Phillip Island & District Historical Society

Ferries in Western Port

Last updated on 12-Apr-19

John Jansson spoke about the history of ferries in Western Port from 1872 to the present time at the General Meeting, April 2nd 2014.


The first ferry to operate the Cowes run was paddle steamer Sarah 17/11 tons, 54.3x11.4x5.4 feet, ON 31889, built by Peter Tainsh, Port Albert, Victoria, 1869.  Converted to screw steamer 1874.  An advert on Jan 6 1873 stated:            Cowes (Phillip Island) by COACH and STEAMER. – COACH leaves Cobb’s office for this delightful watering-place on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, at 7 a.m., connecting with steamboat (Sarah) at Hastings, and returning from Phillip Island on alternate days.  Return tickets at reduced fares.  On and after Monday, December 23, the above coach will leave Melbourne daily.  Special coaches can be arranged for. ROBERTSON and Co., Proprietors.  (Last advert. until Eclipse starts 1 Nov 1876.)


The next was Iron screw steamer Eclipse 28/19 tons, 69x10.1x5.3 feet, 16 hp, 60 passenger, ON 64802, built by David Forman, launched at Yarra Bank Road, Emerald Hill, Melbourne. Bought by Western Port Steamship Company.  Shareholders:- Samuel Amess (of Churchill Island), John Cleeland, J. Robertson, John & Solomon West.  Manager, Henry Fowler Norton.


The Ferry Vixen 34/23 tons, 58.8x15x5.6 feet, ON 93531, built at Lavender Bay, Sydney in 1886 by James Halstead, was a ferry in Western Port from 1887-1917.  


Ferry Genista 83 tons, 80/91x19.5x7.5 feet, ON 93522, built at Lavender Bay, Sydney in 1886 by James Halstead under the supervision of William Dunn for Mr. Perdriau.  Used initially on the daily Gosford-Sydney run until late Jun 1887.  Genista served in Western Port from 1889-1932. The Genista featured in several instances of rescuing other vessels in distress, such as on Nov 12 1905: “Steamer Queenscliff  broke down 9 miles WSW of Cape Woolamai in a gale owing to bursting of the high pressure cylinder.  She managed to sail close to Cape Woolamai from where Captain McLeod was able to tow her to a safe anchorage with the Genista.  The captain has telegraphed the agents for a tug to tow her to Melbourne.”


The Vixen had a sad ending: Vixen was under tow to Melbourne by tug Sprightly when off Cape Schanck she was found to be taking in water.  They headed back to Rhyll but the Vixen sank off Cowes.     Topside seams had opened up whilst sitting on her mooring at Rhyll for around two years and had taken in water while under tow.  Her remains were found by Heritage Victoria and MAAV divers in Feb 2014.


The cargo ferry Oscar, renamed Ventnor on arrival here, had a short run from 1923-24 but was laid up as being too expensive to run.


Steam yacht Alvina 194/132 tons, 148/138.8x20.2x 11.7 feet, ON 92050, built 1887 at Calshott, near Southampton, England by Oswald Mordaunt. Operated as the island’s ferry from 1925-1938. The Alvina was a fine looking vessel, as can be seen in this photo:


Ferry Narrabeen 239/98 tons, 110x26.8x9.2 feet, ON 150164, built at Mort’s Dock, Balmain by Drake’s Ltd. for Port Jackson and Manly Steamship Co.  Used for cargo carrying between Woolloomooloo and Manly.  Was used in Western Port from 1928-1932. She was sold to Tasmania, and eventually wrecked on Goose Island, Bass Strait, on Nov 24 1958.


Vehicular ferry Killara 309 tons, 131/145.5x38.5x11 feet, ON 125222, 38 vehicle capacity, built by D. Drake Ltd, Balmain, NSW for Sydney Ferries Limited for the Milson’s Point - Point Macquarie run.  Launched 26 Aug 1909 and expected to be in commission in six weeks.  She served in Western Port from 1933-1943. Biggest day for the Killara was the car races in 1937 when 7,000 day return passengers were carried.  An observer estimated that 3,000 souls packed themselves aboard on the first return trip.


Ferry Reliance 158 tons, 112 feet, built at Port Esperance, Tasmania by J.Heron.  Used in Western Port from 1943-1946, including having the honour of bringing the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester to Phillip Island on an unofficial visit on Nov 28, 1945, returning the same day. 


Westernport (ex Mildred) bought by Phillip Island and Western Port Steam Shipping Company, arrives from Newcastle after an eventful voyage under Captain James Clarke in 1946.  By Dec 1948 the Westernport was to be sold and the Phillip Island and Western Port Steam Shipping Company was being wound up. Captain Norman Hegarty, owner of ferries in Sydney and Lakes Entrance was approached to bring his ferries at Lakes Entrance to Western Port, as Phillip Island would be without a ferry service over

the busy summer season.


The first replacement ferry was the Sunrise Star which arrived in December1948, but being a single decker was unsuitable at the jetties and returned to Sydney September 1949.  Next was the Ferry Estelle 85/58 tons, 79.9x20.3x7.5 feet, ON 171236, built at Brisbane Water by Gordon Beattie in 1927.  She also arrived in December 1948 and ran here for ten years.


Possibly the best-known ferry for the second half of the twentieth century was the Eagle Star. Ferry Eagle Star 57/30 tons, 72.7/80x17x8.2 feet, ON 171230, 300 passenger, hull only built at Brisbane Water by Gordon Beattie for N. D. Hegarty and Son in 1936 and arrived in Western Port in 1949 where, apart from a stint in the 1950s as a fishing boat, she served as ferry until 1978, when she sank off Cowes on Dec 31 1978.


The Jeremiah Ryan, a catamaran, arrived from Brisbane to replace the Eagle Star on 10 January 1979. It proved difficult to get passengers on and off so she was replaced by the James McCabe on 21 January.  McCabe was 64 feet, built at Hobart in 1973 by Sullivan Cove Ferry Company and ran for three months. From June 1979 the old-fashioned ferry Ku Ring Gai II commenced on the Western Port run.  She was built as the Wangi Wangi, 43/29 tons 62x17 feet, ON 171257, built at Berry’s Bay in 1924 by W. L. Holmes & Co., North Sydney,


This beautiful ferry was burnt in suspicious circumstances on April 9 1980, and after breaking her mooring and smashing up on the rocks at Beaumaris, her remains were burnt on the beach in 1981.


Next came the Southern Contessa, 60 tons and 60 feet, a speedy vessel built in 1977 for the Rottnest Island run. She saw service in Western Port from 1980-81.


Ferry Matthew Brady 128/137 tons 65x23x8 feet ON 355401, built at Hobart by Sullivans Cove Ferry Company in mid-1972, saw service here from 1981-1992.  She transported many moto-GP fans along with Western Port Adventurer, Big Cat, and Thunder Bird from Lakes Entrance, for the first Grand Motor Cycle Prix April 1-4 1989.  On July 8 1992 Matthew Brady caught fire while returning from Cowes to Rhyll.  She was run ashore near Silverleaves but was a total loss.


Ferry Bay Connections I, 48 tons, 46.9 feet ON 854849, hull built in South Africa and finished off in Fremantle in 1994 was a sleek catamaran.  Owner John Dickie of San Remo, operated from 1994.


The final ferry in the story is Kasey Lee 18.5 x 7.0 m. built at Rippleside, Geelong by Australus Catamarans for Bay Connections in 1998. She commenced service as a tourist excursion vessel in Western Port in that year and is still running.