fleet,' handling timber and other low-value bulk goods across Bass Strait, and general trade between Tasmanian coastal ports and the Bass Strait Islands, until well after the Second World War. Typical of the later 'Mosquito fleet' was the 143 gross ton, 33-metre brigantine Woolamai, built in 1876, that carried timber around the southern Australian coastline until being wrecked at Apollo Bay, Victoria on 4 June 1923, fortunately without loss of life.

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 locally-owned Tasmanian team 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 T.S.N. Co. Oonah, transferred from the Sydney-Hobart service to the Bass Strait service.

The early 1900s heralded a new era in fast and comfortable sea travel. The Union Steamship Company's Bass Strait ferry Loongana (1903) was the first turbine steamer to operate in the Southern Hemisphere, and could operate at a speed of 20 knots (about 40 km/h). She maintained an average speed of 22 knots when racing across the Strait in 1912 with Melbourne fire-fighters hoping to assist in a disaster at the Mount Lyell Copper Mine on the State's West Coast. The ship was sold to Japanese shipbreakers in 1935.

Another operator of Bass Strait ferries from the 1890s onwards was Huddart Parker & Co. Ltd. Of Melbourne, whose turbine steamer Nairana was under construction in Britain when the First World War broke out. She was completed as an aircraft carrier and served with the Royal Navy in Russian waters after the Bolshevik Revolution, before being converted back into a passenger vessel. She then served on the Bass Strait run for the rest of her commercial career, which ended in 1948.

In 1935 the old steamers Oonah and Loongana were replaced by a much larger and more modern vessel, the Taroona, operated by Tasmanian Steamers Pty. Ltd, a consortium between the former rivals Huddart Parker and the Union S.S. Co. of N.Z. Originally with the appearance of a mini ocean-liner with two funnels, after the Second World War she was modernised and one of the funnels was removed. The Taroona could carry 438 passengers at a speed of 18 knots. She remained on the run until being replaced by the Princess of Tasmania in 1959, and survived in Greek waters until the early 1990s.

A New Era In Sea Travel

By the 1950s an increasing number of tourists were coming to Tasmania, and many wanted to drive their own cars. The Taroona could only carry a small number, laboriously loaded on board by crane. However, in Europe the ferry business was being revolutionised by the introduction of Roll-on/Roll-off ships, into which cars could be driven directly on and off. The Federal Government agreed to built a number of such vessels to service Tasmania, to be operated by their Australian National Line.

First of these revolutionary new ships was the motor vessel Princess of Tasmania in 1959. Still fondly remembered by many former passengers throughout Australia, the POT, as she was popularly known, could carry 333 passengers and 130 cars. The Bass Trader, a slightly smaller vessel that only carried heavy vehicles and no passengers, soon followed her. These vessels operated regularly 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.

While TT-Line is owned by the people of Tasmania, it is operated by a Board of Management that reports directly to the State Government.

From its humble beginnings in 1985 when TT-Line was a department of the Department of Transport Tasmania employing 250 ship and shore-based staff, the company developed into a corporation in November 1993 and now provides over 425 jobs. In addition, it provides significant indirect employment in a range of industries, including engineering, tourism and hospitality, stevedoring, freight and purveying.

Since the 1998/1999 summer peak season, TT-Line has also provided a faster Bass Strait crossing service with the Tasmanian-built catamaran Devil Cat.

In just six hours, the wave-piercing catamaran can travel from George Town in north west Tasmania to Station Pier in Port Melbourne. The Devil Cat will operate for the fourth consecutive year in 2000/2001 and the State Government has committed to lease the craft from its Canadian owners for at least one more season.

Both the Spirit of Tasmania and Devil Cat are popular services, providing an excellent alternative to air travel and an opportunity for visitors to explore Tasmania in their own cars and at their own pace.

Thanks to Don Cripps, VK7AY, for this story from the TT Line web site