Andrew Bird guides ‘Rebecca’, a beautifully restored 1948 fishing boat, underneath a new pedestrian bridge that crosses the Yarra: the Webb Bridge, at the southern end of Wurundjeri Way.“I love this river,” he says. “It’s dirty and brown but I still love it. And this bridge here, designed to resemble an Aboriginal fishing net, is great.”
Andrew, 43, has been guiding his water taxis along the Yarra for nearly ten years, giving tourists and locals a new view of the city.
When Andrew started Melbourne Water Taxis there was no casino, no exhibition building, no aquarium, no Docklands, no Webb Bridge.
“There was just Southgate, but now the focus is spreading right along this part of the river.”
His first customers, in December 1995, were a family of Indian tourists. Andrew took them past the MCG and the Melbourne Tennis Centre. He did well on his first day but was soon to learn it could be a tough gig.
At the start of the Australian Tennis Open in January 1996 he watched people walking along the banks of the Yarra, past his boat, to the tennis. He then hit upon the idea of putting a rather oversized tennis racquet on the top of his boat. On the handle of the racquet he painted ‘Tennis Taxi’.
By the end of the Open Andrew had taken 2000 fans to the tennis. And back again.
In the winter of 1996 Andrew worked long hours in the dark during the building of the Bolte Bridge. An island needed to be created, then later cleared away, while the centre pylons were being put in place. A silt curtain was put in place to prevent plumes from the water escaping. Andrew’s role was assisting the EPA collect water samples during the works. As ‘Rebecca’ glides past the pylon Andrew points out that the water is only about a metre deep here.
Each year his business takes about 8000 schoolchildren for short trips, as part of their excursion to the Polly Woodside and the Melbourne Maritime Museum. Other customers include concertgoers, wedding guests and football fans.
His four taxis, ‘Rebecca’ plus three small whaling boats, can travel as far upstream as the Collingwood Children’s Farm. During the Spring Racing Carnival, he takes groups up the Maribyrnong River to the Flemington Racecourse.
Before the first Docklands apartments were built, Andrew suggested that creating a canal through the North Wharf could increase water travel between Docklands and Southbank. The idea was knocked back because the authorities didn’t want the ocean green waters of Victoria Harbour being muddied by the brown waters of the Yarra.
He explains that saltwater is thicker than freshwater, so it’s easier for freshwater to look muddy. “About two metres under the surface of the Yarra it can be clear.”
Ducks and swans are a permanent presence at his berth beside the Polly Woodside and he has noticed more cormorants in the water. “They eat three times their body-weight each day, so they must be finding a lot of fish in the river.”
Andrew comes from a water-loving family. He has sailed the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race once, back in 1983. His father was a master mariner and ship’s captain. His late brother Stephen was a boat-builder and used to run Southgate River Cruises. His sons are all learning to sail.
“When I was working with my brother I noticed that customers would ask if they could be dropped off at various points along the river but we couldn’t do that (because of the stipulations of the licence). That’s when I got the idea for a taxi service.”
As a businessman and a founding member of the Yarra Tourism Association, the state of the river is an important issue. “Some businesses used to just push their rubbish into the water, but that’s not happening anymore.”
Andrew says that in his decade on the river there “has been a concerted effort to clean it up. My first memories of the river, as a boy, were that the Yarra was a place to avoid but now, with so many tourists there is much more talk about the river.
“What’s needed is education. People on the street need to know where their rubbish goes. There’s only a certain amount you can do with litter traps and litter barges. Holding back the rubbish is like holding back the tide. When the rain falls, the rubbish comes down the river.”
The most rubbish he has seen came just after the Melbourne storm in February. “Parks Victoria told me there was an island of rubbish on the way. It had a circumference of nearly ten metres and was about a metre high.
It was thick with trees and rubbish. Parks Victoria wondered if it would be able to get through all the bridges. I watched this island float by, under the Charles Grimes Bridge and then out to sea.”
Story by Vin Maskell, 2005