Runaway ferries on the Hawkesbury

I came across this rather interesting piece of more recent Hawkesbury history while researching in our local library. There is also an extract of an oral history associated with this account on the Roads and Maritime Services website (see reference below). My article was published in the Hawkesbury Gazette on Wednesday, 1 June 2016, but I thought I would publish it in its entirety on this site.Reserve Ferry @ Webbs Creek

Photo of spare ferry at Webbs Creek by Geoff Roberts.

During the week before Easter in 1978, three days of constant heavy rain combined with floodwaters from the Colo, Grose and Macdonald Rivers, was enough to cause severe flooding along the Hawkesbury River. Although regulations have changed over the years, in those days once the river reached the seven-metre height of the bridge at Windsor the Sackville and Lower Portland ferries were taken off their cables, followed by the ferries at Webbs Creek and Wisemans Ferry.

The flow of the water was so strong on this occasion that ferries Nos 8 and 55 at Wisemans had pushed together with debris collected all around them. Webbs Creek ferry (No 26) was stranded in the middle of the river after being hit by a one-metre tidal wave coming from the Colo River: ‘the water was like a surf wave and it hit the Webbs Creek ferry full on’. Soon after, ‘a small wooden ferry that had been up on the slipway…floated off in the flood’ and collided with No 55.

These three ferries were then lashed together but soon after, the force of the water and the buildup of debris against No 26 forced the cable to pull out of the bank and the ferry was forced around the bend in the river where it collided with the other three ferries: ‘These ferries were broken away from their moorings by the force of the collision and the four ferries…were carried downstream on the flood’, with Russ Mitchell, Robin Pawsey and Allen Curran on board. As they floated past Laughtondale, the wooden ferry began to sink and had to be cut loose. Webbs Creek ferry was eventually secured in some mangroves.

The combined weight of the ferries and debris was estimated at 650 tonnes, travelling at about 18 knots and there were fears that the ferries would not be able to be stopped before colliding with the bridge at Brooklyn. Two tugs from the Church Point Ferry Service were brought into service to try and control the ferries and the larger ferry was finally secured on Peat Island, while the smaller one was caught just fifty metres before the bridge.

There was constant radio and telephone contact with the Acting Shire Clerk of Colo Shire Council (Garry McCully), the Police and Fire Brigades throughout the drama, but the men on the ferries really owed their lives to a Gosford Council employee who parked his ute on top of Mangrove Mountain to act as a relay station so everyone could maintain radio contact. The men who rode the ferries and other Colo Shire Council employees stayed on Peat Island to help repair and float the ferries back up the river after the flood receded and within a week the Wisemans and Webbs Creek ferry services were back to normal.

References:

Bottomley, Bill. ‘When the ferries got away’, Bill Bottomley’s Cyberfiles, http://www.billbottomley.com.au/, accessed 29 May 2016.

NSW Vehicular Ferries Sound Files, Part 3, Hawkesbury River ferries, the 1978 flood, http://www.rms.nsw.gov.au/about/environment/protecting-heritage/oral-history-program/nsw-vehicular-ferries.html, accessed 29 May 2016.

copyright Carol Roberts