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"The steam tug Wattle is historically, socially and technologically significant at the national level as the only small harbour steam tug still surviving in Australia."

Wattle and the Royal Australian Navy, 1932-1969

The decision to build a small tug was part of an incentive package by the recently elected Lyons Commonwealth Government (January 1932) to make the Cockatoo Island ship construction and maintenance facility attractive to a potential private leaseholder. The objective of building a small tug without a specific or prospective purchaser was to keep the nucleus staff of Cockatoo Island employed as part of this incentive package to a potential lessee.

The Lyons government was anxious to remove Cockatoo Island from Commonwealth control because of its continuing financial losses and incapacity to operate in the heavy engineering open market, due largely to a High Court judgement of 1927.

The General Arrangement drawings for a small tug, ship number 111, were completed by Cockatoo Island in April 1932, based on, but not a copy of, drawings of an earlier steam tug, the Bustler (1917).

The construction of the tug commenced in 1932 before the dockyard was leased to Cockatoo Docks & Engineering Co. Ltd (Codeco) on 3 February 1933. After this date and up to its transfer to the Royal Australian Navy the tug was referred to as 'Codeco'. This small tug became the last ship built at Cockatoo Island for the Commonwealth Shipping Board, signaling the subsequent transfer of all the shipbuilding and maintenance facilities on the island from the Commonwealth to the private lessee.

On 13 March 1933 the Sydney Morning Herald reported that the new lessee management, in reviewing their first week of operations at Cockatoo Island since taking over the site, noted that a small tug was under construction and did not have an intended purchaser or purpose at that time.

On 27 June 1933 the completed hull of the tug Codeco was lifted into the water at Cockatoo Dockyards by the floating crane Titan. Codeco was then slipped for further fitting out. See here for Wattle's technical specifications at October 1933. (Click on images below for larger versions.)


General Arrangement profile of ship No. 111 (Codeco/Wattle)
General Arrangement profile of ship No. 111 (Codeco/Wattle). Source: National Australian Archives
Codeco, fitting out, 24 November 1933
Codeco, fitting out, 24 November 1933 at Cockatoo Island. Source Sydney Morning Herald

As the tug Codeco neared completion, one of the agenda items listed for Cabinet consideration on 14 December 1933 by the Lyons government was the "Disposal Of A Steam Tugboat Recently Built and Financed by the Commonwealth Government at Cockatoo Island Dockyard." Previous discussion about the disposal of Codeco indicated that she had been built at a total cost to the Commonwealth of 18,500 pounds, but would likely only achieve 6,000 pounds at private sale.

First trials occurred on 8 November 1933, during which Wattle achieved a mean speed of 10.6 knots at 133 rpm in "light" condition of 118 tons. As a result of inclining tests carried out in January 1934, three tons of concrete and iron billets were added as ballast in the forward, boiler, engine and aft compartments (Hope 1989). It was this ballast that created a long term hull and plate corrosion problem the 2009 restoration group had to address.

Coincidently during October 1933, the RAN expressed some interest in Codeco as it had recently lost a small tug due to collision. Consequently, on 28 December 1933 the Commonwealth government approved the transfer of Codeco to the RAN without cost.

On 15 February 1934 Codeco was renamed the Wattle as a non-commissioned vessel of the RAN operating in the Sydney region with a civilian crew. For its near forty-year life with the RAN, Wattle was engaged in a variety of harbor duties, including maneuvering smaller warships, towing targets and barges, rescue work and transporting goods and personnel between ships and shore. During World War II, Wattle was also engaged in degaussing experiments.


Compass Swing 1937
Wattle performing a compass swing for HMAS Swan, Sydney 1937, Graeme Andrew Collection
At Garden Island 1939
Wattle at Garden Island 1939, NSW Government

With HMAS Australia 1938
Wattle with HMAS Australia, 1938
With Tribal class destroyer 1948
Wattle alongside a Tribal class destroyer, 1948

Working a barge 1967
Wattle working a barge 1967, Graeme Andrews Collection
With HMAS Quiberon, Athol Bay 1969
Wattle and HMAS Quiberon, Athol Bay 1969

Apart from being a harbor tug with limited endurance and power, a major concern with Wattle was its maneuverability in a harbor environment. Wattle was found to be hard on the helm, requiring considerable effort to accurately steer in tight situations. Consequently a steam steering engine taken from a Sydney ferry was fitted on deck just aft of the engine room in September 1942.

After a long service period with the RAN Wattle was paid off in 1969 and put with the 'reserve fleet' at Athol Bay, in expectation of being sold for scrap.

In RAN colours in Sydney, 1960s
Wattle in RAN colours in Sydney, 1960s

NEXT → Saved from the Scrapyard, 1969 to 1979