South Steyne

South Steyne

Type :
Steel screw steamer
Launched  :
Builder :
Henry Robb Ltd
Leith, Scotland
Gross weight :
1203 tons
Dimensions :
67.00 x 11.00 (metres)
Passenger capacity :
Speed :
17.23 knots

South Steyne has several myths surrounding her; first, she is the fastest Manly ferry built - not true, Curl Curl & Dee Why were faster & the Freshwater class are rated at 18 knots, making them faster as well (however they rarely travel above 14 knots). Secondly, she is the biggest Manly ferry ever built - also not true, the four Freshwater vessels are longer at a little over 70 metres. Thirdly, she has the greatest carrying capacity for any ferry on Sydney harbour - not true, several of the big 'K' class harbour ferries easily outclassed her by carrying more than 2,200 passengers. All that being said however, she is certainly the heaviest  Manly ferry ever built.

South Steyne was the vision of the Port Jackson company's general director Walter Leslie Dendy & was built largely on his designs & specifications. Dendy was general manager of the company from 1925 until 1944 & is commonly regarded as having brought the company to it's peak. He was the driving force behind the Curl Curl & Dee Why & grew the company after the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge that mostly destroyed the large inner harbour network, but conversely brought growth to the Manly company. After the success of the two big twins, Dendy had a vision of an even bigger design - ultimately this was to become the South Steyne & she was designed to be more like an ocean liner than a ferry.

The South Steyne arrived in Sydney on the 9th of September, 1938 after a 64 day journey from Scotland. It was hailed as the ultimate in Manly ferries for the next 36 years & was during that time the flagship of the fleet (a position North Head took after the South Steyne's retirement). Even though Dendy was the driving force behind the South Steyne, curiously, his favourite ship (despite her long litany of woes) was always the Bellubera.

The company sent Dendy to the UK in December 1936 to look for developments in sea transport & to instigate the building of a new Manly ferry. He was after a ship that would be an improvement on the two big twins. By this time, Manly had grown as a residential area & the tourist trade had boomed. There was a need for new & faster vessels. Although Dendy had wanted a diesel-electric powered ship, the board of directors settled for a reciprocating steam engine, due to the fact that the Bellubera had had so many problems & there had been complaints about her noise from people living along the harbour (notably from those in Vaucluse). Total cost for the vessel was 150,000 pounds.

The day of the launch was set for the 1st of April 1938 & the plan had been for the wife of the shipbuilder to launch the ferry, however, the South Steyne had her own ideas & launched herself unaided. Shortly after being fitted out, she began her long journey to her home harbour.

Much publicity surrounded the journey of the South Steyne. This, coupled with the same journey by the Curl Curl & Dee Why, has led to the belief that all Manly ferries were built overseas. This is not correct - before the arrival of the big twins in the latter part of the 1920's, the last one that had been built overseas had been the 1883 Brighton. In between, eight vessels had all been built locally. For the journey out, her superstructure was completely boarded up to protect the window glass. Remembering that this was just before the outbreak of World War II, it is no surprise that as she traveled through the Bay of Biscay she was regarded with some suspicion by a French cruiser who tailed her for some time. An Italian submarine did the same, shepherding her along a specially patrolled lane.

After leaving Algiers she headed for Port Said & the Suez Canal where the port authorities decided that she could only proceed as a vessel without priority, because she had no steam windlasses or winches on deck. Effectively, this meant she had to get out of the way of any other ship & this caused a problem when she was tied up next to the banks & the wash from a British tanker stranded her. A tug was sent & after some time & much effort she was refloated. However, the tow line parted & wrapped around her propeller requiring a diver to be sent to clear the mess. After this, the canal authorities decided they had had enough of the ship & gave her priority over every other ship in the canal - they wanted her out.

In the Red Sea, she encountered a sandstorm & had to lay-to until it had passed. The result was that the ship was coated in a thick layer of yellow mud. While waiting for the sandstorm to pass, a Greek grain carrier passed her by, on board, the radio operator (from Sydney) couldn't believe his eyes & thought his last day had come when he spotted the Manly ferry thousands of miles from the harbour. Later, when he saw her in service in Sydney he commented that she looked much more respectable than when he has last seen her, wallowing around in a storm. She got back under way & endured more bad weather in the form of the Monsoon season & headed for the Malay port of Sourabaya where she was cleaned & painted for her arrival in Sydney, still 3,000 miles off.

On the 31st of August, she arrived in Australian waters & headed down the Queensland coast where she hit gale force winds & once again proved her seaworthiness. Finally, on the 9th of September, she entered the harbour with flags flying to be greeted by a welcoming flotilla. She was taken to Kurraba Point where she was prepared for her speed trials & ultimate service. She made two special cruises on Sunday the 23rd of October from Circular Quay & then, the next morning, began her regular run to Manly at 8.10am.

