Maritime Trivia

Amaze your friends and family with your maritime knowledge

  • Can you name all 11 ships of the First Fleet? Where can you find Australia II? What are blackbirders?

    Find out the answers to these questions and other random maritime facts right here. Test yourself or others.

    Ready? Good luck!


    What are Bounty passengers?

    During the 1800s, some Australian state governments paid for or assisted immigrants' passage to the country. These immigrants were often referred to as bounty passengers. More information.

    (Source: Archives Office of New South Wales. Archives in Brief)

    What are ship bells made from?

    Ship bells are traditionally made from brass. The ship's name is engraved on the bell, which is used to mark the passage of time on board and as a fog signal.

    (Source: Oxford companion to ships and the sea and Wikipedia).

    What are the watches on board a ship?

    A watch is a method of assigning regular periods of work aboard ships. This system allows a ship's crew to effectively operate a ship 24 hours a day. The day is divided into four-hour periods of duty. The evening watch (dog watch) from 1600 to 2000 hours is further divided into two 2-hour watches - called the first and second dog watch.

    (Source: Oxford Companion to ships and the sea and Wikipedia).

    What does composite mean?

    A composite ship is a ship that is built on an iron or steel frame and planked with wood. This was common among the large clippers of the late 19th century.

    (Source: Oxford companion to ships and the sea).

    What does supercargo mean?

    This is a shortening of cargo superintendent. Before the age of wireless communication, shipping companies assigned a cargo superintendent onboard to oversee all paperwork relating to the ship and its cargo.

    What does ‘to clear a ship’ or ‘cleared out’ mean?

    A ship is cleared to sail when all formalities with the ship's papers have been observed at the customs house.

    (Source: Oxford companion to ships and the sea).

    What is scrimshaw?

    Scrimshaw is a decorative carving on whale bone or other animal tusks and shells. It was originally created by sailors on board whaling ships in the early 1800s. A person who does scrimshaw is said to be a scrims hander.

    (Source: Oxford Companion to ships and the sea and Wikipedia).

    What was a tidewaiter?

    A customs inspector or harbour official who boarded ships entering and leaving on the tide.  This term is no longer in use as the duties are conducted now by customs officers.

    (Source: A dictionary of old trades and occupations).

    What was a Wharfinger?

    A Wharfinger was the term used for the owner of a dock or wharf, or for the docker who had responsibility for the goods/cargo delivered to the dock or wharf.

    (Source: A dictionary of old trades and occupations).

    What were the duties of crew on a sailing ship?

    There were many duties on board such as the: captain, lieutenant, master, purser, clerk, surgeon, pilot, mate, boatswain, sail maker, carpenter, gunner, cook and seamen.

    For more information about these duties, visit the Museum's archive.

    What are blackbirders?

    ‘Blackbirders’ is the collective name given to ships and their crew engaged in the South Sea Islands labour trade between 1847 and 1904. Blackbirding involved kidnapping South Sea Islanders to work on cotton and sugar plantations in Fiji, Samoa and Queensland.

    (Source: Australian Encyclopedia).

    Why did sailors sometimes carry cauls?

    A caul is part of the amnion or membranes that sometimes cover the head of a child at birth. Many superstitious sailors believed that a newborn child's caul would protect them against drowning.  This belief was still practiced up to the early years of the 20th century.

    (Source: Oxford companion to ships and the sea).


    What is Australia's oldest shipwreck?

    The Tryall (also spelt ‘Tryal' and ‘Trial’) is Australia's oldest shipwreck. Owned by the British East India Company, it was wrecked on the Tryal Rocks off the north-west coast of Western Australia in 1622.

    (Source: Australian National Shipwreck Database and Wikipedia).

    What is Australia's worst shipwreck?

    On 5 August 1845, the Cataraqui struck rocks on the south-western coast of King Island (north of Tasmania). Passengers (mostly emigrants) were swept overboard as the ship sank. Despite the close proximity to land, surrounding reefs and high seas prevented most passengers from reaching shore. Only nine of the 409 passengers survived.

