Why we should keep the Freshwater ferries

When the Queenscliff sets sail this Wednesday for its final weekday passenger service, we will all wax lyrical with our favourite Manly ferry moment. Cue music: Australian Crawl’s James Reyne singing: “As the Manly ferry cuts its way to Circular Quay.”

For me, it is the trips of my teens, sitting on deck outside, the scent of saltwater and freedom from the suburbs in my nostrils, getting soaked by sea spray as the huge vessel manoeuvred the swell of the heads. For former prime minister Paul Keating, it was catching the red rattler from Bankstown and boarding the double-ended Freshwater class ferry and jumping off the back of it when it got to Manly.

The Manly ferry passing the Heads.

The Manly ferry passing the Heads.Credit:David Whitley

Sydneysiders and foreigners alike will all get misty-eyed about farewelling the first of the final four Freshwater class ferries, our city’s trademark form of transport and tourism. As we begin the process of sending them all back to the Balmain dock, emerging for weekend-only trips, let’s hope their fate is not the same as the Dee Why’s, which in 1976 was scuppered off the coast at Long Bay reef.

Yes, we can lament the loss of the 70-metre Australian-made double-ended vessels that carry 1100 passengers, compared to the 35-metre, 400-passenger Emerald class ferries made in Indonesia and China that will replace them.

No doubt Transport for NSW and TransDev, which operates our government-owned ferries, will claim there is a good business case for replacing old diesel-fuelled ferries with new diesel-fuelled ferries. But rather than take a sentimental journey to nowhere, why don’t we look to other seafaring cities the world over for some inspiration.

Like the Finnish city of Turku and its fight to save the 117-year-old ferry, The Fori. Built in 1904, it was steam-driven until 1955, when it was converted to diesel. By 2015, it was deemed too dirty and noisy and was ordered to be decommissioned. However, a huge backlash ensued: the people of Turku banded together to save their beloved ferry. State authorities reversed their decision and instead of scrapping the vessel, replaced its polluting diesel engines with electric motors fuelled by batteries.

Says Andrew Westwood, the global senior vice-president of Det Norske Veritas, the world’s largest global marine classification society and former merchant navy chief engineer: “The vessel was back in service by 2017 and has exceeded expectations of both passengers and operators as well maintaining maritime history.”

Westwood has prepared a paper on how electrification could save the freshwater class of Manly ferries, outlining how the vessels could be recharged at Circular Quay and Manly and how Cockatoo Island could be used as a source of renewable energy. He sets out examples from all over the world of how similar double-ended ferries have been converted to electricity while slashing operating costs. He presented it to the NSW government but he feels the government gave his work “not much consideration at all”.

He has spoken often of how Sydney designers and boat builders have been working on electric vessels for London and San Francisco yet they have not turned to those that ply the harbour at our doorstep. Our city is home to one of the best naval architecture schools in the world at the University of NSW, he said, but instead of harnessing that brain power, we looked overseas to replace our trademark ferries.

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