Safe harbour: Alma Doepel drops anchor in Melbourne

After 10 years and 80,000 hours of painstaking restoration, Australia’s oldest wooden tall ship has returned to Victoria Harbour, Docklands.

It’s been one long homecoming.

But well worth it.

After a decade, the Alma Doepel, built in 1903 by Fredrick Doepel and named after his youngest daughter, has finally been towed back under the Bolte Bridge following hull restoration to Melbourne’s Docklands.

The refit of the three-masted topsail schooner – which transported goods such as timber, wheat and jam along the Australian coast and was used in New Guinea as a World War II supply vessel – makes a new century of sailing possible, says its Restoration Director and occasional First Mate, Dr Peter Harris.

“The Alma had a long, hard life as a cargo ship during peace and war, but it became clear in 2009 that either we admit the ship would sink due to attack by shipworms or we develop a major restoration program for a sustainable future in sailing.”

So began the decade-long process of lifting the hull onto a purpose-built pontoon dock and rebuilding.

The $3.5 million restoration was assisted by sponsors the City of Melbourne and Development Victoria, with further work still needed to complete the rigging, an engineering update and an accommodation fit out.

It’s projects like this at Docklands – one of Australia’s largest urban renewal projects with more than 13,000 residents – that will showcase the precinct’s maritime history to a new generation.

Among the most authentic historic ship restorations in the world honouring traditional craftmanship and made possible by shipwrights and an army of volunteers, the Alma Doepel will eventually see the resumption of youth suicide prevention trips for 36 young people at a time.

Called Youth Development Sail Training Voyages, the nine-day sails – completed by 4000 at-risk youth in the 1980s and 1990s – give participants an immersive opportunity to learn life skills.

“Our own experience and that of other sail training ships is that the ocean teaches confidence, resilience and curiosity,” says Peter. “The program develops the ability to rely on crew-mates and oneself during challenging tasks such as climbing the masts. This isn’t an exercise about how to solve theoretical problems; it’s a screen-free personal adventure in an ocean that demands respect but delivers a change in life’s direction. We find these changes are persistent, lasting long after the voyage is completed, and are transferable to other areas of life unrelated to the sea and sailing.”

Finding his sea legs

Peter Harris standing in front of the Alma DoepelPeter Harris has been involved with the Alma Doepel since 1984, first as a volunteer then as crew and now as a Director of Sail & Adventure Limited, the ship’s not-for-profit owners and operators.

During this time, he’s come to value the ability of the vessel to “convey the spirit of traditional seafaring and provide a platform for youth development.”

Along with dozens of weekend sails, Peter has completed about 20 voyages of a week or more on the Alma, including to Adelaide, Sydney, Eden and Port Macquarie.

Why does this tall ship hold a place in so many Victorian’s hearts?

“She links us to the European pioneers of Australia through the timber and shipbuilding life of Bellingen where she was built,” Peter says, explaining how she first traded into Melbourne in 1916 and continued until 1958, with a break when used by the Australian Army to carry troops and supplies around Northern Queensland, the Northern Territory and New Guinea during World War II.

After 15 years as a limestone carrier in Tasmania, Alma was brought to Victoria in 1975 and converted into a sail training ship. During that period, many thousands of trainees sailed aboard and experienced the “voyage of a lifetime”.

“Alma Doepel can give Victorians a real-life experience of what it was like to sail these traditional ships,” Peter notes. “They can feel the excitement of sailing a large ship like the original crew of seven…. except they had to load and unload 150 tonnes of cargo at the start and finish of each voyage!

“Our sailors, craftsmen and guides have been hands-on with the restoration process and can bring this to life when Alma’s sailing again: it’s ‘history for the future’.”

Woodwork lesson: going local

The Alma is made of Australian hardwoods, such as eucalypts, that were common on the east coast when she was erected. Much of the major hull timbers are original 1903 red ironbark, with some blackbutt and red bloodwood. The new hull is spotted gum from southern New South Wales and the deck is Queensland white beech.

“We’ve been fortunate to be donated ironbark wharf timbers from the Australia Wharf, built around 1918 along the south bank of the Yarra,” says Peter. “These timbers have been re-sawn into laminates, steam bent to follow the curves of the hull and then expoxy-laminated to form a modernised version of the old grown frames cut from branches and roots by Fred Doepel’s sawyers. Tasmanian Huon Pine was used in 1987 for the trainee deckhouses that are built around the original cargo hold and deck.”

Fun fact

In 1917, as part of the IXL jam fleet, the Alma Doepel shipped fruit from Hobart to Melbourne to be boiled into jam at the South Yarra Jam Factory in Chapel Street.