Bye bye to boat building for Ballina

10th May 2017 8:00 AM
Ian McKinlay and,  Ian Paraz of Laidley Qld discover the rich history of Ship building in Ballina Ian McKinlay and, Ian Paraz of Laidley Qld discover the rich history of Ship building in Ballina Contributed

THE closure of the Ballina Slipway marked the end of an era of on the Richmond River and for the town of Ballina. Nothing now remains to mark the spot which was a hub of industry and employment for the town and put Ballina on the maritime map for close to a century.

The legendary Fenwick brothers who gained fame as tug boat operators on the lower Richmond first constructed a slipway on the banks of the river near the present site of the Ramada hotel in 1891. Initially to slip and maintain the vessels under their own flag it was not long before the scope of activities increased as the number of vessels using the Port of Ballina increased.

The site was known as Fenwick's Shipyards for thirty years until purchased by the Davies Brothers who ran ferries up and down the Richmond and continued to provide maintenance for other shipowners till it was sold to S.G. White & Co in 1942.

Trading under the name Ballina Slipway and Engineering Co they carried out an extensive program of repairs and boat building constructing cargo and supply vessels up to 25 metres in length as well as a number of fishing trawlers and tugs . The slipway and Ballina played a major part in the war effort carrying out repairs to many American APc patrol vessels. These wooden bottomed vessels came to Ballina to have their bottoms replaced due to the effect of toredo worms after prolonged service in the tropical waters around New Guinea.

At that time Ballina was subject to a mini invasion of American sailors as each of the six ships repaired in Ballina was crewed by about twenty sailors. This influx proved to be a major financial stimulus as the sailors frequented the local hotels and bars as well as providing fresh dance partners for some of our young local ladies. Each vessel took about six weeks to complete and for officers and crew Ballina became a welcome home away from home. One young sailor is quoted as saying, "after my home town , this is the best place I've ever been.”

By the late 1950s and into 1960s Ballina was established as a recognised builder of small boats with a large number of wooden vessels being built here. In this period the Ballina Slipway Co. bought a share in in the Norfolk Island/ Byron Bay Whaling Company and constructed a number of wooden whale chasers.

As times and construction methods changed steel became the material of choice and Ballina saw the construction of a number of tugs for companies as diverse as Comalco, Hamersley Iron, B.H.P and J. Fenwick. Even while construction of new vessels was diminishing repair and maintenance contracts grew and the company expanded to include slipways on the Clarence while also making use of the Broadwater dry dock.

In the period from 1960 to 1975 Ballina Slipway saw the launch of forty seven vessels ranging from cane barges to sea going including the Comalco Investigator, Australia's most powerful tug at the time. Notable restorations carried out at Ballina include such famous names such as M.V Krait, the Sydney ferry South Steyne, as well as the sailing vessels Bounty and Soren Larsen. 

Time and tide waits for no man and changes in the market toward high tech manufacturing and the growth of Ballina's town centre saw the end of this rich history. The company was renamed to Metal Cast Australia and moved to foundry works. No more would Ballina be the birth place of vessels.