Seventy years previously, the big paddlewheel steamer Brighton had largely driven the tourist trade to Manly. In 1953 the South Steyne took this to a new level with the first of her ocean cruises to Broken Bay, eventually the South Steyne also followed the Sydney-Hobart competitors each year down the coast as far as Port Hacking. Both ventures proved to be very popular. The South Steyne used to operate around 35 cruises per year and these only came to an end in 1973 because her sea-going certificate was canceled.

Almost immediately, the South Steyne started causing trouble. Her wash was much larger than any of the other Manly ferries & this caused two painters on a punt painting the hull of the Sydney to be washed overboard in January of 1939. One was injured when he got caught between the punt & the Sydney. A few weeks later, two fishermen were run down by the South Steyne, fortunately, although their launch was rolled several times, they escaped injuries. A little later while berthing at Manly, she crashed into the harbour pool, narrowly missing a group of children. Two people at the scene had to be treated for shock.

It wasn't until the 19th of March 1942 that she had her next incident. During rough weather, a large wave broke over the ship & smashed several windows & some seats were broken free. The South Steyne usually handled rough weather well & was often the last ferry taken off the run because of rough weather.

On the 11th of May 1944, she overshot the wharf at Manly again, this time crashing into the tourist bureau & demolishing the men's toilets. Her sponson was jammed under the wharf & with a dangerous list, was in peril of being capsized, fortunately, she was pulled clear.

Friday the 13th of March 1964 was definitely an unlucky day for the ferry. Just off Bennelong Point, she collided with the freighter Jason, causing damage to her sponson, bows & upper deck. The Jason sustained only a scratch.

She had better luck taking on the Royal Australian Navy, which she did twice during her career. The first incident occurred in may 1954 when she ran down a launch from the frigate Barcoo. The launch jammed under her sponson, tossing her crew overboard. With the engine still running, it freed itself & headed off down the harbour un-manned. Questioned by the press,a naval spokesmans only comment was "I have learned that a launch from Barcoo has collided with the ferry South Steyne. I have nothing more to say." Her next "naval exercise" was on the day of 30th September, 1970, when, after avoiding a yacht in the fairway, she crashed into the stern of the aircraft carrier Melbourne. Melbourne suffered some minor damage, but the South Steyne had to be taken off for repairs after crumpling her bows.

In 1972, the assets of the PJ&MSS company were taken over by Brambles, who were more interested in the land based assets of the company & allowed the remaining ferries to be run down badly. The South Steyne was being used less & less & her days were numbered. By this time, North Head was doing the majority of the work along with Baragoola.  Bellubera too was only doing minimal runs. Within 18 months both South Steyne & Bellubera would be permanently out of service & the Manly run would be in serious trouble. The demise of the Bellubera began the final disintegration of the fleet, the ferries were dumped on an unwilling government & it would be nearly ten years before anything could be regarded as normal again.

On the 25th of August, 1974 a fire broke out mysteriously on the South Steyne three days before the government was to make a decision on which two of the remaining three ferries it was to take over. The South Steyne was always going to be the least likely candidate due to the higher running costs of the steamer. Damage was assessed at $130,000. A few days later, the government announced that it would take up the option only for the North Head & the Baragoola. Arson detectives investigated the blaze, but their findings were suppressed & no official investigation was launched.

Several ideas were offered up for the South Steyne, including that of refitting her & using her outside the Heads as a floating casino, but the government had plans of their own in this direction. The government considered returning her to service as well, but this came to nothing as the preferred option was to build three new ferries.

Ultimately the South Steyne passed into private hands. She was taken to Ballina & over a long period, restored to her former grandeur. In 1988, with the ignominious wording "South Steyne, Melbourne" painted on her bows she headed south to have a further two million dollars spent on her, bringing her up to the standards of a luxurious cruise ship. March 1988 saw her first outing since the fire 14 years previously when, in Melbourne, she was used for a state reception for Queen Elizabeth II, visting for the Australian bicentennial celebrations.

In 1994, the state government leased her for two years - the South Steyne was finally coming back home. Moored at Darling Harbour, she was used as a base by the Sydney Olympic Committee. Since 1991, she had  been used in Newcastle as a floating restaurant.

Ultimately, the South Steyne returned to Darling Harbour, where, maintained in cruising condition, she now holds a permanent berth at Harbourside & is used as a floating restaurant. She is also subject to a heritage preservation order & remains an important reminder of the vessels that served Manly so reliably for such a long time. She is also unique in that she is the only example of her type still in working order anywhere in the world.