The oldest known colonial-built fishing boat in South Australia is “falling to pieces” at a disused dump, but there is still hope it can be saved.
The Rambler was built in Birkenhead in 1878 with Margaret River jarrah, kauri and redgum in the design of a traditional English fishing boat known as a smack.
It was used as a fishing boat, racing yacht, a mail boat, and even to collect ballots in early South Australian elections.
But for the past 20 years, the Rambler’s resting place has been the Waitpinga dump in Victor Harbor, only a few kilometres from the waters of Encounter Bay, where it spent the first few decades of its working life.
It was moved to the now disused dump and donated to the National Trust of South Australia after the closure of a Port Adelaide boatyard.
The trust’s chief executive officer Darren Peacock says the 145-year-old boat could be saved and he plans to meet the Victor Harbor Council to discuss its future.
A scratching post
Over the decades, plans were put forward to cover and preserve the Rambler but it has slowly been falling to pieces over that time, mainly visited by cows who used it as a scratching post.
Over the past 12 months, Wendy van Duivenvoorde and students from Flinders University’s marine archaeology program have been permitted to visit and document the boat.
The Rambler was partly clad with copper sheeting and Dr van Duivenvoorde and her team have been able to see how it was repaired and renewed over its working life.
“It’s probably the earliest surviving fishing vessel in South Australia, and possibly even in Australia, that’s Australian built,” she said.
Dr van Duivenvoorde said there was also a lot of Indigenous “agency” in the ship, pointing out that the very early shipwrights depended heavily on Indigenous knowledge of local trees and their properties in the water, and for labour in the shipyards.
She said the Rambler was close to being unable to be saved.
“It’s not doing so well,” Dr van Duivenvoorde said.
“The deterioration; it’s going really fast now.”
She said if left as it was now, the Rambler would likely fall to pieces within five to 10 years.
‘My great-great-grandfather died on board’
Don Rumbelow, a descendant of Malen Rumbelow, the boat’s original owner and skipper, said it was was built in 1878 at Birkenhead by Peter Sharp.
“It was always one of those boats that the Rumbelows referred to,” he said.
“My great-great-grandfather died on board. He pulled in a snapper and collapsed on the deck.”
Mr Rumbelow said the boat was used for catching snapper, snook and crayfish but also for doing the early mail run between Victor Harbor and Kangaroo Island and had even been used to transport ballot boxes during elections.
After it was sold by the Rumbelows it changed hands many times and was still used in the 1980s before an American River resident purchased it with the intention of restoring it. From there it ended up at the now closed Port Adelaide boatyard.
Mr Rumbelow said he had spoken to members of council several times over the years to see if it could be put somewhere in the town as an attraction.
“There was talk of trying to get it fixed up good enough for display but that just didn’t happen,” he said.
“I spoke to old boatbuilders at Goolwa about it but that would have been a heap of money.”
A pricey mission
Mr Peacock said the trust had tried to persuade the Victor Harbor Council some years ago to look at relocating the Rambler.
“We would love to see it publicly on display and preserved but until there’s hundreds of thousands of dollars that’s off the table,” he said.
“It would require significant government investment to make it presentable.
“We’ve had a huge number of people look and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be good.'”
Mr Peacock estimated preservation efforts could cost tens of thousands of dollars but a restoration would require into the hundreds of thousands.
He said an appeal for the Rambler was still ongoing and donations could be made via the National Trust.
Victor Harbor Mayor Moira Jenkins was contacted for comment.