George Town's Australia Day Ambassador 2022 - Robert Clifford

12 Jan 2022

This year George Town Council welsomes Robert Clifford as our Australia Day Ambassador.

Robert Clifford will be known to George Town residents as one of the people instrumental in starting the George Town to Port Welshpool ferry service in the 1980s. His company Incat Tasmania built the SeaCat Tasmania, however most of the vessels built by Incat today and operating around the world are certainly very much larger that early catamaran.

Incat is currently building ships for the export market with a workforce of around 500 people at the Prince of Wales shipyard in Hobart’s northern suburbs. The company already employs 70 apprentices and has another intake of apprentices due next month, constantly training the skilled workforce needed for their specialised aluminium ship production.

But Robert didn’t always work with aluminium, he built his first boat in his parent’s lounge room. The craftsmanship on that timber dinghy was so good that his school suspected his father had helped. Robert explained that, in fact, his father did play a role: he took his mother to the cinema while Robert removed the front window to get the boat out of their house in Tasmania.

This amusing anecdote is a foundation story in one of Australia’s most iconic water transport stories. Clifford, a keen yachtsman and sometime fisherman, would form the Sullivans Cove Ferry Company in 1972, and he soon became enamoured of catamaran hull fast ferries as an opportunity to revolutionise transport by sea.

When he presented a model catamaran to the Survey Authority, he was told the services of a naval architect would be required. He took the model to Phillip Hercus in Sydney who conducted extensive calculations and tank tests. The outcome was the Jeremiah Ryan (later the Derwent Explorer), an 18 m steel-hulled catamaran capable of carrying 145 passengers at 22 knots.

This was his prototype, the first of many of his craft which would grace the world’s waterways. As travelling at high speed on rough water made for a bumpy ride, the concept of a wave-piercing catamaran was adopted, and by the late 1980s Clifford’s focus had expanded to passenger ferries which incorporated vehicle transport.

His new business, Incat Tasmania, took his dream to the next level. As managing director, Clifford recruited naval architects, designers, engineers, electronics and electrical technicians, fitters, welders, fabricators and a range of other tradespersons. Incat became a high profile Tasmanian entity supplying craft around the world, a world that took notice when the 74 m long Hoverspeed Great Britain broke the Transatlantic crossing record in 1990, with Incat vessels still holding the Transatlantic record almost three decades later.

Under Clifford’s management across five decades, Incat has produced over 100 catamaran ferries ranging in length from 22 to 112 m, in speed from 22 to 57 knots, and with a capacity anywhere between 145 to 1200 passengers, plus hundreds of cars and trucks.

Notably, as the only captain in the company, Robert was responsible for putting the completed ferries through their sea trials usually with the owners on board. He has then delivered many of the ferries, crossing the major oceans of the world to the customers’ home ports.

Clifford remains as Chairman of the Incat group.  In 1995 he became an Officer of the Order of Australia (OA) for service to the shipbuilding industry, particularly through the development and design of high-speed catamarans. He was awarded an honorary Engineering degree (DEng.) from the University of Tasmania.