Bob Holme, The South Australian Maritime Museum

Click here to see Yelta steaming.

The South Australian Maritime Museum is surrounded by the magnificent buildings and streetscapes which led to much of central Port Adelaide becoming the State's first listed heritage area, the South Australian Maritime museum was opened by the Prime Minister, Mr Bob Hawke in December of 1986.

The South Australian Maritime Museum is a major tourist attraction in Port Adelaide and pivotal to the Port's commitment to tourism.

The Museum's three floating vessels, Steam Tug Yelta, Motor Vessel Nelcebee and Police Launch Archie Badenoch help to preserve Port Adelaide's character. These vessels along with the sail training vessel One and All and ketch Falie liven up an otherwise dead waterfront.

The South Australian Maritime Museum attracts over 80000 visitors per annum and services 15000 school children. It is open 7 days a week, has a staff of 11 to service its 4 major sites, 3 floating vessels and answer approximately 1000 curatorial enquiries. The museum has a collection of over 25000 objects and archives and 9000 photographs. Amongst its peers it is considered an excellent, professional museum.

There are 50 volunteers working around the sites and an active Friends of the South Australian Maritime Museum involved in raising funds for various museum projects.


Click here to see the author in the engine room.

Bob Holme was born in Lancaster UK in November 1942. He emigrated to Australia with his parents in March 1956. After 2 years of school in Brisbane and a year as a deck hand on a prawn trawler in Moreton Bay, Queensland. Bob joined the Royal Australian Navy as an Engine Room Artificer Apprentice in January 1959.

Bob spent 16 years in the RAN during which time he rose through the ranks to the level of Lieutenant and gained a Diploma in Marine Engineering. Bob saw active service in Borneo, Malaysia and Vietnam.

In June 1974 Bob resigned his commission and joined British Petroleum as a lubricants engineer in Adelaide, South Australia. Bob spent 17 years with BP working over most of South Australia and the Northern Territory. He was heavily involved in the development of mines such as Nabalco, Warrego and Olympic Dam. Finally in 1991 BP decided he cost too much and after a very generous Golden Handshake Bob went to ground. Boredom set in and Bob joined the South Australian Maritime Museum as a volunteer in May 1992.

In November 1993 Bob was employed by the museum in his current role of Chief Engineer.



The steam tug Yelta was built in 1949 by Cockatoo Docks and Engineering Co, Sydney for Ritch and Smith of Port Adelaide, the tug was originally coal fired but was later converted to oil.

After twenty seven years service guiding vessels out of Port Adelaide, Yelta was laid up in November 1976. In the following year, it was sold to the Port Adelaide branch of the National Trust of South Australia.

In May 1985 Yelta was purchased by the South Australian Maritime Museum. After a program of restoration and re-fitting by an army of enthusiastic volunteers, South Australia's last commercial steam tug began a new life as one of the Museum's prize floating exhibits.


Length 31.5 metres
Breadth 8.13 metres
Depth 3.94 metres
Tonnage 219.4 tonnes 
Power 723 kilowatts
General construction

Riveted steel construction throughout except for the plate butts which are welded.

Extensive use of cement render throughout including the bottom plating of the forecastle, the forepeak, the floor of the boiler room, the fresh water tank and the after peak.

The steel main deck is sheathed with timber over the forward and aft accommodation spaces.

Vessel's layout

Galley and officers' accommodation
Forward of the boiler there is a galley on the main deck with basic kitchen facilities such as stove and sink. Below are located the Master's and Engineer's cabins and a saloon.

Crew's quarters
An aft accommodation space contains bunks and general living quarters for the fireman, greaser and two deck hands.

Engine room
The main engine is a triple expansion reciprocating steam engine delivering 723 kilowatts (970 indicated horsepower) of power at 140 r.p.m. and drives a 4 blade cast iron propeller of 2.44m (8ft) diameter and 3.36m (11ft) pitch.
A steam steering engine is located on the upper level at the rear of the engine room. This engine incorporates an emergency steering system consisting of two wooden spoked hand operated wheels. The smaller of these wheels allows the steam steering engine to directly operated. The larger of the wheels allows manual rudder operation.

