COLUMN | Punching well above its weight [The Boroscope]

COLUMN | Punching well above its weight [The Boroscope]

North Esk (Photo: The Chris Howell Collection)

Australians are an extraordinary lot. When one considers how small our population is, we have produced an inordinate number of world beaters. In sport, commerce and industry there are dozens of examples that are household names. The most recent, Ash Barty at tennis, through to Greg Norman and Jack Brabham. Names like Toll, Arnott’s and the likes of Rupert Murdoch. These names have only just scratched the surface of the hundreds of pioneers, champions and innovators that make our small nation special.

Our shipping is no different. Australia always had a small fleet. Even at the its peak the total number of Australian ships was less than the fleets of BP or Shell. Yet, we produced so many firsts.

McIlwraith, McEacharn and Co’s Kooringa was the world’s first cellular containership. It only carried a modest 315 containers but this ship played a major part in pioneering containerisation. Today, we are seeing 23,000TEU ships being built in job lots, but it all started in Australia.

Then there was the world’s first self-discharging bulk-carrier. The tiny North Esk revolutionised bulk cargo handling with its novel auger and conveyor system.

Seven tugs were built for the US Navy during World War Two at J and A Browns near Newcastle. They were Australia’s first fully welded steel hulls. It was only ten years before this that the world’s first fully welded steel ship was built in the US.  So, these tugs broke new ground in Australia.

There were some disappointments along the way but it wasn’t for the want of trying something new.

“In a diesel age, to fire the boilers on coal was almost unheard of.”

In the early 1980s two Australian shipping companies were to attempt an audacious experiment to replace their aging ships on the Weipa to Gladstone bauxite run. ANL and TNT collectively decided to build four steamships. Not only were they steamers but they were to be coal-fired.

In a diesel age the concept of steamships was adventurous (bordering on foolhardy). To fire the boilers on coal was almost unheard of. But central Queensland had an abundance of steaming coal and oil prices had spiked to an all-time high. With virtually no refining costs and very little in the way of transportation costs, the Queensland coal was extremely attractive.

River Boyne (Photo: Edwards –

An obscure but brilliant ex-BHP engineer, Fred Ellis, was brought in to design the automatic coal handling and ash disposal system on these ships. Fred Ellis was a product of BHP’s tenacity to hold onto their coal fired steamers right up to the 1970s. So, he knew the problems of an automatic coal feed to boilers. River Boyne, River Embley, TNT Carpentaria, and TNT Capricornia were sister ships. Although two were built in Japan and two in Italy, they were identical in every way.

Their coal handling and ash disposal systems was a world-first drawing on Ellis’ experience. Never before had this been attempted. Diesel engines running on heavy fuel were so commonplace that the architects of this endeavour were criticised for the decision. But contrary to all criticism the ships were successful. Fred Ellis’ design was, for all intents and purposes, successful. The ships traded on the Queensland run successfully for thirty years and the cost of coal was a fraction of the oil fuel costs.

Ellis and his designs are lost in the mists of time, his name barely remembered. And soon we will forget the world’s last coal-fired steamships. But the boldness of this project has to be applauded.

“Australia’s ability to ‘think outside the box’ was never in doubt.”

Ten years before the coal burners were built, BHP and the Union Steamship Company of New Zealand attempted another bold experiment. Gas turbine propulsion for eight (yes, you read right) gas turbine-powered ships to be built at BHP’s Whyalla Shipyard. BHP had partnered with Esso in the Bass Strait oilfields meaning that technically they were burning their own crude oil in the turbines at minimal cost. The “numbers stacked up” and Iron Monarch and Iron Duke were built, steel slab carriers for BHP. Their success was closely followed by the bulk carriers Iron Curtis and Iron Carpentaria.

Union Rotorua (Photo: Regan)

The Union Company followed suit a few years later with Seaway Prince and Seaway Princess and then their two Ro-Ros, Union Rotorua and Union Rotoiti. While the fuel was slightly more expensive, the maintenance, manning, and lube oil consumption were dramatically less.

The success of these ventures was too good to last.  The Australian government said that cheap fuel, even if it was your own, should be taxed. The Petroleum Rent Resources Tax pretty much put paid to the gas turbines. The two bulk carriers and Iron Monarch were re-engined and the poor old Iron Duke was eventually scrapped. But you have to give them full marks for trying. The gas turbine experiment had not been as successful as planned but Australia’s ability to “think outside the box” was never in doubt.

So, let’s fast forward to the 21st century. The Australian fleet had shrunk to a handful of ships. And at the same time there was a world-wide push towards decarbonisation. Ships had begun moving away from high sulphur fuel and experimenting with alternatives. LNG was at the top of the list and yet again an Australian company, Searoad, was in the fore-front of this movement. Searoad Mersey II entered service in 2016 with LNG as its primary fuel source. She was the world’s first direct coupled LNG-powered ship.

SeaRoad Mersey II (Photo: Croft)

This ship also had a unique vacuum mooring system that gave the Master push button control of the mooring operations, a vastly safer system for ferries that are continually docking and undocking.

So, with the world’s first cellular containership, the first self-discharger, the first welded hulls, the last coal burners, the world’s first direct coupled LNG ship and the innovative gas turbines, Australia has always punched well above its weight. Not bad for a small country.

See all vessel reviews, features, and news stories as part of this month’s Australia Week here.

Kent Stewart

Founder of Maritime Engineers, a multi-region maritime consultancy with clients in the oil and gas industry, navy, commercial shipping and marine insurance, Kent Stewart is our resident expert on commercial shipping and the offshore industries.