Sydney to Hobart Ferry Service
Over the years, two attempts have been made to operate a car and passenger ferry service between Sydney and Tasmania, but with limited success. The first was with the Empress of Australia, which was custom built at Sydney's Cockatoo Island Dockyards in 1962 for Australian National Line, to provide a ferry serice between Sydney (the terminal was at Morts Bay, Balmain) and Hobart via Devonport and Burnie.
Built at a cost of 2.6 million pounds, the vessel had a gross weight of 12,037 tonnes, and was the largest vessel of this type in the world when built, while its route was one of the longest open water routes in the world for a vessel of this type. It could carry 250 passengers, 51 cars and 33 semi trailers (or 91 cars and 16 trucks) and travelled at an average speed of 17.5 knots.
Launched on 18th January 1964 by the daughter of the Governor General of Australia, Lord De L Isle Catherine Sidney, Empress of Australia sailed the 1,000km trip between Sydney and Hobart three times each fortnight. Trade never reached expectations, and in 1972, the vessel was transferred to the Melbourne-Devonport run, replacing the Princess of Tasmania which was sold. The Empress of Australia continued to visit Hobart during the summer tourist season.
The passenger capacity was increased to some 450, with the addition of about 200 seats, for the Melbourne-Devonport overnight service. Empress of Australia was sold 1985 after 20 years of service in Australian waters, and renamed Royal Pacific. She sank in the Malacca Strait, in 1991 after colliding with a Taiwanese fishing vessel.
In 1972, the Empress was deployed on the Melbourne-Devonport run and the smaller Australian Trader was transferred from the Melbourne-Devonport run to the Sydney-Hobart run. The return leg was via Bell Bay and Burnie on Tasmania's north coast. The Australian Trader provided accommodation for 190 passengers and 110 motor vehicles. It soon became clear the Australian Trader had inadequate passenger facilities for the 2-day journey. The vessel has low ceilings, there was no natural light in the dining room or main lounge, the vessel lacked a laundry and a nursery for children, and morning and afternoon tea was only available from a vending machine.
The service the Trader provided was but a shadow of its predecessor. Furthermore, the Trader was dogged by a series of strikes by maritime unions. Passenger numbers fell dramatically along with the ship's reputation, and it was withdrawn from service in 1976. The Australian Trader was sold in 1985 to the Royal Australian Navy for conversion into the training ship Jervis Bay.
The Australian Trader's operators promised the vessel would be replaced by a new one, then under construction at Newcastle, NSW, but when that vessel was launched, it was revealed it had no passenger facilities, and would carry only freight on the Sydney-Hobart run. The Tasmanian Government took over the Bass Strait passenger shipping with the Abel Tasman in mid 1985 and have been in charge of the service since with later ships being the First Spirit of Tasmania, which was replaced by Spirit of Tasmania I and Spirit of Tasmania II.