Sydney Harbour: Jim Murrant

Then and now

I hope you’ll forgive me if I wax a little nostalgic. It won’t last long but it is necessary to set the scene for this month’s column.

I first arrived in Sydney by ship late in 1947 and I hope never to forget the sublime sight of the dawn sun on the golden sandstone of Sydney Harbour’s protecting cliffs.

Another great memory was fishing. The family lived first at Manly, and I remember fishing with my brother under Manly wharf. We didn’t catch much but one day we saw a huge manta ray swimming along the bottom. The memory is not merely of the big ray, but the fact that we could see the bottom, and anything lying on it, as clear as a bell. It would be nearly 50 years before it became that clear again.

Within a couple of years I had a job as a cadet journalist on the Daily Telegraph, then a serious newspaper, and one of my earliest tasks was to be assistant to the shipping roundsman. This entailed boarding passenger liners as they arrived at the Heads – hardly anyone arrived by aircraft then – and interviewing any notables aboard. Later it meant interviewing the desperate displaced persons arriving on the cattle boats from Europe. So my memories of Sydney Harbour go back a long way. The point of this’

The harbour has always been a place of change, perhaps never more so than in the past 15 or so years. It is no longer a fully operational commercial port, except as far as cruise vessels and car carriers are concerned. The number of cargo vessels using Sydney has dropped dramatically. Rozelle Bay is being touted as the ‘working’ port of Sydney but that really is more as a home for superyachts and their support services than as an industrial area in the working-class sense. That honour belongs to Botany Bay now.

So I started asking a few other old salts what they felt had changed most in Sydney. The first was Hugh Shanks, of Clontarf Marina. He was for 10 years a member of the Boating Industry Association’s board and has been president of the Marina Owners’ Association.

He first of all pointed out one area where nothing had changed – boat parking, at moorings, anchorages, marinas, private jetties and so on. He said that in all that time there had been no growth in moorings held by commercial leaseholders, nor by Maritime NSW, nor by yacht clubs. The only area of growth had been in private residential moorings built with waterfront developments west of the Harbour Bridge. This might have led to another 350 berths.

What had changed was the size of boat. Hugh estimated that contemporary boat owners had vessels which were half as big again as the average 15 years ago. This was mainly motor boats, but not only, he said.

The other great change was that the water was once again clean, which he put down to better treatment of rubbish by nearly all boat owners, and better control of rubbish which used to be swept into the harbour in rainstorms. Also, anti-foulings which were poisonous to fish have been banned. The result of the cleaner water is that fish are returning to the harbour to breed.

The bad news is that while one can see well down into the water again, one can’t see the deadly dioxins that have made poison of any fish caught and eaten.

This has led to one of the biggest changes of all. There is no commercial fishing in the harbour. The NSW Government banned such fishing almost exactly a year ago ‘ for five years ‘ although that ban could be amended or revoked before then. Obviously the controlling factor is the level of dioxins. But the result is that several hundred people no longer have a living, and the Government has also warned that recreational fishermen should not eat their catch west of the harbour bridge. A grim state of affairs.

Hugh’s other, rather sad, observation, was that manners on the water are getting worse. There are bigger boats, going faster and with owners who have far less training in matter of seamanship than their yachting equivalent. He believes better training and a speed limit are needed.

To follow up on the training angle, I rang John Anderson, long-time technical officer at NSW Yachting. He was upbeat. He strongly believes the National Yacht Training Schemes have improved not just sailors’ skills, but their manners, and this is reflected in fewer accidents and incidents and far fewer rescues off the NSW coast. He was not so happy about the motor boat situation, where he was constantly approached by new owners who wanted training, but could not find any satisfactory courses.

One reason for the strength of yacht training was the success of youth development courses. ‘If you had suggested to the powers that be at the CYCA, or the Alfreds, 15 years ago that they would be conducting youth development classes with full-time paid instructors they would have laughed at you,’ he said, ‘Now we are producing world champions from this area.’

Another area of huge change was the availability of slipping and support facilities, particularly for big boats. ‘Fifteen or so years ago boats like Ondine or Kialoa would have to go to Pittwater to be slipped,’ he said. ‘Now they can stay in Sydney where there are facilities in several places, and a great many more services are available with the Greenwich facility.

‘In the racing area, the biggest change’, says John, ‘has been in the change from time handicapping to performance-based handicapping, which has helped the boom in sales of production boats like Beneteau and Bavaria. Under the old handicaps, like IOR, an owner was much more likely to go for the radical ‘one-off’ than a production boat because if it performed well it could keep its edge for many seasons. With performance handicapping, a winning boat is brought back to the pack within a year or so. This encourages owners into one design yachts.’

Changes to the tax rules on yachts for charter a few years ago made conditions less favourable for boat owners who were forced to become more ‘genuine’. This reduced the number of boats available for sailing schools and other chartering organisations.

People cruising on the harbour have rather less freedom now than some years ago. There are more areas where anchoring is forbidden, where there are grassy weed beds, or Fairy penguin colonies, for instance. There are more areas where speed or wash have to be controlled. Skippers are now subject to random breath tests and commercial vessels soon will not be allowed to raft up.

And what of the future’ I expect that with increasing wealth more boats will be bought by people with fewer skills and there will need to be more thorough training. And I certainly don’t think the following new ‘service’ being offered by some marinas is the way to go.

The new boat owner goes to the marina and boards with his party for a day on the water, a skipper takes the boat out of the marina pen and then takes a dinghy back to shore. At the end of the day, the owner gets somewhere in the vicinity of the marina and telephones for the skipper, who comes out and ‘chauffeurs’ him into the pen. It’s called a valet service. I call it madness.

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