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Captain at the helm of history

By Carolyn Rance

A paddle steamer skipper plying the Murray gets a taste of times past, writes Carolyn Rance.

Steering the paddle steamer Adelaide from its home at Echuca to a historic gathering of river craft at Mildura last month was a career highlight for Graham Trist.

PS Adelaide, believed to be the world's oldest wooden-hulled paddle steamer still in use, took 12 days to make the downstream journey and even longer to return. On its way it passed through locks and a number of weir punt crossings and bridges that were being operated for the first time in many years.

The purpose of the trip was to join celebrations of the centenary of PS Melbourne, an event that attracted craft from three states and tourists from all over Australia.

"People came to see the Adelaide along the way and at Mildura the news reporters estimated the crowd at 15,000," Trist says.

His passion for paddle steamers and river history led the former motor mechanic and local businessman to his current job with the Shire of Campaspe, operator of the Port of Echuca. As captain of PS Adelaide, he works with a group that maintains and runs three paddle steamers - PS Pevensey, PS Alexander Arbuthnot and PS Adelaide - taking tourists and groups for a taste of the past.

"The old boats are beautiful and people just love them," he says. "They allow you to step back into the past and experience an authentic old workboat. People who don't get on the river often really appreciate the sense of history and the tranquil surroundings."

Trist says that after the long drought, the Murray is again running high and its banks are green.

Trist has lived in Echuca since he was a child and gained his master's ticket through volunteer involvement with the Echuca Steam Navigation Company. After selling his service station business in Moama, he operated a floating restaurant on the Murray and, 13 years ago, joined the Campaspe Shire Council staff based at the Port of Echuca.

PS Adelaide was built in 1866 and Trist says there were no significant problems during the journey to Mildura and back. "She's in very good condition," he says.

"She was built in Echuca to tow barges and was used to transport building materials during the construction of Murray Downs Station near Swan Hill.

"Later, she was owned by sawmilling companies. In 1961, she was purchased by the Echuca Historical Society and the Apex Club and brought back.

"She spent over 20 years set into the ground in a park and was restored in the 1980s and returned to the river. In 1985, I was on board when she was officially recommissioned by Prince Charles and Diana."

The Port of Echuca and its paddle steamers are among the state's most significant tourist attractions and their popularity is expected to grow when port revitalisation works are complete.

Published: 13 October 2012

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