Boiler room
The boiler has an internal diameter of 4.9 m and holds 18 tonnes of water at operating level. An operating pressure of 1400 kilopascals (200 pounds per square inch) is reached after 18 hours of firing. Initially coal fired, the ship was converted to a heavy oil burner in 1957.

The wheelhouse is timber with windows on all sides for controlling tug operations.  The monkey island is located on the roof.  This was fitted with a binnacle holding the master compass remote from most of the vessels magnetic influence.

Click here to see a Yelta drawing.


The Problem

To convert a derelict steam tug, (which had sat in the water untouched from April 1975 to May 1985), to a fare paying passenger vessel.

Where to Start, What to Do?

First of all we needed labour, not just any old labour but skilled qualified maritime personnel.

We have been very fortunate in having a dedicated band of retired and semi retired Masters, Mates and Engineers who have given unstintingly of their time and expertise to achieve our objective. The core of this group, known as the Yelta Engineers have been with the program from its inception.

From 1985 to 1988 this group performed miracles taking the vessel from a derelict mess to a working steam vessel.

The other major player in getting this far was of course MONEY!! In the heady 80's prior to our state bank collapse and the fact that 1986 was South Australia's 150th anniversary, money was made available to help get the new museum and Yelta off their feet.

What did we do with this money and manpower over the 3 year period?

Firstly we removed all the old asbestos lagging from the vessel. When this was gone we were able to thoroughly inspect the boiler, both internally and externally. It was in very good condition. All boiler mountings were removed surveyed and replaced. The main engine was stripped including the removal of pistons and valves. All major bearings were inspected and the engine reassembled. The condenser was overhauled as were all auxiliary pumps and generators. Without steam the only items tested as operational were the generators and electrical systems.

All lagging was now replaced with non asbestos material (Bradford Insulation Fibretex 350) of varying thickness dependant upon application ie. thickest on boiler (75mm).

A retired naval architect and former manager of the Department of Transport commenced work on modifying the vessels stability statement to convert the vessel from class 2C to class 1E/1D survey under the Uniform Shipping Laws Code.

The vessel was now ready for its initial steaming trials and it was decided to use this opportunity in conjunction with the initial slipping of the vessel under museum control.

Amidst a great feeling of euphoria the vessel left the wharf for the first time in 13 years under its own power on 13 September 1988.

This feeling of euphoria was soon replaced with one of great concern as the condition of the hull under the water was revealed. There was extreme pitting on the wind and water line, no evidence whatsoever of any sacrificial anodes and marine growth which made the hanging gardens of Babylon look tame by comparison.

Grit blasting of the hull turned most of the severe pitting into holes and after much deliberation the decision was undertaken to place doubler plates under the boiler room bilge and to pad weld the pitting. The pad welding of the pits took some three weeks and some 350kg of welding anodes. Despite this the rest of the hull was in remarkably good condition.

The hull was primed sealed and antifouling was applied.

Whilst this was proceeding the rudder, propeller, tail and intermediate shafting was removed and the lignum vitae bearings inspected. The wear down was 0.125", (approx 50%). Shaft seals were renewed and the whole shaft assembly replaced. The rudder pintles were in good condition.

Well by now it looked as though we had a vessel. Sacrificial anodes were fitted, on the hull, rudder and main inlet mud box and Yelta re-entered the water on 05 October 1988.

After some 2 weeks the anode protection level was measured at 970mj.

We decided to slip the vessel again in 1 year to determine the success of our efforts in saving the hull. All present at the initial slipping were of the firm opinion that the vessel would have sunk within the next six months if left in its previous condition.

The next slipping in September 1989 gave considerable satisfaction as all was well underwater and we now knew we could comply with both commercial and USL Code requirements.


In 1990 our state bank collapsed, (well almost), and the great unwashed had to find $3,500,000,000 to bail it out! Shortly after this the government fell and belt tightening became the order of the day.

One of the earliest casualties of this reversal in the states fortunes was the Department for the Arts and Cultural Development of which we are a very small part. $1000 to us is like $10000 to the Art Gallery. I guess one can say that funding was substantially reduced and when I joined the museum in 1992 we became some of the most resourceful scavengers in the history of the developed world. Here we were with the last working steam vessel in South Australia back on its feet, only to find we did not have the money to complete the survey requirements for passenger vessels.


