Small vessels

Our historic fleet

Permanent exhibition | Museum wharves | 

The Australian National Maritime Museum's wharves harbour a living history of small vessels, against the spectacular Sydney skyline. Some are older. Other have joined the museum at the end of their working lives and remain as operational vessels. All have fascinating stories to tell.  


Akarana, 1888 gaff cutter racing yacht

The museum's oldest vessel is a rare example of deep, narrow, heavily ballasted racing yachts. Akarana was built in Auckland to compete in Australian regattas in 1888 and 1889. It is a fine historic reminder of the friendly and often fierce sailing rivalry between Australia and New Zealand.

Akarana (Maori for 'Auckland') won the 1889 Anniversary regatta with a first prize of 20 pounds and three cases of Moet & Chandon Champagne. It stayed in Sydney for the next 100 years, then was rebuilt in New Zealand and presented to Australia as a bicentennial gift. In 1997, the museum restored Akarana to its 19th-century specifications.

More information and specifications (PDF, 659kb)


CLS 4 Carpentaria, 1917 unmanned lightship

Lightships are floating lighthouses that aid navigation and warn ships of hazards. They anchor where a permanent light can't be built, beaming powerful lights that run for months. Commonwealth Lightship 4, Carpentaria, was one of four unmanned lightships built at Cockatoo Island Dockyard, Sydney, in 1916-17. It originally used an automatic acetylene light with a sunlight-operated valve to turn it on and off. Painted red with its name in huge letters on the side, it was easily recognisable to navigators. CLS4 retired in 1985 after a close encounter with container shipping in Bass Strait almost sent the sturdy, steel-hulled vessel to the bottom!

More information and specifications (PDF, 810kb)


Thistle, 1903 Victorian couta boat

Thistle is the smallest of the museum fleet. Couta boats were lug-rigged fishing boats that evolved in Australia to suit local conditions. Hand-lining for barracouta (once the mainstay of the fish and chip trade), these open-hulled sloops dared the unpredictable waters of the Victorian coast and treacherous rip of Port Phillip Bay. Thistle fished out of Port Fairy and has survived amazingly well. The vessel is restored and rebuilt to original specifications by a Victorian couta boat specialist.

More information and specifications (PDF, 168kb)

John Louis 

John Louis, 1957 pearling lugger

Built in Broome for pearling, John Louis is one of the last working sail craft built in Australia. In the early 20th century, Australia supplied 75% of the world's pearl shell. Luggers towed their divers over the pearl beds by drifting, often with just the sail on the after mast set. John Louis collected young pearl shells for the cultured pearl industry which thrived after World War II. Its tank of circulating sea water kept shells alive on the return voyage.

More information and specifications (PDF, 216kb)

Tu Do 

 Tu Do, c. 1976 Vietnamese refugee boat

Tu Do arrived in Darwin on 21 November 1977 with 31 Vietnamese refugees crowded on board. Their hopes for a better life in Australia were echoed in the vessel's name, which means 'freedom'. The first 'boat people' fled the turmoil of South Vietnam in simple coastal fishing craft, often unsuited to a long ocean voyage. Tu Do's passengers were lucky, outpacing pirates in the Gulf of Thailand and surviving violent storms at sea.

Read the extraordinary story of Tan Thanh Lu, who built Tu Do for a secret escape. (PDF, 545kb)

Epic Lass 

MB 172 Epic Lass, 1937 naval motor launch

This elegant timber launch once ferried naval officers but now transports National Maritime Museum staff and guests on Sydney Harbour. It. was built by the Royal Australian Navy at Garden Island dockyard and worked mostly in Darwin. Epic Lass has kept its official Navy pennant number (MB 172) but was renamed to honour Taubmans Industries Ltd (Epiglass Australia), which sponsored this stylish vessel's restoration.

More information and specifications (PDF, 213kb)


Krait, 1934 war veteran

This humble fishing trawler led a double life during World War II. In 1941, in Singapore, it evacuated people to Sumatra during the Japanese advance. Renamed Krait (after a deadly Indian snake), the boat was fitted out in Australia for Operation Jaywick in 1943. Perfectly disguised as a local fishing vessel, Krait sailed boldly into Japanese-occupied waters with a team of Z Special Unit commandos whose mines blew up and severely damaged seven enemy ships in Singapore harbour.

After the war, Krait worked in the Borneo timber trade, until it was recognised by two Australians on a business trip in 1962. Krait returned to Australia to a hero's welcome, a testament to Australian sacrifice during war. Krait is on loan from the Australian War Memorial.

More information and specifications (PDF, 169kb)

Kathleen Gillett   

Kathleen Gillett, 1939 ketch

This gaff-rigged ketch was built for Sydney marine artist, Jack Earl to sail around the world. A founder of the Sydney-Hobart yacht race, Earl sailed Kathleen Gillett in the first race in 1945. Two years later, the ketch (named after Earl's wife) circumnavigated the globe, only the second Australian yacht to do so.

Kathleen Gillett's venturesome career later included island trade and crocodile-hunting expeditions. In 1987, she was found in Guam and bought by the Norwegian government as a bicentennial gift to Australia. Read more about how and why Kathleen Gillett forged maritime links between Australia and Norway.

More information and specifications (PDF, 445kb)

Harding lifeboat 

Harding safety lifeboat

This unusual looking boat could have the most important job in our fleet! It is a fully-enclosed survival vessel designed to give tanker crew a safe exit, offering protection from burning oil and dangerous gases. The lifeboat is designed for ships or offshore installations. Its hatches hermetically seal and special features include a compressed-air passenger breathing system and a seawater pump to spray the entire boat for cooling. The lifeboat will even right itself after turning 360 degrees. It is owned and operated by the Sydney Institute of TAFE Marine Technology Centre and is used for training.

More information and specifications (PDF, 226kb)


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