I’m excited about doing something new in my own hometown – when was the last time that happened? Tonight I am aboard the ferry Spirit of Tasmania I, enroute from Port Melbourne to Devonport, Tasmania. This is one of those voyages I have long wanted to take, but always defaulted to the cheaper and faster flight option. For years I lived a stone’s throw from its Melbourne terminus, Station Pier, but never could bring myself to spend the time and money. Now that I am unemployed, I have the time, and now that I’m an old man, I have the money. So here we are.
Port Melbourne’s Station Pier is a place bearing great poignancy for many Australians. It was from here that most Aussie diggers left for the first and second world wars, many never to return. And it was here that hundreds of thousands of the “New Australians” arrived, particularly after World War II, including several of my friends as infants. All were shuttled to and from central Melbourne by Australia’s first railroad running the six kilometres into the Central Business District (CBD). As we departed I tried to imagine the excitement, innocence and perhaps dread those soldiers would have felt – as well as the joy, promise and innocence experienced by the new arrivals.
Today Station Pier plays host to various cruise ships, as well as the comings and goings of the Tassy ferry. The ferry’s daily approach and departure across Port Phillip Bay is an icon of Melbourne, as re-assuring and regular as the trams that have replaced the port’s railroad. Like the trams, the ferry runs at a massive deficit which is largely picked up by the government. Like the ferry, Tasmania itself runs at a massive deficit, which is largely picked up by the rest of Australia.
There are constant reminders that the Spirit is a state-run operation This is most particularly noticeable in the variable demeanour of customer service representatives. As an employee of the State of Victoria for the past ten years I can say with some authority that governments have been trying to instil more of a customer service attitude in public servants, with mixed results.
The ferry folks are generally helpful in their advice and service, but not very conscientious or concerned about service lapses or inconsistencies, sometimes bordering on being curt, preferring to shrug with a “well there ya have it.” The woman on the phone gave the impression that she had never been to Tasmania, much less Devonport, as she had no idea whether there was a car rental agency near the terminus. (There were three immediately adjacent to the Spirit of Tasmania service desk IN the terminus.) The web site includes a Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) “Is there internet access on board?”, but astonishingly, no answer. Yes, you can check-in to your cabin at 5 pm as the website indicates, but you can’t actually board until 6 pm, a musty waiting room dockside meant to fill your void. “Good enough for government work.”
The ferry itself is getting a bit tired, having gone sixteen years without major refurbishment at this writing (Dec 2014). By coincidence, the ferry had been in the news over the past week, funding for a major renovation, or even a new ship, being bandied about in the Tassy parliament as well as places of power and influence. It’s a rather substantial undertaking, as the current two identical ferries (Spirit of Tasmania I & II) each can hold 1400 passengers with over two hundred cabins. The Chappaquiddick ferry it ain’t.
The Spirits of Tasmania loads their vehicular payload through a transom at its bow, a counter-intuitive design that worries many a naval architect– because should that structure open at sea, the ship would sink in minutes, if not seconds. It is widely accepted and used today, like banking.
We had a top-of-the-line deluxe cabin, one of only four such rooms, paying the ungodly sum of $652, all the more outrageous when you consider we could have flown for $160. Yet, there is something completely magical about going to sleep in your own room on a real bed and waking up somewhere you’ve never been before, so long as it isn’t Philadelphia.
We avoided the food on board, which is always a wise plan on a ferry, as a ferry is NOT a cruise. The bed was lumpy and the bathroom stank. But the room was spacious, and cleaner than I keep things at home (which is a pretty low standard). There was good cable TV but no internet, at least not in the room.
Best, though, was that our stateroom was directly under the bridge on the starboard side, with two large windows facing forward. As we filed down the narrow shipping channel out of Melbourne, freighter after freighter bore down on us, certain, it seemed to me, to collide with us. One after another, they passed like ships in the night. Exactly like that, in fact. I wondered whether the captains waved to one another.
The Bass Straits, between mainland Australia and Tasmania, is a very difficult stretch of water. Geologically speaking, it wasn’t so long ago that Melbourne’s Yarra River ran all the way through Tasmania – there was no Bass Straits. Wilson’s Prom, the southern most protrusion on the Australian mainland is testimony to this geological reality. The point is, though, that it is a shallow body of water through which is forced the northern reaches of the “Roaring Forties”, a global stretch of howling gales and skyscraper-scaled swells with little distraction otherwise. As I said, it is a very difficult stretch of water.
Tonight, though, we slept well, the swell rocking us gently to sleep. We didn’t even drink the wine we smuggled on board.