To those who live along its 270 kilometres of foreshore, who mess about on boats upon the 55 square kilometres of waterway, and who enjoy the amenity and ambience from all perspectives, Sydney Harbour is sacrosanct.
But that's not necessarily the view of big business, says Friends of Sydney Harbour (FoSH), an action group launched with vigour last weekend to preserve and protect Sydney Harbour through community action. "One harbour, many friends" is its motto.
The community and lobby group was borne out of last year's ill-conceived attempt by a private helicopter company to have a floating dock moored in the middle of the harbour. At the same time, in and around the proposed multistorey helipad, yachts from a multitude of clubs tick-tack this way and that most days of the week, as juniors strike out on dinghies, 18-foot skiffs fly past with enormous kites, and a multitude of powered boats, including Sydney ferries, gad about.
"We are loving our Harbour to death," claims FoSH patron Ian Kiernan, AO, founder of Clean Up Australia and long an advocate for the environment and Sydney Harbour. Kiernan has enlisted fellow Sydney sailor John Molyneux as FoSH chairman, former North Sydney mayor Genia McCaffery as deputy chairwoman, and advertising gun David Morris to bring some accountability to government decision making.
Kiernan grew up sailing on Sydney Harbour, built a canvass canoe, mucked about on the oyster-covered foreshores with his sister, and started off sailing with a VJ dinghy. It all left an indelible impression on the Australian of the Year. It's part of his psyche and that of almost every other waterway user, from those with boats and watercraft to those who cast a line and soak up the reverie from ashore.
But with big business moving in and many more boaters calling Sydney Harbour home in years to come, a grand plan is needed to preserve the amenity. The paper NSW Boat Ownership and Storage: Growth Forecasts to 2026, produced in 2010 by NSW Maritime, claims that there will be almost 335,000 registered boats in the state by 2026, a rise of more than 50 per cent on the present number. In the Sydney Harbour catchment from Pittwater to Randwick, 5000 extra boats are expected over the next eight years.
There is already friction with landlubbers over trailerboat parking and concerns over potential loss of views because of big boats in marinas. Sydney Harbour has 8 per cent of the state's recreational vessels and 20 per cent of its commercial vessels. Tellingly, there is a greater proportion of large (greater than six-metre) vessels requiring in-water or dry-stack storage than other regions in NSW.
FoSH aims to be the voice for all those who love Sydney Harbour and want to ensure it stays accessible.
The harbour is there to be enjoyed by all the public, says FoSH, adding that it is putting governments on notice that the harbour belongs to everyone and should not be compromised by inappropriate development, overcrowding and bad planning.
It was the floating heliport proposal that gave Kiernan the idea for FoSH. Along with Malcolm Turnbull and harbourside councils, residents and people from all over Sydney, the proposal galvanised opinion.
FoSH lists other areas of interest as clean beaches, the reduction of navigable space because of mooring clutter, inappropriate marina development, a dearth of new boat ramps, preserving the marine habitat, maintaining harbour walks and development concerns.
In the past 10 years, the harbour's available space has shrunk, narrowed by encroachments, be they marinas or moorings, FoSH says.
It is noisier, with jet boats, joy flights and helicopters that no longer fly within specified height limits or controlled flight paths. Dance parties on pontoons destroy the milieu.
FoSH will campaign for an overall plan for all Sydney Harbour that will protect the beaches and foreshore bushland, the working harbour, wharves, man-made and natural environment. An overall plan would allow for balanced development, be it docks, marinas, new foreshore parks or high-rise buildings.
But future plans need to include and protect the harbour itself, which is something that various state government departments seem unwilling to take a shared responsibility for, FoSH says.
It is asking for input from residents, tourists and everyone else to tell it what they like and don't like about the harbour.
To join FoSH costs $20 a year (or it is free if you're a student or a pensioner) and $100 for a corporation.
The more people who join, the more chance there is of ensuring that the harbour has a future we can all enjoy.