    (Source: Parks and Wildlife Service Tasmania).

    What is NSW's worst shipwreck?

    The Dunbar tragedy on the 20th August 1857 is NSW's worst shipwreck. The number of passengers and crew who died is open to conjecture, although most historical sources put it at either 120 or 121. The New South Wales Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, however, lists only 106 death certificates for victims of the shipwreck. There was 1 survivor, James Johnson.

    View a crew and passenger list of the Dunbar from the book Dunbar 1857: Disaster on our Doorstep By Kieran Hosty, Australian National Maritime Museum, 2007. See a photograph of the survivor James Johnson from the State Library NSW. 

    What was the Rodney ferry disaster?

    On 13 February 1938, a crowd of spectators onboard the ferry Rodney were farewelling the USS Louisville in Sydney Harbour. As passengers ran to one side of the ferry it capsized and 19 people drowned. Of those rescued 64 needed treatment for shock and immersion.

    (Source: Australian Encyclopedia and the The Sydney Morning Herald, March 9, 1938)

    What is Australia's worst naval disaster?

    Australia's worst naval disaster happened in 1941 when the German raider Kormoran sunk the HMAS Sydney off the Western Australian coast. The Kormoran was disguised as a Dutch merchant ship. All 645 lives onboard the HMAS Sydney were lost.

    More information on The Sydney Morning Herald site.

    Where is the wreck of the German raider Kormoran?

    Approximately 112 nautical miles off Steep Point, Western Australia, lying in 2,560 metres of water. The approximate position is 26° 05' 49.4" S 111° 04' 27.5" E

    (Source: HMAS Sydney II Search, Press Room, Finding Sydney Foundation).

    View the Search Diary at the Finding Sydney website.

    Where is the wreck of the HMAS Sydney?

    At 10:03 (AWDT) on Sunday 16 March 2008 the Finding Sydney Foundation located the wreck of the HMAS Sydney (II) in 2,468 metres of water off Steep Point on the Western Australian coast. Her position was recorded as being 26° 14' 37" S 111° 13' 03" E. HMAS Sydney (II) sunk with all hands on deck in 19 November 1941.

    (Source: HMAS Sydney II Search, Press Room).


    In what year did Australia win the America's Cup?

    In 1983 Australia II skippered by John Bertrand won the America's Cup. This was the first time Australia had won the cup.

    (Source: D'Alpuget, Lou. Yachting in Australia. Sydney. William Collins, 1986).

    When did the "Great White Fleet" visit Australia?

    The US Great White Fleet arrived in Sydney Harbour on 20 August 1908 as part of its world cruise. The fleet visited Sydney and Melbourne during August and September. It was a spectacular sight for visitors and provided a focus of many social celebrations.

    (Source: Australian Encyclopedia)

    When was the Captain Cook pilot steamer built?

    There were three Sydney pilot steamers called Captain Cook. They were:

    • Captain Cook (1) entered service in February 1877.
    • Captain Cook (II) was launched in 1892.
    • Captain Cook (III) commenced service in March 1939.

    (Source: Gillett, Ross. Australian ships.)

    When was the first Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race held and who won?

    The first race was held in 1945. The winner was Rani in six days, 14 hours and 22 minutes.

    (Source: Dalpuget, Lou. Yachting in Australia. Sydney. William Collins, 1986.)

    When was the RAN founded?

    The Royal Australian Navy was officially created on 10 July 1911.

    (Source: Australian Encyclopedia and Australian & New Zealand Warships by Ross Gillett.)

    What is the largest ship to have visited Sydney Harbour?

    The largest Ocean Liner is the Queen Mary 2, which berthed at Circular Quay in February 2007. It has a gross tonnage of 148,528, and its dimensions are: Loa: 345 m.; extreme breadth: 48.70 m; draught: 10,300.

    (Source: Lloyd's Register 2007 edition and The Sydney Morning Herald February 20, 2007).

    What is the world's fastest boat?

