Adelaide’s Popeye Boats: Heritage icon and childhood memories

At Play Cultural Heart

The Popeye boats are a State Heritage Icon and represent one of the best known and enduring symbols of the city of Adelaide. Most Adelaideans have childhood memories of riding on the Popeye from Elder Park to the Adelaide Zoo.

I recently decided to relive my childhood experience by taking a sightseeing trip on Popeye with my own two kids—and they had a ball!

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A Quick History of Popeye

Popeye boats have been plying the River Torrens / Karrawirra Parri since 1935, when Captain Gordon Watt launched his first Popeye. The boat was constructed on the banks of the river from jarrah wood; it was 7.6m long and could accommodate 20 people. The boat was named after the popular spinach-eating cartoon character of the same name.

A second boat was commissioned in 1948 with Watts converting a Glenelg cruise boat into Popeye II. A further three Popeye boats were constructed at Port Adelaide between 1949-51, bring the fleet to five boats in total.

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Four Popeyes along the bank of the Torrens Lake in the 1940s. 

In 1977, Popeye V was converted into a Royal Barge for the Queen’s visit in March that year. Popeye IV sailed closely behind with a singing choir to entertain the royals as they cruised the river.

Five years later in 1982, three new fibreglass Popeyes—each able to carry 80 passengers—replaced the existing fleet of five boats, with Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser officially unveiling the new craft.

It was around this time, in my early years of primary school, that I recall travelling into the city with my mum and little brother to visit the Adelaide Zoo. We’d catch an old Red Hen train to the city from Gawler Central, walk down the hill from the Railway Station to the Elder Park landing, and chug along the river on Popeye for a day at the Adelaide Zoo. And in the afternoon, we’d take the same journey in reverse.

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A Popeye on the River Torrens in the 1960s. 

Rediscovering Popeye

It’s Saturday and I need to occupy my kids with some form of ‘wholesome activity’, mostly because I have just been issued with a directive to get out of my wife’s hair while she catches up on some work.

I announce to my two kids – Maddy and Alex – that we are going to take a 45-minute Popeye sightseeing tour. It’s mostly for my own selfish nostalgic purposes, but they don’t need to know that.

I book our tickets online via the Popeye website and we make our way to the Elder Park landing where we are met by our tour hosts: Captain Mark and Bartender James. I am sure that James is charged with other nautical duties, but in my mind, ‘bartender’ must be the most important of these.

We’re on Popeye III today. Inquisitive Alex is quite interested in boats, so he is fascinated by Captain Mark’s pre-embarkation explanation of diesel engines and propellers.

Bartender james

BARTENDER JAMES

Captain mark

CAPTAIN MARK

We pull away from the berth and our Popeye travels west along the river, under the new Torrens Footbridge and Victoria Bridge towards the distinctive SAHMRI ‘cheese grater’ building.

Bartender James hands the kids a quiz sheet to complete during the course of the tour. That’ll keep them busy. At least momentarily.

Captain Mark is in the process of delivering his expert commentary when he suddenly kills the engine and pulls the boat into the southern bank, where he points out a large turtle sunning itself on a tree root. The river is home to plenty of wildlife; water rats, fish, insects and all manner of bird species, including cormorants, reed warblers, willy-wagtails, pelicans, swans and waterhens.

We head further west along the river past the Royal Adelaide Hospital and arrive at the Torrens Weir. First erected in 1881, the weir transforms the intermittent River Torrens into a picturesque lake – without which the Popeye wouldn’t exist. Here’s to the weir!

Captain Mark swings the vessel around and we head back east, past the River Café building and its two gondolas (that’s one of the quiz questions), towards Adelaide Oval and the Memorial Drive tennis stadium on the northern bank.

Kids popeye quiz

Maddy and Alex had a great time on the Popeye and the on-board quiz kept them occupied while I enjoyed a beer.

At Pinky Flat, the BBQ Buoys are busily preparing for the day’s activities. These innovative circular boats allow groups of people to enjoy a floating barbecue and drinks, whilst taking in the beautiful scenery and tranquillity of the river. I make a mental note to secure a babysitter and give BBQ Buoys a call.

It’s past midday, so it’s time to avail ourselves of an on-board beverage. It’s almost exclusively South Australian offerings at the well-stocked bar: I opt for a Pikes Brewery Pale Ale from Clare, and the kids choose a Bickfords Creaming Soda and Cola (despite a ‘no fizzy drinks’ stipulation from my ‘better half’, something I will pay dearly for later on). Other drinks in Bartender James’ selection include Prohibition Gin, Cooper’s beers, and an Alpha Box and Dice 2019 ‘Rebel Rebel’ Multipulciano from Langhorne Creek. This is sailing in style!

We cruise past the 1882-vintage Elder Park rotunda, past the white origami boats in the river, and under the City Bridge. Several yellow paddle boats pass us by and their laughing occupants give us a wave.

It’s spring, so my daughter is repeatedly exclaiming ‘how cute!’ over and over, as we encounter flocks of tiny ducklings on the next stretch of river. Near the University Footbridge we sail past what I imagine to be the largest ever duck family in the history of the world. This particular mother duck has 22 ducklings trailing along behind her – yep, 22! And here I am thinking that two is a handful.

Turtle torrens

A TURTLE SUNNING ITSELF ON A TREE ROOT JUST WEST OF THE VICTORIA BRIDGE

22 ducklings popeye

POSSIBLY THE BIGGEST EVER DUCK FAMILY - WE COUNTED 22 DUCKLINGS

We snake our way around small bends in the river, past the Adelaide Zoo landing on Frome Road, and under the city’s oldest road bridge, the Albert Bridge, which opened in 1879.

Here a frantic duckling searching for its mum outpaces the Popeye on the water, proving that these boats don’t go particularly fast – and that’s a good thing for us sightseers.

Captain Mark swings the vessel around again and negotiates a tight three-point turn in the narrowing river, as we head home to the starting point.

Alex and Maddy are laughing and happy (is that the fizzy drink?) as we dock back at the Elder Park landing. It has been a great little trip: they’ve learnt some new things about their city, and I’ve had the chance to reminisce about my childhood trips on Popeye.

I thoroughly recommend rediscovering Popeye on a family outing; it’s fun, inexpensive and nostalgic.


The Popeye operates from two landings along the Riverbank. Check their website for timetables and booking availability.

08 8232 7994

Article by

Clayton Wehner

Clayton Wehner

Clayton is what you would call 'middle aged', but acts like he's much younger, despite little encouragement to do so from others around him. He's a family man with two 'clowns', a border collie that won't stop chewing, and a long-suffering wife. Clayton likes craft beer, Dad jokes, 'nerding out' on a computer, singing 'Chantilly Lace' by the Big Bopper, recounting Army tales from days of yore, and tip-toeing along the fine line between tasteful and distasteful. He's a fan of true crime books, railways, Ben Folds, Indian food, and staying under 100kg.