For visitors to the towns of Queenscliff and Sorrento on the shores of Port Phillip Bay in Victoria, the car ferry that links the two is a familiar sight.
Today marks the 24th anniversary of the first sailing of the service by Peninsula Searoad Transport, on the morning of September 19th, 1987. Today known as Searoad Ferries (they shortened their name in early 2011) the current pair of ferries carry over 110,000 cars and 600,000 passengers each year on the 40 minute, 5.6 nautical mile (10.3 kilometre) crossing of the bay, cutting the distance between the Bellarine and Mornington Peninsulas.
The ferry used in the early days of the service was the Peninsula Princess, a $2 million roll-on/roll-off vessel with a 35 car capacity built new for the company in Newcastle, NSW.
With this single ferry a 45 minute service could be provided between the peninsulas, with tight turnarounds during the summer sailing season allowing nine return trips to be made across the bay between the hours of 7am and 7.45pm. So how did the fares compare?
Back in 1987 the one way fare for a car was $25, with foot passengers charged $5. Looking at the current fares, a car is $54 with foot passengers charged $10. Given petrol has risen from 52 cents/litre in 1987 to around 130 cents/litre today, it isn’t that bad a deal!
As for the patronage on the ferry, over the next five years Peninsula Princess went on to make over 22,000 crossings of the bay, when continued growth required her replacement by a larger vessel.
This new vessel was the $5 million MV Queenscliff: she entered service in December 1993 and still operates today, albeit internally refurbished. With a much larger 80-car, 700 passenger capacity, the Queenscliff also had a much larger passenger saloon on the upper decks to cater for the increasing market of sightseers travelling without cars.
As well as a bigger ferry, improvements were also made to the ferry terminals at both wharves to cater for the larger number of passengers: the waiting room at Sorrento Pier opened in April 1992 with vehicle queuing area being expanded in 1995, while a transit lounge opened at Queenscliff in January 1990 and was expanded to the current size building and cafe in December 1993.
Over the next few years patronage continued to climb, so a sister ship to the Queenscliff was built. Named MV Sorrento and costing $12 million, she entered service in March 2001 and allowed an hourly ferry service to operate between Queenscliff and Sorrento. Whilst she is the same size as her older sister, the Sorrento received a more upmarket interior fitout for the enjoyment of passengers.
The deck configuration of the two ships is the same: three main decks and a car loading ramp at each end, berthing bow first at Queenscliff, and stern first at Sorrento. The bow doors are the most complex of the pair, with the lower portion dropping down to form the car ramp, while the upper half moves upwards to provide enough clearance for tall vehicles.
By comparison the stern ramp is simply lowered onto the concrete wharf.
The main car deck holds 56 cars, or a combination of 30 cars and 7 buses. Staircases to the upper levels are located at the bow and stern ends, as well as along the centreline.
A further 24 car spaces are provided by on the mezzanine deck, located above the main deck on the port side. Built in two separate sections and moved by hydraulic cylinders, the mezzanine deck is first lowered to enable cars to drive onto it (requiring the main deck beneath to be emptied first!) and then raised so the main deck below can also be loaded (the reverse applies to unload). Due to the time taken to operate the mechanism, the mezzanine is only used in peak periods when the extra capacity is needed.
Above the car decks is the enclosed passenger saloon with seats, toilets, and a small cafe. The front and rear of this deck also has open viewing areas.
Finally, the top deck has the wheelhouse and crew areas at the front, and an open sitting area to the rear.
Today MV Queenscliff and MV Sorrento continue to provide an hourly ferry service between the two peninsulas, with Queenscliff receiving an interior refit in 2011 to bring her up to the same standards of her younger sister. The new look will be launched at Melbourne Docklands on the weekend of September 24 and 25.
As for the older ferry Peninsula Princess, she occasionally stands in for either vessel when they visit dry dock during the winter off-season – but her story is one for another time…
- Captain Jack: I’ll take the Searoad (Tony Murrell, Frankston Business Times, June 2010)
- Young skipper charts ferry service’s new course (Western Port News, April 12 2011)
- Searoad Ferries: corporate history
- Searoad Ferries: more information on the ferries themselves