Saturday's Iron Boat Day at Port Kembla served as both a reunion and a reminder.
The event itself commemorates the creation by BHP in 1913 of its own shipping fleet to transport bulk cargo to its various steelworks.
Maritime Union of Australia southern branch secretary Garry Keane said the union has organised the event for the past four years.
"This year marked the 100th anniversary of the implementation of what we called the iron boats - or the steel ships - that carried all that BHP cargo," he said.
He said the annual event was both a day for old sailors to catch up and an indication of the decline of Australian shipping.
"It is a great day for our old seafarers who have sailed on those vessels for many years," Mr Keane said.
"They love it. They have an absolute ball. But it was also to highlight the plight of what Australian shipping has become. We have gone from over 60 Australian-owned and crewed vessel to under 20."
Mr Keane said the federal Labor shipping policy had "some real potential to reinvigorate coastal shipping". It simply made sense to have Australian-owned shipping, he said.
"We're an island nation and 95 per cent of all of our good travels by sea, either in and out of the country or travelling along the coast," he said.