In 1904 the first passenger ferry between Nelson Bay and Tea Gardens was started by the Boyce and Thurlo families. It proved such a success that the runs had to be expanded to Salt Ash and Soldiers Point. They operated three launches; “Reliance”, “Kingfisher” and “Replica”. These petrol driven vessels carried supplies and passengers on a daily basis. In 1927 the business was taken over by the Engal family, who installed the first diesel engines to operate on Port Stephens. With the outbreak of World War II the vessels were commandeered and the Engal family was forced to close. In 1987 the ferry service was restarted with an aluminium vessel named “Waterbus” operating four days a week between Nelson Bay and Tea Gardens.
Today, Tea Gardens Ferry Service operates two historic timber ferries on a daily basis, carrying thousands passengers each year from Nelson Bay to Tea Gardens. It’s a ferry ride that both visitors and locals can enjoy, taking in the beautiful vista of the bay up to Tea Gardens on the Myall River, and all the surrounding bird and marine life that the area has to offer.
Built in 1943 during WWII for the RAAF Marines division, MV Tea Gardens has a long and colourful history. Her original commission was as a bomb scow, transporting munitions to Catalina flying boats. She was built at the Slazenger shipyard in Putney on the Parramatta river, overseen by legendary shipwright Bill Fisher. When the war ended in 1945, she was converted into a ferry by Atlas Engineering. In 1948 she was sold to the Hawkesbury River Tourist Service, where she ran for many years. The Port Jackson and Manly Steamship Company then purchased her for use on their Pittwater service. In 1970 she was sold to Palm Beach and Bobbin Head Ferries, before returning to the Manly Steamship Company in mid 1974. In 1980 she was again sold and renamed “Melissa”, running the Palm Beach Ferry Service between the Basin, Currawong and Great Mackeral Beach area. She was then sold to Port Stephens Ferry Service in the late 1990’s, and today runs between Nelson Bay and Tea Gardens.
Built in the mid-to-late 1930’s, MV Jesse started out life on Lakes Entrance in Victoria. Back then she was known as “Bluebird”, and along with her sister vessels “Bellbird” and “Blackbird”, did river cruises and a milk and postal run to North Arm Cove. The waterways of Lakes Entrance are very similar to Port Stephens, and likewise has always been a population destination for tourists. It was not unusual to see “Bluebird” cruising the waters with people enjoying a picnic on board with the engine cover doubling as a picnic table. Week days the bench seats would be lined with produce and gallons of milk, delivering supplies and postage parcels to townships along the shore. Jesse is constructed of Tasmanian huon pine and is one of only two well deckers still operating in a traditional ferry role in New South Wales.