The Mosquito Fleet - South Australia's Ketches

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Date range: 
19th century to 20th century
Port Adelaide,
South Australia,
Yorke Peninsula

Ketches were coastal traders brought to South Australia by Europeans from 1836 that evolved into designs that suited the southern coast. The vessels had two masts and simple sets of sails so they could be managed by crews of three seafarers, and flat bottoms so they could navigate shallow waters. They were dubbed the ‘Mosquito Fleet’ because they buzzed across the shallows to the jetties that dotted the southern coast. The collection includes hundreds of objects connected with the ketch trade and individual ketches that worked out of Port Adelaide.


Ketches were integral and unique to South Australia’s maritime history. They connected city and country before the advent of road and rail, carrying farm products, grain and minerals to the city and shipping general produce to rural ports.  The ketch fleet peaked in the 1880s and 1890s when more than 70 ketches and schooners traded out of Port Adelaide. During the 20th century the fleet witnessed constant change and reinvention in a struggle to remain viable. By the 1920s, competition from steamers and improved road transport saw most ketches fitted with auxiliary engines. They numbered 30 in the 1950s and three decades later, the last two working ketches, Nelcebee and Falie, were retired from service.  

The collection captures the growth of the ketch industry, ketch construction, the ketch trade and the rural economy, life and work on the ketches, ketch owners and families, the decline of ketches and the last ketch workers, and ketch culture – the ketch regattas, South Australian cultural memory, nostalgia, and  the role of ketches in port and community identity.  It includes sentimental sketches and drawings of ketches by sailors and captains who crewed them as well as a fine selection of watercolour portraits  by notable maritime artists George Bourne and Frederick Dawson.  Five hundred photographs dating from the late 19th century until the present capture ketches in Port Adelaide and other South Australian ports. Oral histories have been recorded with individuals who owned or crewed the ketches and the collection encompasses personal memorabilia (clothes, log books, sketches, sailmaking kits, sailors crafts, masters certificates) linked to ketch hands, captains and owners.   There is an extensive collection of fittings and navigational instruments with clear provenance from specific ketches including chronometers, ships logs, barometers, bells, name boards, flags, pennants, lights, lifebuoys, ships wheels, compasses and a figurehead (Post Boy 1874).  The collection includes several ship models of ketches as well as builders’ half models crafted by boat building businesses in the Port.  Port Adelaide was famous for its Regatta, first held on the Port River in 1838, two years after the colony’s proclamation. The ketch race was a key event in the carnival and the museum holds regatta badges, photos, programs and newspaper cuttings celebrating this event.

The iron hulled ketch Nelcebee, imported in sections from Scotland in 1883, is the most significant object in the collection. Nelcebee was assembled as an iron steamship by Tom Cruickshank at Birkenhead and worked as a tug and cargo carrier before being converted into a two-masted ketch in 1927. The vessel carried cargo between Adelaide and Kangaroo Island until the 1980s. Nelcebee is dry docked and slowly undergoing restoration. The Annie Watt, a wooden ketch built in 1870 that worked until 1971 is in storage.  

Almost all the ketches that worked in South Australian waters between the 1870s and 1980s are represented in the collection. There is substantial bodies of material connected to the NelcebeeAnnie WattFalie and Leillateah.

Collection highlights

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