The Remarkable Transformation of the SS Ayrfield: From Abandoned Ship to Floating Forest

The SS Ayrfield’s fate was sealed. After 60 years of faithful service, having been built in Scotland and sailed to Australia, then used as a transport supply boat to US troops in the Pacific in World War II, and then retired, as such, to run coal from Newcastle to Sydney for the rest of its working life, the cargo ship was destined for the scrap heap.

It was 1972, and the SS Ayrfield was finally decommissioned and sent into Homebush Bay. Ships didn’t come back from Homebush Bay. This is where the old marine wrecking yards were, where vessels were winched out of the water and stripped of anything of value to be melted down and repurposed. Sometimes they were left with just a keel.

But something happened in the weeks the Ayrfield was floating in the bay, waiting to meet its fate. The value of scrap metal plummeted and the wrecking yards went out of business. There was no one left to deal with the Ayrfield, and indeed no one left to care for Homebush Bay at all. So it just sat there.

And then it sunk, partially. And then it rusted. And then mangroves began to grow from the middle of it.

And that’s where we find ourselves today. There’s a shipwreck in Sydney Harbour. In fact there are several, a group of at least seven rusted hulks that still rest in plain sight in one of the world’s most beautiful waterways.

The SS Ayrfield was one of several vessels due for wrecking that were just never wrecked, and which have now become part of the harbour seascape, as much a part of Homebush Bay as the mangroves that grow from within it.

The rusted wreck is quite a sight. Most Sydneysiders don’t even realise it’s there, despite the fact the location isn’t exactly hidden in this former industrial heartland. There’s now a huge block of flats just a stone’s throw away from the Ayrfield. The Rhodes Ikea is close by. There’s road access, too, to Shipwreck Lookout, just near Sydney Olympic Park, where the public can view the wrecks.

What makes the Ayrfield special is not just its World War II history, but also its size, and even more so the wild tuft of mangroves growing from its hull. This site is a photographer’s delight: from the right angles it looks as if the wreck stands alone, isolated, and not surrounded as it is by apartment blocks and purveyors of affordable Nordic furnishings.

The wreck is also spectacular at sunset, when the colours of the sky are set off against the rest-red of the hull and the green of the mangroves.

Fortunately for history buffs, the SS Ayrfield and the various wrecks that surround it – including the 111-year-old SS Heroic, the 96-year-old collier the SS Mortlake, and the 79-year-old HMAS Karangi, which survived the Darwin bombing in World War II before meeting an ignominious end in Sydney – are not going anywhere.

Though the area around Homebush Bay, and the waterway itself, have been redeveloped and revamped in recent years, spurred on by the hosting of the 2000 Olympics, there are no plans to shift the wrecks from their watery resting places.

The SS Ayrfield’s fate, it seems, is to become a tourist attraction – a small slice of history, hidden in plain sight.

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