My adventures with the motor vessel Merle

My adventures with the motor vessel Merle

My teenage hopes and dreams for a long term adventurous adult life on the Merle were short lived. However, I think that you will see how my short life experience with the Merle had such a profound effect on my early years of adulthood.

My family was a dysfunctional one. When I was around 12 years of age I met the owner of a Murray river passenger boat whose name was The Merle [Merle]. The owner of this boat was Ro. Ro and my mother were unmarried partners. Merle carried up to 21 fare paying passengers and made one trip per week, over four nights, from Murray Bridge in South Australia to Blanchetown and then returned to Murray Bridge via Lake Alexandrina which includes the township of Goolwa.

The intermittent trips that I had on Merle were very happy periods of my life, in between periods of extreme hardship and violence which I was then suffering at a Catholic boarding school situated in Mt. Gambier in South Australia. Ro was a very kind and caring man and my relationship with him became like that of a father and son. I imagine that my future adult life would be on the Merle.

During the great Murray river floods of 1956, when I was aged 13 years, the flood greatly interfered with Merle’s weekly trips, and unknown to me, Ro was becoming financially stressed as his regular trips with Merle began to falter. It was during this time that Ro periodically asked me to steer Merle along the river.  During such trips, mostly with less than 21 passengers, I played 78 r.p.m. records in order to entertain them.  My mother continued with her hostess activities. Ro did most of the cooking (as an interim measure until he could find another suitable cook in lieu of one that had resigned) as well as maintaining  necessary functions within the engine room. Normally the Merle had a full time engineer.

Few people today know about the Merle. I will tell you a little bit about her. Merle had twin 6 cylinder Buick engines, and her electrical power system was 110 volts but there was one 240 volts power outlet which was linked to a power converter. The power generator was an English four cylinder Ford Prefect motor. Merle had two bathrooms and two toilets and raw sewerage  discharged  directly into the river. The six inch jarrah hull of the Merle was built in around 1904 and for a time Merle was a barge. In later times she became a steam powered, rear paddle wheel river trading vessel, (see photo below) like a traveling shop. Merle’s conversion into a passenger vessel was completed in mid 1940 and her inaugural trip as a passenger boat took place from Murray Bridge in early 1941 during WW2.

As you may gather from these words my experiences with Ro and Merle were not only highly adventurous ones, but also a most happy and relaxed ones as well. My most memorable recollection with Ro and Merle was at the time when we jointly navigated Merle up the flooded main street of Mannum in South Australia. At the time I was 13 years old. Merle was 87 feet long and she had a four foot draft. I steered Merle on that day.  She had a large helm [steering wheel] situated in the saloon [lounge] at the front of the boat. Ro employed the twin motors in an expeditious way that helped facilitate Merle successfully to travel up the main street of Mannum. Ro used forward and reverse thrust with each engine in order to help steer Merle whilst I was guiding it with the rudder. There were around one hundred people in the main street who were witnessing these activities.

On this particular occasion we turned Merle around in the main street of Mannum,  broadside to the sandbags that had been placed across the road. Via an unroped gang plank we then discharged the passengers onto these sandbags so that they could enter the unflooded section of an adjacent hotel. Merle was tethered to the veranda posts of this hotel.

I was deeply saddened and depressed when Merle burnt and sank at her moorings in Murray Bridge on March the 1st in 1958. . Those early days in my life were a huge adventure for a young guy. Below are various photographs of the Merle below that I fortunately retained over the years.  After the Merle burnt and sank I was then compelled to return to the Catholic boarding school.


Video related to the Merle’s inaugural passenger vessel voyage in 1941

Pictures and a newspaper story related to the Merle at the time of its sinking
Merle as a rear wheeler paddle steamer circa 1910
A passenger postcard available for sale on the Merle. This is exactly as the Merle appeared prior to its burning and sinking on March 1st 1958
Firefighters flooded the Merle in order to extinguish the flames. This is a rare picture of the vessel just prior to its sinking
The wreck of the Merle adjacent to the wharf at Murray Bridge prior to its remains being dragged out to the center of the Murray River at Murray Bridge. Mc Lawrie Boat Builders and Salvagers from Port Adelaide conducted the removal

This is a cutting I made from the Adelaide Advertiser story in early March 1958 relating to the sinking of the Merle [I pasted it into my scrapbook at the time]. This Advertiser newspaper story provides useful insight into the Merle’s colourful history

Some readers may like to know how devastating the 1956 Murray River flood was. The picture below was taken near Mannum in South Australia. This is the flood conditions that existed at the time when I steered the Merle up the main street of Mannum in around late 1956