As we were queuing to board the car ferry, Spirit of Tasmania, I couldn’t help thinking about a few folk songs that commemorate ferry tragedies of the past 150 years or so. If that seems neurotic, bear with me.
We booked our car and caravan on the ferry in November, probably the last opportunity to book a return ticket for March/April 2022. At the time, we had no clear indication we’d be able to go, pending the Covid state of play at the time. We knew that had the trip been cancelled/postponed, we’d be able to redeem the booking at a later time.
She Who Hitchhiked Around Tassie in 1967 has now been to various parts of the island state three times. My one and only flirtation with Tasmania was a trip to the Longford Folk Festival in 1981. I’d won a song-writing competition with a tune about the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. I got there via an overnight bus from Brisbane to Melbourne and a cheap stand-by flight to Launceston.
Apart from spending a few hours walking around Launceston while waiting for a flight to Brisbane (no more 36-hour bus rides for me), that was my total exposure to Tasmania.
In March 2022, I’m looking forward to the next 18 days touring around. But first I had to suppress the emerging panic attack in our cabin once the ship’s engines kicked in. The goal was to overcome anxiety and reignite my love affair with the sea.
My first experience at sea was a big one – a six-week voyage from Tilbury docks in London to Wellington New Zealand in 1955. I was six going on seven and dogged in my determination to avoid being confined to the ship’s nursery. I was eventually released into Dad’s care on the condition that I was not allowed to wander around the ship unsupervised.
Dad and I shared a two-berth cabin, while Mum and the girls were in another cabin downstairs. I seem to recall being taken up on deck by my sisters while Mum and Dad ‘spent time together’ in our cabin.
I got the travel bug as an adult, starting with a trip to Europe in the 1970s – a combination of a sea cruise and international flight. We sailed on a small Greek ship popular with backpackers for its cheap fares. The route was Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Fremantle and Singapore where we stayed a couple of nights and then caught a flight to Athens.
My memories of that trip include observing crew members patrolling the ship armed with rifles as we navigated the hundreds of Indonesian islands between Fremantle and Singapore. Pirates ruled those waters then, as they still do today. Sailing adventures in the 1970s included an overnight crossing to Crete on an old, overcrowded ferry which segregated men on one side and women on the other. I still have no clue what that was about. Over the years, I have sailed on a variety of ferries – a mix of adventures and misadventures, including Dover to Calais before the Chunnel (seasick).
I’ve crossed Cook Strait between Wellington and Picton a few times and it is always turbulent to one degree or another. Kiwis who are old enough to remember would not forget that stormy night in 1968 when the inter-island ferry, The Wahine, capsized in Wellington Harbour with the loss of 157 lives. I was 20 at the time and itchy to travel. But I found that tragedy very sobering and it quite often influenced whether or not I boarded a dodgy ferry in the Mediterranean.
The main reason we remember maritime tragedies is the folk songs that have been written about them (Gordon Lightfoot’s Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald for starters). The late Roy Bailey wrote one about the Herald of Free Enterprise, a vehicle ferry which capsized and sank in Zeebrugge Harbour in Belgium with the loss of 193 lives. The tragedy on March 6, 1987 occurred not long after the ship sailed. An inquiry found that the main reason for the accident was the bow doors of the roll-on roll-off ferry were not raised before it sailed.
New Zealand folksinger Anna Leah had a minor hit in 1968 with her song about the Wahine, still New Zealand’s worst maritime disaster. The Wahine capsized close to shore, but the storm was so ferocious rescue efforts were greatly hampered.
Last year, I wrote a folk ballad about the 1896 sinking of the Brisbane cross-river ferry, The Pearl. It’s a tragic but true story.
Maritime tragedies linger in our memory because of the media attention (always dredged up again at 10, 20 and 50-year intervals). There have been far worse ferry tragedies in Asian and African countries, with a far greater loss of life. Some of these accidents involved collisions and fires. Some claimed 1000 lives and more, largely because of overcrowding. But our insular media rarely report these tragedies, (unless there was an unlucky Australian on board).
Despite my experiences as a sailor, I was in some trepidation about the Tasmanian ferry until I did some research on the Spirit of Tasmania.
The latest Spirit of Tasmania, launched in 2002, is the third ship to carry the name since the Melbourne to Devonport voyage was established in 1985. There are plans to replace these vessels in 2023-2024 with even larger ships (bearing the same name, as is the tradition). These vessels (also built in Finland) will each carry 1800 passengers.
The Spirit of Tasmania sailed late, at 11.30. We found the bar for the obligatory rum and coke (and a lime and soda for Bob) and then retired for the night.
After turning out the cabin light and settling in, I did a few ‘this is just a passing thought’ exercises to quell the anxieties and then slept fitfully. At some point I woke and the ferry was barging its way through heavy seas and rolling a little. But by first light we had entered calmer waters.
The previous evening when I watched the ferry cruising into Station Pier at the Port of Melbourne, I realised that this vessel is larger than the Rangitiki, the ship we sailed on from Tilbury (UK) to Wellington, New Zealand in 1955.
The Spirit of Tasmania (there are two of them) were manufactured in Finland. They have bars, restaurants and cinemas and a range of cabins for all budgets. The process of embarking and disembarking was very thorough (Tasmania has strict quarantine rules and the company has rules about what can and can’t be taken on board).
My only complaint was a lack of facilities (toilets) for those queued for hours in their vehicles. I told She Who Hitched Around Tassie in 1967 I had a great business idea for some enterprising young person. who in ScoMo parlance wants to become a Lifter rather than a Leaner. The Comfort Station operator would cruise up and down the queues of vehicles on a bicycle towing a two-wheeled cart loaded with sterilised urine containers. (Comfort Station would also offer containers not unlike those provided to female soldiers when they are out on jungle patrols – Ed: they are called Shewee). The cart operator would make the return trip down the other side of the queued vehicles (collecting full bottles and tips).
If you have seen that Mel Brooks movie, The History of the World Part 1, where the servant follows the King around with a gold bucket, you will get the picture.