Not much really !

Firefighting Equipment $6,000
Toilets to be put to a holding tank $6,000
70 PFD's type 1 $3500
Rewire the vessel and convert to 240AC $15000
Fuel $12,000
Additional anchor and cable. $1500
Passenger accommodation ladder $500
Passenger seating $1000
Raise bulwark height to 1m $200
Passenger canopy $6000
Inclining experiment and alterations to floodable lengths and drafts, (a freebie from Department of Transport THIS TIME).

All this and more on a budget of $4000 pa.

After looking at the above list with a mixture of shock, disbelief and horror I decided it was time to take a stand. Either the South Australian Maritime Museum wanted a fare paying passenger vessel or it didn't.

People in charge of paintings don't make good marine engineers and vice versa. One cannot run a $50000 venture on $4000. So I gave the Museum a couple of options.
1. Sack me
2. Find the money.

Fortunately for me, and for Yelta - the second option was chosen and in September 1995 Yelta was awarded a certificate of survey Class 1E as a fare paying passenger vessel.

Of the above list some items such as fire fighting, toilets, PFD's, anchors, accommodation ladder, passenger seating and bulwark height were mandatory to comply with survey.

Items such as rewiring the vessel and converting to 240 AC and the fitting of a canopy over the passenger areas were considered to be essential to operate safely and effectively in the Australian environment.

What was our philosophy when considering the essential items above? Why did we change the vessels electrical system from 110 DC to 240 AC? The vessel had been partially rewired with 240 AC at some stage in its operating life. This left us with two systems neither of which operated satisfactorily in its own right and so it was decided to provide readily available up to date lighting particularly in the machinery spaces. This in Australia is far easier to accomplish using the nation's standard lighting and power system of 240 AC.

Why did we fit a canopy? Because its bloody hot here and as South Australia is the dryest State in the dryest continent and is most directly under the hole in the ozone layer SunSmart/Sun safety/shelter from the elements has a very high priority in terms of both passenger comfort and safety.

Whilst the purists may say that we have altered this vessel from the object it was when we received it I believe that if you wish to operate the vessel as a commercial venture then you have no alternative but to adopt these sorts of compromises.

One thing we have endeavoured to do throughout is where possible to be able to reverse the processes and return the vessel to its original state.

Click here to see Yelta dockside.


Since our Survey has been awarded we have operated Yelta for 4 days during each school holiday period averaging 2 x 1 hour cruises on each day a total of 32 cruises. Our average passenger dollar is $8 giving us a revenue from public cruises of some $15,000.

In addition to this we have operated special cruises for sponsors and friends at no charge a loss of $1400.

Finally we have been chartered 5 times at $600 per charter giving a revenue of $3000.

Our standing charges for Yelta are some $14000 pa whilst it remains in the water and this would not be offset by any income.

Our operating costs for Yelta are some $29000 which is offset by our revenue of $16600. This gives us a museum cost of $12400.

I guess the point I am trying to make is that operating vessels such as Yelta not only helps to preserve them but is a net cost saver for the organisation concerned. This combined with the unique opportunity offered to the public to sail in such vessels more than justifies continued investment in this type of activity.


I feel we have two major obstacles placed in our path if we wish to continue to operate vessels such as Yelta. With steam vessels in particular the boiler is not only the driving force but the one item which is irreplaceable within the realms of sensible economics.

The other major obstacle to continued operation of these vessels is of course qualified crew, particularly Engineers. Very few commercial or naval ships today are steam powered and as my generation dies out where do we get the next operators from? Perhaps you can enlighten me how we operate in an ever increasing maze of regulatory constraint, maintain our duty of care and provide training recognised by our regulatory bodies.

Problems of a less pressing nature are spare parts. We are finding that we are having to manufacture more and more of our bits and pieces as the old ones wear out. I see no real alternative to this but it is an added cost burden.

Finally I would ask you to remember that:-


Click here to see Yelta under way.

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