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Thursday, 30 October 2014

The Story of the First Fleet Ferries

Transport anniversaries have been coming thick and fast lately. The Gladesville Bridge turned 50 on 2 October and last week Japan celebrated 50 years of high speed trains.

Another milestone will be reached next month. The first of nine First Fleet ferries went into service on 28 November 1984. All nine continue to provide reliable service across Sydney's Inner Harbour.

The story of the First Fleet Ferries should be better known. We all know how the dead hand of bureaucratic incompetence stifled the creative genius of Jorn Utzon, but few know that a similar story lies behind the most iconic class of Sydney Ferries.

Funding for the new fleet was a gift from the Federal Government to the people of New South Wales as part of Australia's Bicentennial celebrations. After a tender process, Australia's finest naval architect, Alan Payne, was selected to design the boats.

The skill and accomplishments of Alan Payne are little appreciated outside the maritime community. He fails to rate a mention in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, yet his achievements are astonishing.

After a string of successes in designing Sydney to Hobart yachts, he was engaged by Sir Frank Packer to design Gretel, the first Australian challenger for the America's Cup in 1962. Gretel proved to be faster than the American defender Weatherly and some argue it would have won the series, but for erratic interventions by Sir Frank in crew management.

Payne also designed two other Americas Cup challengers, Gretel II and Advance and was inducted into the Americas Cup Hall of Fame posthumously in 2005. The better known Ben Lexcen was inducted in the following year.

When Payne was engaged to design a catamaran ferry for Sydney, he undertook the project with his customary passion, attention to detail and a classical design aesthetic.  He worked with Sydney boat designer Bill Bollard to refine the design. Bollard, who still lives on the Central Coast, says Payne's eye for hull lines was exceptional. He was also fastidious about meeting functional and passenger requirements. This led to the novel feature of twin rudders on each hull to provide superb manoeuvrability in Sydney Harbour's tight coves. He also ensured all passengers had unimpeded views out of the vessel, a feature sadly not continued in more recent ferry designs.

Not satisfied with tank testing, Payne and Bollard built two 20 foot prototypes for testing at Brooklyn and on the Lane Cove River. Payne's famous EH Holden, purchased after the Americas Cup Challenge in 1962, is seen in the picture below launching one of the prototypes in the Lane Cove River.
Photograph by Bill Bollard 
Following testing, Payne decided that a semi-asymmetrical  round bilge hull shape was the best design.

The final design was close to perfection, creating minimal wash.

This is where bureaucracy intervened. At its original length of 30 metres, wash patterns were minimised, but a vessel of this length was required by law to carry three crew. The Urban Transit Authority insisted that it be shortened, much to Payne's distress, to keep crewing levels down to two. The plans were changed and production commenced at Carringtons, Newcastle. 

In the meantime, agitation by Sydney Ferry staff led to crew levels being set at three anyway, so neither the labour cost savings nor Alan Payne's perfect, low wash design were realised.

The first ferry in service was the Sirius, followed soon after by the Supply. The early First Fleeters have more outside seating on the Upper Deck, which is generally appreciated by passengers in Sydney's mild climate.

Designing a ferry fleet, fit for purpose on Sydney's iconic harbour is no easy task. But for the interference of the Urban Transit Authority, Payne came close to designing the perfect ferry. Had he designed it today, he may also have allowed for better accommodation of 21st century strollers and more advanced gangways, but it remains a firm favourite of crews and the public.

Not every naval architect has the courage to go beyond the brief set for them by the client, nor the imagination or persistence to design something of genuine quality which accommodates the thousand and one little details that need to be considered. Alan Payne was such a person.     

As for the bureaucratic interventions in the early 1980's, well of course it would not happen today - would it?


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