Each Australia Day, commuter ferries  race down Sydney Harbour,  decorated  with bunting and loaded to the gunnels with cheering supporters. They remind me of well dressed matrons  competing in the  hundred metre dash at school sports days.

Sydney Harbour Ferrython
Sydney Harbour Ferrython

In 1984 the exertion proved too much for the aging Karrabee. Having  won the inaugural race three years earlier,  she was struggling to keep up. When passengers surged forward to urge her on, her bows dipped and water flooded her hull. She struggled back to Circular Quay in a commendable third place, unloaded all 500 passengers – and  sank.

I suspect we love the Ferrython because the boats are the absolute antithesis of  the sleek, squillion dollar yachts which leave for Hobart on Boxing Day. The ferries are  the  work horses of the harbour; proudly  descended from the convict built Rose Hill Packet. Within a year of the  First Fleet’s arrival this ungainly vessel, affectionately dubbed ‘The Lump’,  was making her way up the Parramatta river  powered by  a combination of oar and sail.


By the 1840’s  an eccentric individual called William King had added a novel element  to the Parramatta ferry trip.  Known as The Flying Pieman for his extraordinary athletic feats, King would hawk  pies at the Sydney wharf then walk to Parramatta in time to sell  another batch to  disembarking passengers. Writing about King in 1952, James Tyrrell noted, ‘..today he could have raised the six-starred flag high and often at the Olympic Games .’

Sydney Ferries
Ferries in the days of the Pieman

Appropriately, the streamlined passenger  catamarans now plying the river have been named after some of our Olympic champions, including runners Betty Cuthbert, Marjorie Jackson and Marlene Matthews. Perhaps there is an argument for a future rivercat to be called The Flying Pieman  in King’s honour.

William King - The Flying Pieman
The Flying Pieman

Ferries appeal to the free spirit trapped within the most conservative commuter; a feeling  enshrined in a short story called The Jumping Jeweller of Lavender Bay  published in 1962 by Hugh Atkinson.  In  1981 The Little River Band recorded a song  based on Atkinson’s story.  An  impoverished  young jeweller  falls in love with a girl he sees every day on the ferry and tries to impress her by  making ever more daring  leaps  from the  jetty;

I jump as she pulls away,

The gap gets a little wider every day.

News of the jeweller’s exploits spread,

‘….people began to bet,

Would I end up with the lady or would I just end up getting wet?’

The lyrics provide no definite answer,  but the suggestion is that love  triumphs.

In the early 1970’s  a quirky song written and performed by Bernard Bolan called The Rose Bay Ferry reached the top of the charts. It captures the romance and escapism associated with  ferry travel,

Every morning at 8.25,

down to the Rose Bay wharf I drive.

Park my Humber underneath a tree,

pop along the gang-plank and then I’m free!

The ferry mentioned in the song  was owned and operated by the Nicholson Bros, prompting the day-dreaming   commuter to muse;

Where are we going today Mr Nicholson?

Where is it going to be?

Don’t turn left, turn right down the harbour

And out to the open sea.

In Bolan’s imagination they set off through the heads bound for some exotic location. Perhaps it will  be Java today…. or Japan? But inevitably  Mr Nicholson  heads for the city and the dream slowly turns into reality. The song concludes poignantly; We finish up at Circular Quay.

If you would like to hear Bernard Singing this, CLICK HERE.

Besides its  lilting melody, the charm of the song lies in the integrity of  its lyrics.  Bernard Bolan was then a corporate lawyer,  living in  Rose Bay and travelling to his office via the harbour.  He explains; Sydney was my first real experience  of city living, and I found it a bit stressful. That was the dark side of the song. But I loved my ferry ride.’  For Sydney’s commuters the nineteen seventies could be described as the golden age of ferry commuting. Influenced by the preceding  ‘swinging sixties’ they dressed  like cruise passengers. Women went barelegged and men  discarded their uncomfortable suits in favour of shorts and long socks.

My own experience of ferry travel began while I was living above Mosman Bay in the eighties and  nineties. Rob and I would wake to the sound of  the morning’s first ferry rattling our bedroom windows. Later we would amble down the steps for a relaxing ride to work.

Ferry leaving Mosman Bay wharf.
Ferry leaving Mosman Bay wharf.

These days our trips are purely for pleasure, on city breaks from our home in the Blue Mountains.


Of course the return journey from the city was a little less idyllic, as tired and fractious office workers converged on the Quay. It has always been thus; witness a poem published in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1925 which began;

Oh hasten to the ferry, they’re shutting the gate,

So lose not a moment, or else you’ll be late.

