The Ferryman

Back in a previous column, I expressed an inspiration to explore more of our waterways and coastline from the rollicking vantage point of water vessels. While I still haven’t invested in a kayak yet (research ongoing), I took a step closer towards it the other day when I visited a friend in Nelson Bay via the Port Stephens ferry service.

Standing alongside camera wielding Germans and families on the Tea Gardens wharf, I watched as the quaint green and cream timber ferry chugged eagerly towards us from the Hawks Nest drop-off point.

Last on, I was surprised to find the single outside seat at the stern still free, and happily claimed it. Within minutes we had about-faced and were cruising down the river under a clear and sunny sky. Pelicans flew low overhead, skimming to a stop at the edges. Entering the bay, the wilds of Corrie Island jutted out on my right, while the white sands of WindaWoppahugged the bay.

In a quiet moment, I caught up with ferryman owner Adrian Thompson, who has been involved in the business for over seventeen years.

“We’re the oldest ferry service in the bay, in operation for over 30 years.”

With the affection for his boats palpable, Adrian tells me one of the ‘old girls’ was built in 1948 and used for transporting munitions.

“When the new fibreglass dolphin watching boats pull up, people often tell me they want to be on the old timber ones,” he laughs.

While it has its “ups and downs,” it’s a pretty good job, Adrian said.

“I’ve seen bull sharks jumping out of the water eating fish, dolphins most days, dingoes on the beaches of Corrie Island, heaps of bird life. It’s all part and parcel of it.”

Just as interesting as the wildlife, is the clientele.

“It’s always good to meet new people, as well as locals. One lady does neighbourhood care in the bay and she just pays us with a beer and card at Christmas. In the pouring rain and freezing cold we still run. We’re reliable.”

After a few hours exploring Tomaree National Park with my friend, I boarded the ferry for home. With the waters still murky from the rain, my trip was one of the rare times the dolphins were a no show, but there was plenty to see.

From the southern side, the craggy cliffs of Yacaaba headland were imposing, the swell crashing against the boulders in spears of white foam.

Why haven’t I done this before?

I felt a surge of pride knowing that I played a small part in the creation of the Port Stephens – Great Lakes Marine Park, back when I worked as a campaigner for the Wilderness Society. Created in 2005, the marine park is the largest in NSW and covers approximately 98,200 hectares of marine, estuarine and coastal habitats, supporting over 600 species of fish, including the endangered grey nurse shark and the vulnerable black cod.

Rather than the ‘lock-out’ that recreational fisherman feared, it’s now widely accepted that we need more ‘sanctuary’ zones to protect our marine life and ensure fish stocks for the future.

In that moment though I was happy to be just another passenger enjoying the ride, salty wind in my hair, trusting the ferryman would deliver me safely to the other side.