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History of the Ettalong Channel

The long-running debate regarding the dredging of the entrance to Brisbane Water has mainly centred on who should be responsible for the costs involved.

Media reports would have us believe that in the interests of safety, the necessity for dredging a channel is a foregone conclusion.

But is that really the case?

The first recorded survey of the entrance to Brisbane Water took place just weeks after the First Fleet anchored in Sydney Harbour in 1788.

In June of the following year, 1789, Governor Arthur Phillip and Captain John Hunter, commander of the flagship HMS Sirius, returned for a second and more thorough examination of Broken Bay.

According to Hunter's journal, on June 8, 1789, the survey crew embarked from Pittwater in two ship's boats "to the north branch, which has a very shoaly and narrow entrance".

For two days, the boats explored the waterway to Kincumber and Gosford, on the way to which they "fell in with many shoals of considerable extent".

Hunter's journal for the return to Broken Bay on the following day, June 9, 1789, is very enlightening.

In his journal, Hunter wrote: "Across the mouth of this north harbour there is a bar or spit of sand, which extends from the sandy beach, or west point of the entrance, almost over to the eastern shore, and on which, from the wind having been from the southward the preceding night, the sea broke prodigiously from side to side, so that near low water it was impossible for the boats to get out: we were on that account obliged to remain there until it was more than two-thirds flood, when, in the deepest part of the channel, where the sea did not break, we pushed out, ..."

A competent seaman, an experienced surveyor, a captain of the Royal Navy and commander of the flagship HMS Sirius, John Hunter wrote that description of the bar at the entrance to Brisbane Water 220 years ago.

A chart that accompanies Hunter's journal clearly shows the sandbar and the channel very much as it is today.

To the disappointment of the Governor, Brisbane Water could not be settled immediately due to the restrictions to shipping placed on it by sandbars, mudflats and strong currents, particularly at Half Tide Rocks and The Rip.

However, throughout the 1800s, sailing vessels that were large by today's standards and without the benefit of auxiliary engines, managed to successfully navigate Brisbane Water to ship loads of timber to Sydney.

Sandstone ballast, taken on board at Sydney and later discarded to make way for cargoes of timber, is still visible on the shores of Paddy's Channel and along the banks of Erina Creek at Woodport.

The size of the ballast heaps hints at how large those vessels were, many of which were built on the shores of Brisbane Water.

In contrast, the largest vessels regularly using Brisbane Water during the first half of the 1900s were the ferries operating out of Woy Woy.

By then, ferries were the main form of transport for hordes of holiday-makers who regularly poured out of packed steam trains from Sydney en route to weekend cottages scattered around the foreshores.

The number of public wharves, between Saratoga in the north and Wagstaffe-Ettalong in the south, hints at the importance of the ferries in their day.

Woy Woy waterfront was a hive of activity as ferries and putt-putts crowded the wharves on shopping days.

To facilitate the use of the ferries some dredging was done during the early part of the 1900s, particularly in the narrow channels around Davistown.

Many of the small islands within Brisbane Water are spoil from the dredging.

From the days of Hunter's exploratory survey, the state of the entrance to Brisbane Water seems to have been regarded by mariners as being sometimes difficult but generally not dangerous.

The Maritime Services Board "Sailing Directions, New South Wales Coast" (1969 edition), offers the following description: "Brisbane Water is a sheltered but narrow arm of the sea, extending northward from Broken Bay between Box Head and Lion Island; vessels may enter by the channel which lies close along the eastern shore but the bar sometimes carries less than four feet of water at low tide. In southerly winds the sea breaks heavily in the bay westward of the entrance."

The sailing directions make no mention of any particular danger to shipping.

By then, the days of the ferries and putt-putts were numbered.

On land, road transport had replaced the need for the ferry services.

On the water, powerboat owners were turning to lighter, faster boats made from plywood, aluminium or fibreglass, propelled by outboard motors of ever-increasing power.

Small boats no longer needed to be moored and, by using trailers, owners were no longer confined to their home waters where, in the past, they would have acquired years of local knowledge.

Consequently, in the interests of safety, it became necessary to clearly mark the channels within our waterways, not necessarily because of increasing dangers but because of the increasing numbers of boat operators without local knowledge.

Before the 1960s, yachts and large cruisers were a rarity within Brisbane Water, but that ended with the beginning of mass production of large vessels in fibreglass.

Today, many of the large, privately-owned vessels are of deeper draft than the earlier ferries and, without local knowledge and appropriate seamanship, some owners have difficulty navigating the lower parts of the estuary.

Since the 1960s all of these factors have led to increasing numbers of complaints regarding the waterway, culminating in the current debate where claims are being made that the entrance to Brisbane Water is now unsafe.

Safety on any body of water, even a backyard pool, cannot be guaranteed.

Over the years, more boating fatalities have occurred within sight of Gosford than at the entrance to Brisbane Water.

Ultimately, by law, the responsibility for the safe operation of a vessel lies with the owner and the skipper.

The bar at the entrance to Brisbane Water is essentially no more dangerous today than it was last year or 220 years ago and cannot be made "safe".

The real question to be debated, is whether the community is prepared to shoulder the on-going environmental and financial burden of the dredging of the channel so that one vessel can run to a rigid timetable, without the occasional inconveniences caused by the weather or the tide.

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