    Ken Warby's hydroplane Spirit of Australia set the World Water Speed Record in 1978.  Remarkably, it still holds that record and is on display here at the Museum.

    (Source: Signals, Museum member magazine.)

    What was Australia's largest battleship?

    The battle cruiser HMAS Australia was the Royal Australian Navy's first flagship. At 21,300 tons it was also the largest and most powerful warship ever built for Australia.

    (Source: Gillett, Ross. Australian & New Zealand warships 1914-1945.)

    What was the largest warship to visit Australia?

    The USS Enterprise. The warship with the most powerful guns is the USS Missouri.

    (Source: Australian National Maritime Museum curator Paul Hundley).

    What was the world's longest roll on roll off (ro-ro) ferry?

    The Empress of Tasmania.

    (Source: Plowman, Peter. Ferry to Tasmania.)


    What town in New South Wales is named after a submarine commander?

    Holbrook. The town is named after British Navy submarine commander Norman Holbrook, who torpedoed a Turkish battleship in 1914 in the Dardanelles.

    (Source: Australian Encyclopedia and Visit NSW).

    What was the name of Kay Cottee's boat when she sailed around the world?

    First Lady. See it on display here at the Museum.

    What was the name of navigator Matthew Flinders’ Cat?
    Trim. The Matthew Flinders Archive at the State Library of New South Wales has a short article about Trim.

    (Source: Australian Encyclopedia.)

    Who named Darling Harbour?

    Lieutenant General Ralph Darling, who was Governor of New South Wales between 1825 and 1831 renamed Cockle Harbour in 1826 after himself.

    (Source: Stephensen, P.R. History and description of Sydney Harbour).

    Who was Ben Lexcen?

    Australian yacht designer Ben Lexcen became famous for his invention of the "winged keel", which was used successfully on Australia II to win the America's Cup in 1983.

    Lexcen was born Robert Miller. Originally, Alan Bond commissioned Miller to build Apollo, an ocean racer. The partnership continued when Bond first challenged for the America's Cup in 1974 with a Miller-designed 12-metre class yacht named Southern Cross. The challenge was unsuccessful but Miller stayed on as the designer for future yachts.

    Miller eventually withdrew his partnership from Bond's sailmaking company but its name was retained. Soon after the 1974 Cup challenge, Miller changed his name to Ben Lexcen to avoid confusion with the company. It is unclear why he chose this name.

    (Source: Australian Encyclopedia and Wikipedia).

    More information.

    Who was Joshua Slocum?

    American Joshua Slocum was the first person to sail singlehandedly around the world in his sloop Spray. He began his journey in 1895 and completed it in 1898. Slocum spent several months in Australia during 1896 and 1897.

    (Source: Paine, Lincoln P. Ships of the world: an encyclopedia.)

    Who was Oskar Speck and what was his achievement?

    German Oskar Speck made an unusual 50,000 km voyage by Kayak from Germany to Australia during 1938 - 1939. The Museum holds artefacts and papers from his personal collection.

    (Source: Signals, Museum member magazine.)

    Who was the first Australian to circumnavigate the world?

    Yachtsman Harold Nossiter, with his sons Dick and Harold, left Sydney on 14 July 1935 in their yacht Sirius; on 20 May 1937 they completed their voyage in Sydney and became the first Australians to circumnavigate the globe.

    (Source: Nossiter, Harold. Northward ho: being the log of a 35 ton schooner from Sydney to Plymouth and Southward Ho! Being the log of a 35 ton schooner Sirius from England to Australia).

    Who was Walter Reeks?

    Walter Reeks was a pre-eminent Australian naval architect practicing during the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Sydney. He designed a wide variety of vessels including many well known yachts and Sydney Harbour ferries.

    (Source: Australian Dictionary of Biography. Vol.11. pg 346.)

    Who were the first Europeans to arrive in Australia?

    The first Europeans to arrive in Australia were Dutch. Captain of the Duyfken, William Janszoon first sighted land at Cape York Peninsula in 1606 near the Pennyfather River. Janszoon anchored at what is now called Albatross Bay, Cape York, Queensland.

