Tales of the Curlew

Church Point Ferry Service: the CurlewDeckhand Laurie Duff, the Ferry Wars and Farewell Curlew

First, Deckhand Laurie…

By 15 years of age Laurie Duff was a ferry deckhand. Correction, 14 and 9 months. Back then in 1967 Laurie could only leave school if he had a job. So, he took himself to an interview at David Jones. DJ’s offered employment at $12 a week, which, despite having to buy a suit for $15, Laurie thought was a good deal.

Luck would have it on his way home to Scotland Island he had a chat with ferry driver, Lenny Duck. Lenny told Laurie that, actually, there was a job going right there in Pittwater as ferry deckhand. Good timing for Laurie!

Laurie began as deckhand not long after the purchase of the Wagstaff, just after the Cowan was sunk. But that’s another story. Despite Laurie’s tender age and lack of experience, it was not long before Lenny and Maurie the co-owners of the Ferry Service had his measure.

They decked out young Laurie in hat and sunglasses, provided a box on which to raise the lad up in the driver’s cabin. Laurie was in charge, taking ferries out while Lenny & co supported the local pub.

Ferry Wars… starring the Curlew…

When Laurie started there were three ferries: the Curlew, the Wagstaff, and the Elvina. By age 16 Laurie did practically all ferrying of passengers. At 18, Laurie bought the Church Point Ferry Service.

Ferry Wars: the Curlew passes the Promote (1970's)

The Curlew passes the Promote (photo courtesy of Graeme Andrews)

By that time Darryl Stewart was also working with Laurie and Lenny. Darryl had been a navigator of big ships, but had given that away to become a Pittwater ferry master.

It seems Darryl was a man with a plan. He teamed up with George Bennet, who ran the Lovett Bay Boatshed. Together Darryl and George bought the Grower, a vessel to rival the Church Point ferries. They called themselves the ‘Pittwater Ferry Service.’ All boats were black, Laurie’s white.

The battle was on. The Grower departed 15 minutes before the Curlew. It then waited until just before the Curlew was due to leave, scooping the most passengers possible.

Laurie raised the bar. He put the timber Elvina to work, departure time just ahead of the Grower. Then Darryl and George bought the Promote, a vessel designed for charter work, soon departing moments before the Elvina for regular passenger pick up. Laurie rescheduled the Wagstaff. Departure… minutes before the Promote. This insanity could not last. It’s the stuff of ferry tales, but surely Laurie, Darryl and George knew the Wars were unwinnable in the end. Surely, but no. Things heated up.

Laurie put the Curlew up at Beashells for its regular slip, a new coat of paint and antifouling, and she was looking good. On the way back, just at Church Point in fact, Darryl slammed the Curlew taking all paint off the stem.

Laurie was livid. He went aboard the Grower. He hurled all Darryl’s cargo of groceries from the roof. Laurie got the railway line that he chained to the Curlew, ala a ramming pole. If Darryl dared try again it would wipe out all his windows.

During the daily races to the wharves the Grower had a 3 cylinder GM. The Curlew – an old tractor motor, a 4 cylinder BMC. It was 60 HP and slower than the Grower. Laurie repeatedly pushed the engines hard – and repeatedly, blew them up. One day he decided to give the Curlew a new lease on life, a 6 cylinder 120 Horse Power Perkins.

Covert operation, equipped with beer, Laurie and mates, tested the new engine after nightfall six miles offshore. Motoring through the dark, suddenly a submarine surfaced. Being full of, shall we say, bonhomie, they hurled empty stubbies at the conning tower. No doubt an evening to remember.

Back to the Wars…

The following day was a wonderful one for Laurie Duff. Darryl watched in utter disbelief as the Curlew slid through the waves overtaking his vessel.

The Ferry Wars became big news. Not only covered by the Manly Daily, it was reported in national newspapers, and ABC’s Today Tonight with Bill Peach. For a short time in the early ‘70’s Church Point and the Pittwater ferries were the talk of Sydney.

Farewell Curlew

In 2012 the Curlew found a new home. Church Point Ferry Service owners Penny Gleen and Simon Wastell donated the much loved ferry to the Tribal Warrior Association. This is a community based, not for profit group established and run by Aboriginal Elders. Mentors of the organisation train disadvantaged Indigenous youths, typically from 16 years and older, preparing them for careers in the maritime industry. Tribal Warriors’ scope of training ranges from repairing and restoring boats such as the Curlew, to skippering.

Penny  and Simon  have listed the Curlew on the Australian Maritime Museum’s Heritage Vessel List.

See more ferry tales…