I have been spending some time reading about the action on the River Derwent in Hobart Town at the time when whaling was the main pursuit and freighters abounded on their way to distant lands.

Derwent - Elizabeth Pier
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Derwent River Hobart Tasmania ~ the Elizabeth Street Pier

Derwent River: Now & Then

by Roger Findlay

One of the characters of that time was Denis McCarty. Denis was a Tasmanian whaler full of adventure. His job descriptions were many including: explorer, bay whaler, smuggler, sly grog seller, road builder and a hunter of bush rangers. He was a wild man of Irish descent and he loved a fight. Denis lived on the east bank of the Derwent at New Norfolk but he drowned at a young age when his boat was swamped off Hagan’s Point in 1820. To this day there is uncertainty over who discovered Port Davey. Was it McCarty or was it Captain James Kelly?


 

When you look at the Derwent River from the top of the Wrest Point Casino, it’s hard to visualise the activity of times gone by. In comparison, the activity is quite sleepy today. I also can’t imagine the sight of porpoises, black swans, mutton birds and big black whales up to sixty feet in length with their young alongside. During the winter months, the bay would be teeming with whales coming in to calve and this was the attraction to those seeking their fortune.

Derwent - Casino Yachts
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Yachts clustered around Wrest Point Casino in Sandy Bay

When gold was discovered in California, ship yards were choked with schooners, brigs and barques preparing to sail for ‘Frisco.

Derwent - Boat Yards
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Boat yard near Sandy Bay overlooking Muir’s shed on the River Derwent

At this time, there was good money to be made if you were prepared to risk your life at sea. In 1827 sperm oil was fetching 40 pounds/tun, black oil 28 and whale bone 160 pounds. Four years later the prices went up by a third and ships arrived from all parts of the world but mainly from Britain and America. The whale industry alone was worth 2.5 million pounds to Tasmania. At first it was ‘bay whaling’ where parts of the Derwent patched crimson red. Then came ‘out of bay whaling’ but by the end of the 19th century it was just about over.

Sullivans Cove and Sandy Bay

I love to walk the banks of the Derwent especially around Sullivans Cove and Sandy Bay where you get a good appreciation of present day activity. In 1820 a sea plane would scare the daylights out of the locals! Today you can enjoy a pleasure flight over magnificent scenery before landing back on the Derwent in the heart of the city.

Derwent - Sandy Bay
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Derwent River ~ Sandy Bay looking back towards Hobart

Derwent - Pleasure Flights
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Pleasure flights from the Derwent River in Hobart with Tasmanian Air Adventures

Nothing beats the sight of racing yachts entering the Derwent and especially those arriving from Melbourne and Sydney at the start of January but boat races are nothing new to Hobart.

Derwent - Loyal, Sydney to Hobart
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Supporters surround Investec Loyal as she approaches the Hobart finish line on the River Derwent

In 1828 the stake was 100 dollars when Captain Rouse of the HMS Rainbow pitted his unbeaten crew against untried Tasmanian youths. Going into the race, Rouse was confident that his racing cutter, Centipede, and her oarsmen would remain undefeated. Trailing for most of the race the whale boat ‘Tasmanian Lad’ took the lead when Captain Watson commanded: “Now lift her lads”! To the disgust of Captain Rouse, Centipede was beaten over the line.


 

The Colonial Times reported the race by saying that the defeat by a whaling boat with a crew of “landsmen” was not appreciated by the British who invented excuses for their failing. They claimed that their Jack Tars had been at sea for months on rations of salt beef and biscuit while the Tasmanian land lubbers had the best of living! In a re-match for double the stakes, the Tasmanian crew won the race for a second time.

Derwent Options: Cruise Ships, Ferries and Yachts

What takes your fancy? A trip to Bellerive Village in the water taxi or a leisurely river cruise with Captain Fell? How about kayaking or rigging the Lady Nelson? A boat trip to MONA or departure on a cruise ship? My guess is that you’re looking for a unique adventure like the one offered on the luxury yacht, Helsal iv, where you’ll experience the feel of a Sydney to Hobart racer.

Derwent - Lady Nelson
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The replica Lady Nelson sails on the Derwent River from Hobart

Derwent - Sydney to Hobart
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Charter a yacht that sailed the Sydney to Hobart

In March of 1850, there was quite a commotion in Hobart. The Lady Montague was anchored in the Derwent between Kangaroo Bluff and Droughty. She was bound for Lima, Peru with 400 coolies on board. Fever broke out and the coolies died rapidly. Two hundred dead Chinese coolies were thrown over the rail with one floating down the river onto Droughty hence the name Chinaman’s Gully.


 

Pity the Tasmanian sealers who set sail from Hobart for Antarctic waters. They landed on Herd Island when the provisions ran short and lived on sea elephant tongues and penguins. For vegetables they travelled 1½ miles for Kerguelen cabbage. A carpenter working on a Kerguelen island had his fingers badly frost bitten. Captain Robinson amputated them with an axe. He was later complemented by a doctor for the manner and success of the amputation.

Derwent - Aurora Australis
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Aurora Australis docked on the Derwent, preparing for an Antarctic expedition

Today the crew of the Aurora Australis have most creature comforts for the voyage to and from Antarctica.

Hobart and the River Derwent Today

Meanwhile Tania and Gavin of Think Tasmania sit at their window looking across the Derwent to the Wrest Point Casino, Mount Wellington and the twinkling lights of the city. All the time they monitor the safety of their two boys as they fish for flathead from kayaks. With contentment Coco, the loyal and obedient dog, rolls onto her side knowing that all’s well on the Derwent River.

Derwent - Casino, Mt Wellington
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View across the Derwent River: Wrest Point Casino & Mount Wellington

*Tun was a term used for the basic measurement of liquid where a vessel (usually a barrel) held 210 imperial gallons.

Roger Findlay spends all his holidays in Tasmania, then writes about the
experience for Think Tasmania. If you’d like Roger to visit you in the name of
research (so we can publish information about your business), please contact us.

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Map: Derwent River, Hobart Tasmania…