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Byron Shire
February 9, 2023

21 years crossing the Richmond at Ballina

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Retired ferry master John Gallagher in Ballina this week. Photo David Lowe.

John Gallagher, the long term master of the car ferry to South Ballina, has recently retired. After more than two decades in the job, he spoke to The Echo about the highs and lows of his time on the river, delivering this vital service.

Mr Gallagher was born and raised in Coraki. ‘I’ve been on the river all my working life,’ he said.

Originally a commercial fisherman – ‘it’s in the blood’, he thought he was in trouble for hanging his nets up in the park when Ballina Council’s ferry supervisor knocked on his door back in the day. But it turned out they were looking for someone with the right qualifications after the previous operators forgot to pay their public liability insurance.

‘So I went up there in a pair of shorts and T shirt. He said, “Start it up.” Well, it’s just like an ordinary trawler, similar controls. I started it up.

‘He said, “Well you’ll be right here now.” I said, “Hey no, I’m going to Sydney at one o’clock!” I was representing commercial fishing. He said, “When will  you be back?” I said, “Friday afternoon.” He said, “Come up on Saturday morning – you got the job.” That’s how it started.’

The ferry in action this week. Photo David Lowe.

21 years later, Mr Gallagher doesn’t regret a minute of his time on the ferry.

‘Yeah I loved it. Great bunch of guys to work for, Ballina Council is. Great support, terrific people. And we had five great workmates, all commercial fishermen. It was nicknamed the Commercial Fisherman’s Retirement Vessel!’

Mr Gallagher is now 78, so he decided to retire for real just before Christmas. ‘I’ve had a good working life, touch wood. I’ve had very little sickness. I think it’s time now that I just settle back and play with my grand-kids, show them how to catch a fish, and do a bit of travelling later on this year.’

The big flood

John Gallagher was living close to the ferry in Burns Point Ferry Road when the big flood hit in 2022. He lost a lot of photographs at that time, and says the SES warning came too late to save most of his furniture when a metre of water came through, but he’s one of the lucky ones. ‘Our place has been repaired, thank God.’

The ferry itself made it through the flood pretty well unscathed, despite the huge volume of water and rubbish which came down the river. Mr Gallagher remembers, ‘I’ve never seen so much bloody rubbish!’

Remembering happier times, he was working on the ferry the famous day when the whale and her baby came up the river. ‘Yeah, I think they went as far as Broadwater. Someone said they went up with the tide and come back with it.

‘You see quite a few dolphins go up and down the river. Turtles too.’ Once he even saw a seal, which dived under the ferry.

South Ballina ferry in dock being repaired after flood. Photo David Lowe.

Mr Gallagher says the health of the river waxes and wanes, depending on what’s happening upstream, ‘but no one seems to be doing much about it.’

Drama and tragedy

In his years crossing the Richmond, John Gallagher says some things stick in his mind. He remembers the tragedy of the young women who drove into the river a little way south of the crossing, motor boats with reckless owners getting their propellers stuck on the cables, and holding the ferry for cycling races.

Once a woman had a heart attack on the South Ballina approach.

It’s not always serene out on the water. ‘One day the police rang and said keep an eye out for three blokes that just robbed the caravan park at South Ballina.

‘About an hour after that, I looked over my shoulder, and here’s two blokes coming up the mangroves in the mud. The other bloke swam the river – they got him down near the sailing club.’

A bit later, he remembers putting the ramp down and these two were about to jump over the side. ‘There was a big copper there, and he said, “I wouldn’t if I was you!” He handcuffed them to the hand rails of the ferry.’

John Gallagher beside the Richmond River at Ballina. Photo David Lowe.

Another night he remembers one of his colleagues was hosing down the ferry and a bloke drove down the ramp, over the ferry and straight into the river. ‘He got him out, he didn’t drown.’

He also recalls an incident when a cable broke on a motorbike which was about to leave the ferry, so it took off too early and went into the river on the edge of the bank. Mr Gallagher was able to pull the ferry up just in time to avoid crushing the motorcyclist.

‘Another time there was a chap with a sailing boat, his motor broke down or something and he blew into the bank. Then the mast hit electric wires, overhead… He survived, great bloke, but the wedding ring burned right into the bone of his hand.’

He also remembers two babies who were safely born on the ferry while he was there, ‘one in the back of a station wagon, and the other they waved the ambulance on to the ferry. They just got her into the ambulance in time!’

Beauty of nature

As well as regular commuters, lots of people go on the South Ballina car ferry because it’s a beautiful trip, with far more romance than any bridge. Mr Gallagher still sees it that way too, and says it was ‘a grateful job’ despite the ten hour shifts and radio for company. The ferry runs from 5.30 in the morning until 12.30 at night.

Burns Point ferry, Ballina. Photo Ballina Council.

‘You’re the master of the vessel, your own boss, there in the elements… You did four days on, had a day’s break. Then four nights on, then seven days off.’

He says there’s less traffic on the ferry now that 4WD access to South Ballina Beach was no longer open.

Mr Gallagher explained that the ferry went into dock each year at Swan Bay to get sandblasted, repainted and mechanically serviced.

He doesn’t think it will be replaced by a bridge any time soon, because of the depth of the river there (19 metres) and the price of a permanent structure high enough for boats to get underneath.

He’s also copped a fair bit of abuse over the years from people who don’t like paying for the service. ‘I say I just drive the vessel. Council makes the fare.’

Mr Gallagher’s replacement started as a trainee. ‘He’s a great young bloke named Joe. Actually his brother works there too, Mario. It’s a wonderful place to work. Good relationships. If you want some time off you just say to your mate, can you work tomorrow?’

John’s long service award from Ballina Council. Photo supplied.

The more things change

John Gallagher has seen enormous changes in and around Ballina in his time, from cane fields and scrub to the modern, growing township.

He says although it’s harder to park than it once was, he likes the extra life in the town, particularly since the airport brought a massive tourism boost to the area.

He’s planning to stay in the district.

Ballina Shire Council recently recognised Mr Gallagher’s long years of service with a plaque (his legal name is William) and a big send-off is planned for Westower Tavern on Saturday.

Hopefully his beautiful old ferry will keep running for a good while yet.

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  1. Love this story. I’ve often wondered about the life of this ferry man. I’ve crossed a number of times over the years to go camping, most recently over the new year period. We always play Chris de Burgh’s classic “Don’t pay the ferry man” as we cross, while the kids enthusiastically pay the ferry man. “Don’t do it” we cry out, always a good laugh. Enjoy retirement and those grand kids.


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