AN HISTORIC tallship that cost Tasmanians hundreds of thousands of community-raised dollars to restore, and more in Federal Government funding, is rotting and rusting in a North Queensland river.
The schooner Defender, built in 1896, was the pride of northern Tasmania in the lead-up to the 1988 Bi-Centenary Tallships Race.
In truly competitive parochial style, community support in Launceston trumped a Hobart business consortium when a decrepit Defender was restored in time to join the cream of the world’s old sailing ships racing from Sydney to Hobart, while the much-vaunted southern-based Lady Nelson was uncompleted.
It also participated in the 1988 Bi-Centenary re-enactment of the sailing of the First Fleet into Sydney Harbour.
A public appeal raised about $250,000 and, along with federal Bi-Centennial funding, the 115-foot Defender was restored between 1982 and 1988. It was classified by the National Trust of Australia in 1986.
However, the former trading vessel that once serviced the early colonies of south-eastern Australia and spent its post-restoration years as a Whitsundays pleasure charter cruiser, has spent the past five years falling to pieces in Townsville’s Ross River after being deemed unseaworthy following an engine room fire.
Questions are now being asked on how such substantial investment of public and private sector money can be unaccounted for and let go to waste.
The Defender is owned by Launceston maritime identity Les Dick, a former chairman of the Tamar River Improvement Project Committee and responsible for one of the Tamar’s most renowned eyesores . . . the derelict 2600-tonne freighter Cotswold Prince.
The freighter was in such poor condition when it was brought from New Zealand by Mr Dick’s company LD Marine in 1992 that only a single-use licence was granted for its voyage.
Mr Dick claimed the Cotswold Prince was to be refitted but it ended up being moored in the Tamar River, between Launceston and its mouth at George Town, for more than a decade.
The listing, rusting freighter was shifted between East Arm, Inspection Head and Bell Bay as maritime authorities and river-users complained of its presence.
Mr Dick was involved in years of disputes over the freighter with local councils, port authorities and the Tasmanian Government and at one stage was set to lose ownership of the vessel to the State.
In 2003, he signed an agreement to let the Tasmanian Government take an option over the Cotswold Prince for just $10 plus outstanding mooring fees of about $28,000.
But Mr Dick claimed in February 2004 that the option had been signed under duress, that he was still the ship’s legal owner and that he had since found an overseas buyer.
After Supreme Court battles between Mr Dick and the State Government, the Cotswold Prince was eventually allowed to sail for a scrap yard in India.
Now, Mr Dick says he has an overseas buyer for the seemingly abandoned Defender, which Townsville’s maritime authority has already shifted from one place to another but the Papua New Guinea company that he says is interested in buying it refuses to comment.
It is not known if any money that may be received from the schooner’s sale would be repaid to the many individuals, companies and funding authorities that paid Mr Dick for its restoration.
Talk of the tallship’s possible sale to a Port Moresby-based company may come as a surprise to Townsville Harbour operators who believe plans were under way to make the Defender, which starts to sink each time the bilge pumps fail, a land-based display.
In October 2007, a Port of Townsville report stated the damaged Defender was to be repaired, given “a complete refit” and returned to Whitsundays charter service the following month.
Just like Mr Dick’s Cotswold Prince, the Defender did not get its promised refit but instead remained derelict.
The Defender’s history is one of great pride. Built in NSW in 1896, it was first registered in Launceston and earned a reputation for its speed, entering the history books in November 1923 by making a record-breaking crossing of Bass Strait in less than 24 hours.
The Australian Navy used the Defender during World War II to transport troops and supplies but after the war it returned to Tasmania and fell into ruin.
After a second breath of life, the historic vessel is again falling to ruin, this time amid a cloud of questions over its funding, its operation and its future.