IMAGINE, if you will, a furious ocean, cyclonic winds, mountainous seas, and a propellor missing one or more of its blades, unable to push your ship clear of a rocky lee shore. Out of the pitiless darkness comes a glimmer of hope. A small, furiously smoke-belching, bouncing, rolling, cork-screwing, searchlit, bobbing toy of a vessel, the insect like deckhands aboard her attempting to throw a tow line to your stricken, labouring vessel.

This was the very scene that greeted the more than 100 passengers and crew aboard the E & A liner Arafura, at 0200 on 1 March 1929, when the ocean-going steam tug Forceful appeared out of the murk to replace the Coringa, whose steering gear had failed and, swamped by huge waves, retired after the tow line parted.

It took the hard-working crew on Forceful another 11 hours to secure their tow, made even more difficult because Arafura’s engines had now stopped. The violence of the sea state again caused the tow line to part at 0600 the following day. Soon resecured, for the next two days, Forceful towed the stricken and now engine-less liner all the way from off Gladstone down to Brisbane, preventing the loss of the vessel and saving all those aboard from near-certain death.

Later in her much-storied life, commissioned as HMAS Forceful, she was requisitioned during WWII by the Navy for use as a tug in Fremantle, before sailing north to Darwin where she rescued the aircrew of a downed bomber, and later still, rescued several more aircrew while stationed in the Torres Strait, assisting with the logistics of the Allied pushback of the Japanese forces in Papua New Guinea.

Postwar, Forceful returned to her former life as a commercial tug in the Port of Brisbane. She retired, a gallant old lady of the Brisbane waterfront, in 1970, and the following year, became the founding exhibit of the newly formed Queensland Maritime Museum (QMM).

She then commenced a new life, exciting and intriguing tourists, both local and international, on day trips on the river and out to the Bay Islands for the next 35 years until, at the grand old age of 80, she was unable to pass the modern, more stringent safety regulations (required if she was to keep plying her wares and taking tourists afloat), and was retired from active steaming to her berth at QMM on Southbank.


And there she sat for a further 15 years until maritime safety officials became concerned at her advancing age, and the condition of her hull plating, and requested an up-to-date survey to confirm she was still safe to be afloat on the river.

At 295 tonnes and 38 metres long, Forceful is a big lump of steel to be floating loose on the river and could have become a serious risk had she broken away from her moorings.

Once hauled from the river for her survey inspection she was found to be in far worse condition than some had thought.

While initially committed to returning Forceful to her berth at Southbank, the MSQ directive that she no longer berth there due to safety concerns, led QMM on a long and fruitless search for an alternate mooring or berth.

Finally, and tragically, after 30 months on the hardstand, bleeding money at the rate of up to $700 per day, her custodians at the QMM had no choice but to accept there was no solution other than to order her immediate demolition.

The cruise liner Orion is being turned in the Brisbane River by the tugboat Forceful. Image: State Library of Queensland

Faced with saving Forceful or saving the museum, they made the obvious and sensible choice, and so Forceful’s fate was decided.


But in the end, she was just a humble tugboat. Her epitaph, if ever a gravestone were possible, should read: The Last Ocean Going Steam Tug Boat in the Southern Hemisphere: 1925 – 2023.

Alas, such is not to be. By the time you read this, she will be gone. Disembowelled, her expensive copper pipes removed from her capacious boiler rooms. The harmful asbestos lagging around her boilers carefully removed. Her pumps, whistles, lifeboats and other bric-a-brac removed to provide static exhibits at the museum.

But her cheerful chuffing and her deep-throated steam hooter will be heard no more along the Brisbane River. She is gone. Like so much of our history deemed irrelevant to the bright, shiny future of tomorrow. She is gone. Her tall smokestack puffing steadily, the grey wisps of smoke dissipating in the onshore breeze, gone from the river forever.

Vale, Steam Tug Forceful. Thank you for your service.

This article appeared in the October 2023 edition of DCN Magazine