The Derwent River Recreational History and Future Potential

Hobartians are blessed with a spectacular recreational and beauty area called the River Derwent with its many wonderful beaches. Weekends see the various sailing clubs utilising its resources and during the various months, bathers take to its waters enjoying its pleasures. Sometimes it is just plain worthwhile to sit and view the scene. Even so, can more be done to use of what we have?  Indeed in the past, water activity was more substantial than what it is now. True, in this modern age, there is so much to occupy our leisure time.

Water activity began right from the beginning of settlement in 1804. Indeed a newspaper report from the 1827 mentions horse racing on New Year’s Day at Long Beach, Sandy Bay which was “crowded with people”. From thereon there a great deal of activity which the public could enjoy and may I add, more than now.  The question can be asked.  Are we under utilising our natural resource and if so, what can we do to maximise this asset without affecting its beauty and natural environment?

Regattas on the Derwent were numerous, not only the Hobart regatta (the oldest continuous in Australia), but Bellerive (1853), Kingston, Sandy Bay and as far afield as New Norfolk and at one time Prince of Wales Bay. The Royal Hobart Regatta began in 1838 and I remember in the 1950s, 60, 70s how enormous crowds flocked to it, but I have to say, attendances are now down.  The Sandy Bay regatta began in 1849 while the Kingston regatta is now more commonly known as A Day at the Beach. One can see how early our river was used for pleasure and recreation.

Then there were the numerous jetties from Old Beach and Sandy Bay (Manning Reef still exists), Lindisfarne, Bellerive right down to Kingston Beach. Jetties were vital with the advent of river steamers dropping off passengers, the delivery of fruit and cargo, for pleasure craft and for recreational fishing and diving for swimming.

At Sandy Bay there were public baths dating back to the 1840s.  Baths areas were set aside for changing for both women and “gentlemen” allowing a great deal of community interaction. The Baths were located where the Sandy Bay Rowing club now are. In September 1882 a Mercury report makes mention of the spring board and in every hour of the summer season were in constant use. In 1929 the newspaper reported of the “sickening and filthy conditions”. Indeed they were closed because of water quality.

And what of the river ferries and the amazing past river ferry races?  I am mature enough in years to recall the many that were used not only for recreational reasons but for passenger services between Hobart City and the eastern shore destinations. John Sargent local river ferry historian adds that way back in 1816 a licence was granted to Urias Alexander and John Newland to operate boats propelled by sail and oars between Hobart Town and Kangaroo Bay. Olsters may remember the romantic days of the river ferries, RowittaDoverExcella and Cartela, the latter, the last of the lot.

Then there were the beaches.  Hobart and the river are ringed by magnificent places of leisure. Long Beach, Sandy Bay Beach was the hotspot for swimming and picnics.  By the 1920s and onwards thousands arrived by cars and later trolley buses enjoying the waters of this easily assessed beach.  It was not only on weekends, but week nights as well.  Bands played, hundreds strolled with many taking advantage of the then bathing boxes. To service the demand boat sheds were erected, tables and seats, swings for children and reserves were set aside adorned with pine trees and picnic booths, plus shops to supply ice-creams, cordials and cups of tea. It was a marvellous festive atmosphere. There were also lifesaving team demonstrations.

The river has often been a venue for swimming competitions and still is, such as the Trans Derwent Swim, a Royal Hobart Regatta event and the Derwent River Big Swim, a 34km competition from New Norfolk to Hobart, judged as one of the thirteenth toughest marathon swims in the world.

Sailing for recreational reasons began almost from the year dot, although one would have to watch out for the many whales which swam in the river during early colonial times. Yacht competitive classes of Dragon, Sharpies, Lasers and Fireballs are seen nearly every weekend, home to a number of yachting clubs.  One of the main one is the Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania (1880) which is reputed to be Australia’s largest yacht club and plays a major role in the annual Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race as the finishing line.

However, much has been what was and we should be looking at what can be. The river has so much potential for a greater amount of water activities and facilities to the benefit of the public, not so much to the big developers and corporations.  It is OUR river for all Tasmanians and visitors alike.  We have an incredible asset right on our door step, yet I cannot help think it is so under-used and with a little more planning, thought and innovation I am confident much more can be made of its practical use.