It’s when people are late that they make those dangerous leaps from the wharf. Well they used to…..probably be fined a fortune these days for breaching health and safely rules.

Musgrave Street ferry in Mosman Bay
Did she make it? Musgrave Street Ferry 1950s.

For many years the Mosman ferry has stopped only ‘on demand’ at  tiny Old Cremorne  wharf, prompting the deckhand’s plaintive call, ‘Anyone for old cream ‘orn?’  It is oddly  appropriate as  Cremorne Point was once a pleasure garden, where 19th century  day-trippers  picnicked while listening to brass bands, no doubt consuming more ‘cream ‘orns’ than was good for them.

Our arrival back at  Mosman Bay was sometimes  accompanied by a shuddering bump   and the scrape of metal against wobbly wooden pylons. Ferry docking is not a precise art, although mishaps are generally regarded by passengers  with amusement rather than apprehension; part and parcel of that devil-may-care feeling expressed in Bernard Bolan’s song.  News that  a Manly ferry has beached itself or demolished a wharf  attracts hordes of smirking onlookers and newspaper photographers.

Manly ferries about to cross.
Manly ferries about to cross.

However, we should never forget that  there have  been tragedies on Sydney Harbour.  The greatest loss of life occurred on November 3rd 1927, when the steamship Tahiti ploughed into the ferry Greycliffe as she was travelling from the Quay to Watson’s Bay.  The ferry was struck amidships and sliced in two. Forty of her passengers died. Coincidently,  the cartoonist Joe Lynch drowned that same year after falling into the harbour at night from the Mosman ferry.  

Lynch’s  death near Fort Dennison inspired his friend Kenneth Slessor to write the hauntingly beautiful  elegy, Five Bells, in which Lynch’s life passes before him between the chimes of a ship’s bell.  The poem is an appropriate memorial not only to Joe Lynch, but to the victims of the Greycliffe disaster;

….all I heard

Was a boat’s whistle, and the scraping squeal

Of seabird’s voices far away and bells,

Five bells. Five bells coldly ringing out.

Five bells.

In turn, Slessor’s lines inspired John Olsen’s wonderful work, Five Bells.

Olsen’s huge mural Salute to Five Bells was commissioned in 1970 for the concert hall foyer at the Sydney Opera House. It was completed in 1973.

Whether  gliding through a morning mist or  crossing the harbour  at night  all lights blazing, there is something magical and other-worldly about Sydney’s ferries. This may explain why Ken Horler, who survived  the  Greycliffe  disaster as a school boy,  continued to   travel on Sydney’s ferries well into his nineties.

NOTE – 16th October 2021 I have received some wonderful information from Howard Barker, who has worked on Sydney Harbour for over 40 years. Currently a guide with Sydney Harbour Tallships, he says, ‘I have often told passengers that the five bells in the poem are those located to mark out the Sow and Pigs reef, further down the harbour. The isolation and sound of the bells as they swell provides the mood of this great poem. The reef was a greater size until used as target practise during WW2.

Thanks so much Howard. 😊

At the start of the Sydney Ferrython  the  boats assemble at Fort Denison then race towards  the  Sydney Harbour Bridge. I suspect authorities  fear that if the old girls were  heading in the opposite direction they might charge past the finish line and  vanish through  The Heads.  It conjures an image of  the  winner rounding The Horn several weeks later, her captain shouting lines from ‘The Rose Bay Ferry’  above the roar of the sea;

We’re off for Nantucket

So give that man a bucket

Cause it’s choppy when you’re out on the foam. 

Here is Bernard singing his engaging ferry song.

Author’s Note..I would like to thank Bernard Bolan for permission to quote his lyrics. His songs are absolutely delightful and so is he!  If you would like to read another story about Sydney, click HERE

  1. I loved the article. What a wonderful sight, all those commuter ferries racing down the harbour. I can imagine Editor Des standing on Sydney Bridge waving his flag. The darling little patriot. If he was at home watching the race on the television, I don’t want to know! The article was great. The articles you write are always interesting, Pauline. I love to hear about the old characters. HAPPY AUSTRALIA DAY

    • Pauline

      Thank you Maddie, Have always loved the harbour.
      Was wonderful that the Aboriginal flag was raised beside the Australian flag on the Sydney Harbour Bridge this morning. The Flying Pieman was amazing, I must post a story about him one day.

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