The pearl lugger, the Anniki, faces an uncertain future after restoration plans hit tough times

The future of a historic ship that starred in a blockbuster movie and hosted countless wedding parties is in doubt after its owners hit rough waters.

Last year it was hoped that the pearl lugger Anniki, piloted by Hugh Jackman in Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, would be restored after it was taken over by the Cairns-based Pearl Lugger Heritage Fleet.

The boat was in dire straits after it sank in Darwin’s Frances Bay docking basin in 2016.

But her new owners say they have been unable to raise funds, enough interest or find a home to restore the historic boat.

Options explored for sistership Antonia based in Anniki and Cairns include selling or partnering.

In the worst case, the old 17-meter wooden harbor cruise ship could be dismantled to complete the partially restored Antonia.

Fleet Director Mike Smith has set this week as the deadline to present ideas and offers before new decisions are made for Anniki and the rebuilt Antonia.

The former pearl lugger Anniki in the Spot On Marine yard on Ludmilla Creek in Darwin in 2021.(ABC Radio Darwin: Conor Byrne)

“Things really have to happen”

Anniki, one of only 13 remaining pearl luggers, is currently safe in a Darwin shipyard.

However, the rest of the company’s fleet in Cairns became homeless at the end of 2021 after the shipyard where they restored the boats ended the lease.

The port was expanding its defense maintenance footprint.

“It cost us a lot of money,” Mr Smith said.

“We were the unlikely losers and our ships scattered everywhere because there was no alternative for us at that time.”

He said offering a free roof over the boats could buy more time.

“So we’re making a call. We haven’t let anyone or anything down yet,” he said.

“But we are also aware that the longer she sits, the worse she is going to be, and things really have to happen.

“We’re basically asking people for ideas, or if anyone is interested in buying it and doing something with it or interested in partnering.”

Monochrome of a traditional working sailboat under motor near a quay.
Anniki shortly after launch and delivery to Thursday Island in 1958.(Provided: Jack Zafer’s Family)

Once they’re gone

Mr. Smith estimates that the complete restoration of Anniki could cost between $300,000 and $500,000.

“We don’t want to scrap the ship. But at the same time, we have to figure out how we can either maintain the monthly shipyard rents and start securing it,” he said.

A man and a woman stand at the bow of a boat
Mike Smith and Sonia Minniecon, Directors of Pearl Lugger Heritage Fleet.(ABC Far North: Jemima Burt)

The fleet also includes the nearly completed Triton and the mission ketch Stephen Davies.

Mr. Smith is also involved in the Derwent Hunter wooden tall ship charter operation in Airlie Beach.

“We are fundamentally passionate about all these ships that founded North Queensland or even the history of Australia,” he said.

More than boats

There are fears that Aboriginal history will sink with the ship.

Portrait of man in bright purple shirt under gum tree.
Noel Zaro says lugger boats are part of Aboriginal history.(ABC News: Mark Rigby)

Mer Island man Noel Zaro, nephew of Eddie Mabo, said the pearling industry was an important part of the history of Torres Strait, Queensland and Australia.

He said the prospect of losing three of the 13 remaining pearl luggers that once traded between his home islands was heartbreaking for him and his family.

“Without lugger boats, it will be as if part of our history has been lost,” Mr Zaro said.

“You need these luggers because the younger generation, which is part of their curriculum as part of their aboriginal history, that’s where they should know the role of the people of the Torres Strait in the construction of this state.