Nelcebee was built by Thomas Seath at Rutherglen, Scotland at a cost of £7,000 for Captain Wilson of Port Adelaide. It was launched and trialled without an engine, then disassembled, loaded onto the City of York and sent to South Australia. It was re-assembled and locally-built steam engines were installed at Port Adelaide by builder Thomas Cruickshank.
At the launch Mrs Wilson, wife of the owner, named the steamer Nelcebee after the Aboriginal name for a spring at Port Pirie, actually Nelshaby. The Chronicle recorded that it was the largest steamer ever put together in the colony.
Nelcebee was sent to Port Pirie to work as a tug and lighter providing the first regular towage service in the Port. In 1884, the Register commented ‘The towing business has so increased in South Australian waters during the past seven years, that once upon a time it was thought something unusual to have a ship towed to Port Pirie to load, but this has now become commonplace. What is distinctly unusual is to find two ships towed to that place by one tug, which is what happened this week.’
By the turn of the century new tugs were being developed as more specialized vessels and in 1904 Nelcebee was described as being low-powered and now considered to be self-propelled lighter that could do a bit of towing rather than a purpose-built tug. However it continued to work in the trade for another twenty years until 1927 when it was sold for one shilling.
When many ships might have been scrapped Nelcebee was refitted for a new role. Its steam engine and boiler were removed. It was rigged as a two-masted schooner and fitted with an auxiliary diesel engine. The changes increased its capacity to carry larger cargoes and reduced the cost of running the ship.
It joined the ketch trade and spent more than fifty years working the southern coast. From 1928 it carried wheat and barley, general goods and minerals between Gulf St Vincent and Spencer Gulf. In 1965 Nelcebee was purchased by R Fricker and Company and fitted to trade between Kangaroo Island and Port Adelaide. It supplied petrol and oil to the Island and returned with gypsum.
Nelcebee worked until 1982 and along with Falie was one of the last two ketches working the southern coast.