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Sydney Harbour workboat rediscovered by its 1960s skipper decades later at Port Macquarie

By Emma Siossian and Cameron Marshall
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It was the 1960s and Bruce Oehlman was happy spending his days navigating a busy Sydney Harbour at the helm of one of its fleet of workboats.

"There wouldn't be many people who don't like Sydney Harbour, and when you are getting paid to traverse it every now and then as a job, I liked it … I didn't see anybody that didn't like it," he said.

Mr Oehlman was employed by the Maritime Services Board and regularly skippered a wooden workboat and pilot tender, the Goolabah, and its sister ship, the Goniemah, which was used as the Harbour Master's launch.

"The Goolabah was a 24/7 boat, it was a shift boat, whereas the Goniemah was a day boat," he said. 

"Every now and then the Goolabah would break down and the boat of choice to replace it was the Goniemah and that's how I came to be associated with the Goniemah."

The Goniemah was in a fleet of wooden work boats built at Goat Island.(Supplied: Mid North Coast Maritime Museum)

'Beauty': A surprise discovery

Much has changed since then and Mr Oehlman eventually moved on to another line of work, before retiring years later to Port Macquarie on the NSW Mid North Coast.

It was then that he again unexpectedly laid eyes on the Goniemah.

"I had a boat at the time, and the first time I came up into this part of the river and saw the Goniemah, I thought, 'Beauty, this is going to be good'."

The Goniemah had been donated to the Mid North Coast Maritime Museum in 1991 and restored by a team of volunteers.

Mr Oehlman was surprised when he spotted the Goniemah moored at Port Macquarie.(Supplied: Port Macquarie Maritime Museum)

Mr Oehlman wasted no time joining them and, now 87, he continues to take a lead role in the Goniemah's preservation.

"I decided I'd get a start with the maritime museum, and I have been here ever since and quite happy here … it's rewarding," he said.

Mr Oehlman enjoys being the unofficial "custodian" of the Goniemah.(ABC Mid North Coast: Emma Siossian)

"I'm the skipper of it when it has to go on trips every now and again, up and down the river, on Australia Day and things like that."

Bringing pieces of history to life

The Goniemah was built by the Maritime Services Board at their Goat Island yard on the Parramatta River in 1948. 

The Goniemah was built in 1948 and formed part of a fleet of workboats on Sydney Harbour.(Supplied: Mid North Coast Maritime Museum)

It was part of a fleet of small craft that supported port and shipping activities for decades and is one of only a small number of its type which still exists. 

It's currently out of the water for a major overhaul and working alongside Mr Oehlman is Ron Window, the Mid North Coast Maritime Museum slipway manager. .

"It's nice to see them go back in the water and you can say, 'Well we aren't going to have too many troubles with that boat for quite a while'.

"Wooden boats are a very good thing to work with.

"There is not one straight joint or plank on a boat … you will not find a square joint, there's always an angle, so you really have to think, it keeps your mind working.

Ron Window has been restoring old vessels at the maritime museum for more than 20 years.(ABC Mid North Coast: Emma Siossian)

Mr Window said there was a great sense of teamwork among the volunteers.

Fiona Conlon, a semi-retired civil engineer, is one of those enjoying the camaraderie.

"I've always liked woodwork. I come from a woodworking family, but really, I come for all the friendships, we have a laugh, you don't take anything too seriously," she said.

Fiona Conlon enjoys restoring old timber boats.(ABC Mid North Coast: Emma Siossian)

"It will only just be a museum piece … it's missing boards and things and it will take me a while, but it's one of those fun jobs."

The maritime museum also recently acquired a vessel believed to have once been a mail boat on the Manning River at Taree.

The Goniemah was a busy workboat on Sydney Harbour for many years.  (Supplied)

It will be some months before the Goniemah is back on the water, but once it is, Bruce Oehlman will again be at the helm, just like he was more than half a century ago.

The Goniemah is undergoing a major overhaul before it returns to the water.(ABC Mid North Coast: Emma Siossian)
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