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Sydney Harbour Ferries

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by Ian Gill (subscribe)
I'm a Victorian freelance writer & photographer living in the Macedon Ranges north of Melbourne.
Published August 21st 2013
All Aboard on the Harbour
Sydney's iconic harbour ferries are a colorful institution jam-packed full of history which can be traced all the way back to the first ferry to enter service just 22 months after the arrival of the First Fleet.

Sydney New South Wales NSW Harbour Ferry Ferries Boats Ship Ships Shipping
Sydney Harbour's ferries are as much about the city as is the Opera House of the Harbour Bridge


The Rose Hill Packet, 'The Lump' as she was better known, was the first ship built in Australia and operated a short-lived service between Sydney Cove and Parramatta. Taking up to a week to make the trip up-river it was discontinued in 1800.

Other early ferry services were operated by row-boat, but it wasn't until 1861 that the first high profile commercial venture was introduced by James Milson. His North Shore Ferry Company began running a sixty passenger vessel between Circular Quay and Milsons Point. But the near north shore boasted a population of only a thousand or so people, insufficient to sustain the service and Milson was forced to look to the colonies new frontier, Manly.

Sydney New South Wales NSW Harbour Ferry Ferries Boats Ship Ships Shipping
The COLLAROY enroute to Manly


The first irregular Manly services were operated by a wooden paddle-steamer, 'THE BROTHERS' but, as the need for regular and improved services increased, an iron paddle-wheeler 'PHANTOM' was brought on-line. The first vessel dedicated to the Manly run 'PHANTOM' also introduced the colour scheme which was to become standard livery for vessels operating the service, the dark green hull and white funnel topped with a black stripe.

Sydney New South Wales NSW Harbour Ferry Ferries Boats Ship Ships Shipping
The ferry FRESHWATER arriving at Manly terminal


The majority of Sydney's pioneering ferry services combined to form Sydney Ferries Limited in 1899 which, by 1932, had become the world's largest ferry operator carrying some 30 million passengers annually. But the opening of the Harbour Bridge in the same year resulted in a massive decline in ferry patronage. Private operators faced financial ruin and eventually the NSW Government was forced to take over most services.

Sydney New South Wales NSW Harbour Ferry Ferries Boats Ship Ships Shipping
Circular Quay is the hub for harbour ferry services


In 2012 the fleet's ownership turned full-circle with Harbour City Ferries returning to private ownership, swept up by a partnership comprising Transfield Services and Veolia Transdev. The major player in Sydney's water transport industry then joining several other privately owned but very much smaller operators running a wide variety of services.

One of them, Rosman Ferry Services, with their fleet of five irreplaceable hand-crafted timber vessels, carries on a tradition of service on the harbour dating back to the early 1900's.

Sydney New South Wales NSW Harbour Ferry Ferries Boats Ship Ships Shipping
RADAR is one of Rosman Ferries classic timber vessels


Sydney's current mix of ferries ranges from the classic timber lines of the Rosman fleet to the modern double-enders plying the Manly route and sleek high-speed Catamarans, all servicing some 40 wharves around the harbour and carrying in excess of 14 million passengers a year.

For large numbers of Sydneysiders the ferries are part of their daily commute as well as a mainstay of recreational travel. And it's a similar story for visitors. Whether sight-seeing at The Rocks, Darling Harbour and Taronga Zoo or dining out and shopping in Double Bay the ferries are a convenient, relatively cheap and relaxing way to get around.

Sydney New South Wales NSW Harbour Ferry Ferries Boats Ship Ships Shipping
All manner of vessels carry millions of passengers annually on Sydney's waterways


They also opened up the islands of Sydney Harbour. Originally there were thirteen but some, including Garden Island, have since been joined to the mainland.

Fort Denison, Cockatoo Island, Garden Island and Shark Island are all currently (August 2013) served by regular ferry services.
Fort Denison, or 'Pinchgut', was originally a convict prison and later a fort aimed at protecting Sydney from a feared Russian invasion.

Sydney New South Wales NSW Harbour Ferry Ferries Boats Ship Ships Shipping
Fort Denison is a popular Sydney Harbour attraction reached by ferry


Cockatoo Island also started out as a convict establishment but was later used for ship building. Today it's a popular picnic spot and tourist attraction.

Garden Island has a long and ongoing association with the Navy. The only access to the public areas of the island is via ferry. Many of the old military facilities are open for inspection and it's home to the Navy Heritage Centre museum.

Shark Island is a former animal quarantine station just off-shore from Rose Bay. It's a very popular picnic spot and has fabulous views up and down the Harbour.

Sydney New South Wales NSW Harbour Ferry Ferries Boats Ship Ships Shipping
Ferries are a great way to experience Sydney's magnificent Harbour


Sydneysiders are fortunate indeed to live on what is probably the world's greatest natural harbour and the ferries are a great way to experience all it has to offer.
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Why? Experience the world's greatest natural harbour on board one of Sydney's fleet of iconic ferries.
When: 7 Days, All year around
Phone: (02) 8113 3002
Where: Circular Quay Ferry Terminal, The Rocks
Cost: Varies per trip
Your Comment
Spectacular images! The water at Manly appears very inviting. I've been on the Freshwater. Not sure about the others though. I didn't know you could get off at the Fort.
by Katy Holliday (score: 3|1133) 2247 days ago
Thanks Katy. It's not a trip to Sydney if you don't take a ferry ride.
by Ian Gill (score: 1|96) 2246 days ago
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