    (Source: Australian Encyclopedia).


    What fuel did steam ferries on Sydney Harbour use?

    Initially, steam ferries used coal.  In the 1930s, pulverized coal was used until about 1939 when the engines were converted to oil-burning to use tar, a by-product of the NSW power stations.

    (Source: Keith Murray - a deceased draughtsman, who worked at Morts Dock Engineering Company for many years. See:  obituary page 4 for more information.)

    What is the name of the first vessel to pass under the Sydney Harbour Bridge?

    Led by the pilot steamer Captain Cook, The P & O Liner Maloja passed under the bridge amid mighty cheering...

    (Source: Daily Commercial News and Shipping List, March 21, 1932.)

    What was the first American ship to visit Australia?

    The American brigantine Philadelphia arrived in Sydney on the 1 November 1792 from Philadelphia via the Cape of Good Hope. American vessels including many whaling ships were common early visitors to Australian ports.

    (Source: Australian Encyclopedia).

    What was the first place on the Australian coast sighted by the Endeavour's crew?

    The first sighting of the Australian coast occurred on 19 April 1770 by Lieutenant Hicks.  Captain Cook then named it Point Hicks (in Victoria). In 1843 the name was changed to Cape Everard and in 1970 the Victorian government renamed the promontory Point Hicks to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Cook's landing in Australia.

    (Source: Australian Encyclopedia).

    What was the first steamship built in Australia?

    The steamship Surprise was built in Mr Millard's Slip at Neutral Bay in Sydney Harbour during 1831. It was 80ft and made its first trip on 2 June 1831, and this was the first vessel to undertake a voyage under steam in Australian waters.

    (Source: Portus, A.B. Early Australian steamers, and Shipping arrivals and departures Sydney 1826 to 1840/Ian Hawkins Nicholson).

    What was the name of the first ship built in Australia?

    Rose Hill Packet. In early October 1789, the first European vessel to be built in the colony of New South Wales was launched in Sydney Cove.  Named the Rose Hill Packet, the vessel was intended for use along the Parramatta River, ferrying people and materials between Sydney Cove and the satellite settlement established at Rose Hill - later renamed Parramatta in recognition of the original Indigenous name, Burramatta.

    Designed along the lines of a barge, the Rose Hill Packet quickly gained a reputation for indifferent performance and was nicknamed the Lump. While this vessel is regarded as the first European vessel constructed in New South Wales, it was not the first in Australia.  That distinction goes to the Sloepie, a 20 metre vessel built by survivors from the Dutch East Indiaman Zeewijk, wrecked in the Abrolhos Islands in 1727.

    Built over a period of four months, the Sloepie carried 88 people to Batavia, taking a month to complete the dramatic voyage. In 1840 the Dutch camp site was discovered by John Lort Stokes during HMS Beagle's surveys in Australia.  Finding a brass cannon, Stokes named the place Gun Island. Over the next 150 years a large collection of artefacts from the Zeewijk were discovered, some of which are now held in the National Maritime Collection.

    In 2012 the museum will explore the history of Indigenous watercraft during the Nawi conference.

    What was the name of the first steamship to arrive in Australia?

    A paddle wheeler called The Sophia Jane arrived in Sydney on the 14 May 1831 under sail. This ship commenced work in the coastal trade from Sydney to Newcastle on June 19, 1831.

    (Source: Shipping arrivals and departures Sydney1826 to 1840/Ian Hawkins Nicholson).

    What were the names of the ships in the First Fleet?

    The First Fleet was made up of 11 ships:

    • The escort vessels HMS Sirius and HMS Supply.
    • The convict transports Alexander, Friendship, Scarborough, Charlotte, Lady Penrhyn and the Prince of Wales.
    • The store ships Borrowdale, Fishburn and Golden Grove.

    (Source: Australian Encyclopedia).

    A painting of the Borrowdale can be found in the museum's collection. For more information on researching the First Fleet see our First Fleet Library research guide.

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