There’s nothing like a few tall ships and other assorted wooden boats to fire up nostalgia in a port city. Like such ports around the world, Hobart’s waterfront long ago ceased to be a focus of any significant maritime trade; most containerised shipping uses Bell Bay in the north of Tasmania and Hobart’s container port, such as it is, is now around the corner from the old port on the River Derwent.
The former wharves and piers that once accommodated vessels taking wool, apples and jam to help feed and clothe a hungry Commonwealth have or are being turned into smart hotels, restaurants, function centres, a maritime studies institute and a multi-use space which in summer welcomes passengers of the many cruise ships that now account for a large proportion of Hobart’s marine traffic.
Leisure and maritime spectacle are not new to Hobart; each year since it was first run after the second world war, yachts from the Sydney to Hobart and the various other ocean races that have grown up in its stead (Melbourne to Hobart, Launcestion to Hobart, and I’m sure there are others) provide a festive atmosphere for a few days between Christmas and New Year.
In 1988, the bicentenial year of Australia’s colonisation by British settlers (mostly convicts), Hobart was the focus of a major gathering of tall ships from around the world, drawing thousands to the waterfront for a week-long festival ahead of the start of a race to Sydney. As an island, indeed an archipeligo of around 250 islands, Tasmania has long traditions of boat building, and its native timbers, especially Huon pine and King Billy pine were and are prized for making light-weight skiffs that were used for navigating the wild rivers of Western Tasmania to gather more such timber, as well as for coastal cray and fishing boats.
Prior to the construction of the island’s highways, wooden ferries plied the waters around South East Tasmania, carrying apples from the Huon Valley as well as people and all manner of other goods to and fro. Since 1992, the traditions and craft skills behind wooden boat building has been kept alive in Tasmania at the Tasmanian Wooden Boat Centre at Franklin, half an hour’s drive south of Hobart on the Huon River.
So it is perhaps not surprising that since 1994, a biennial wooden boat festival has been held on the Hobart waterfront, and that it has grown to be among the biggest such festivals in the world. The Festival was initially held in November, but that month’s notoriously unreliable spring weather prompted the event to move to early February from 2001. Since then, it has become a major plank in Tasmania’s program of events, attracting both boats and visitors from around Australia and the world. It has completely overshadowed (both in terms of profile and attendances*) the traditional Hobart Regatta which is held over the same weekend, and was once a highlight of Southern Tasmania’s social calendar.
It is an astonishing acheivement for an event that was initiated by three friends in the early 1990s and which continues to be largely run as a not-for-profit enterprise by volunteers (there is a small contracted management team), and even more astonishing that for the past several years, access to the festival has been free of charge.
A recent article in the TasWeekend magazine published by The Mercury raised concerns about the ongoing sustainability of the event, given its volunteer base, growth and the workload associated with running major public events, especially ones that occupy large parts of a city for several days at a time. One hopes that the event can survive and thrive, given its cultural and economic significance to the island, and indeed Australia.
*According to a report in the Hobart Mercury newspaper in February 2014, the previous year’s attendance at the Royal Hobart Regatta was between 30-40,000. A report in the same newspaper in February 2017 put the attendance at the 2015 Wooden Boat Festival at 220,000.