The Last of the Mosquito Fleet

From 1836 a fleet of small sailing vessels grew to trade along the South Australian coast. They provided the infrastructure for the spread of European settlement and sustained the rural ports of the colony. The boats carried cargoes of grain and minerals to the city and anything from machinery to groceries to rural ports.

They were known as the Mosquito Fleet, because of their size and their ability to cross shallow waters. The boats were typically crewed by a captain and two seafarers who fished for their supper and bathed in salt water. Crews were drawn from local families and annual ketch races in Port Adelaide attracted crowds of spectators.

The fleet peaked at the end of the 19th century, with approximately 70 ketches and schooners trading out of Port Adelaide. By the 1930s that number had fallen to 40 boats and by the 1960s only 20 vessels remained.

For most of the 20th century it was apparent that the small sailing vessels had endured beyond the introduction of steam in the 1840s, of rail from the 1900s and bulk handling in the 1950s. For much of that time they were seen as a romantic link with the past and were celebrated in painting and poetry.

South Australia’s ketches represent a collection of memories that was shared by generations living in urban and rural ports. They were a link between the workers who watched them sail into Port Adelaide’s Inner Harbor, the Aboriginal people of Pine Point who sewed wheat bags to contain the cargo in their holds, and the grain growers whose crops the ketches carried to market.

The first vessels of the trade were the timber ketches of the 19th century built in South Australia or Tasmania with centreboards to allow them to sail through shallow waters. From the later decades of the 19th century some larger iron vessels were introduced with a capacity to carry larger cargoes.

Nelcebee built in 1883 was among those. By 1982 it was one of the last two commercial sailing vessels still trading in South Australian waters. Both were owned by R Fricker and Company and were employed carrying gypsum from Kangaroo Island. Both vessels were retired that year.

Nelcebee was acquired by the South Australian Maritime Museum under the Commonwealth Government’s Cultural Gifts Program. At that time it was the third oldest vessel in the world on Lloyd’s Register of Shipping.

More recently, we have collected the memories of Nelly’s crew.