Award keeps the wind in Peter’s sails
By Brendan Rees
Dr Peter Harris’s love affair with wooden sailing ships goes back more than half a century when he was a lad growing up in the UK.
“I was a student in Southampton in 1967 when I was introduced to my first classic sailing training ship at Camper and Nicholsons shipyard [home to the world’s finest yachts],” he said.
“My landlord was a rigger at the yard and he took me down there and said ‘you may as well learn something useful while you’re being a student’.”
Today, the retiree is the driving force behind the Alma Doepel, a 118-year-old majestic tall ship berthed at her Docklands home at No 2 Victoria Dock where it is nearing completion of a full restoration.
A passionate volunteer, Dr Harris, 70, is the restoration leader of the three-masted topsail schooner and is looking forward to the hull being returned to the water by September after eight long years on the barge.
His wife Fiona Williams is also a keen volunteer on the Alma Doepel, and both share a love for sailing.
Dr Harris is also the founding president of Tall Ships Victoria, has been a director and trustee of Jubilee Sailing Trust, and has facilitated the arrival of many international tall ships to Melbourne’s shores. He has also been a member of the Royal Yacht Club of Victoria for 25 years.
For his services to maritime heritage preservation, for which he has dedicated the best part of 40 years of his life, Dr Harris was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in the Queen’s Birthday 2021 Honours List.
He said the news of receiving the prestigious award had come as a surprise, but he was incredibly honoured.
“I’m grateful to be honoured in this way, but in reality, I feel I am accepting the honour on behalf of all those who have shared my passion for maritime heritage,” he said.
He also paid tribute to the hard-working volunteers and professional shipwrights who have “played their part in the Alma Doepel restoration, and other projects such as Tall Ships Victoria”, as well as his predecessor and initial restoration director Michael Wood who served from 1975 to 1988.
Dr Harris came to Melbourne in 1984 where he set out a distinguished career as a researcher and academic in the field of physiology at the University of Melbourne.
Upon his arrival, Dr Harris said he was “just looking around for a ship to work on” when he discovered the Alma Doepel.
“I called into the Polly Woodside and said ‘I’m interested in volunteering’,” he said.
“They said, ‘We’re delighted to have you but if you’ve got an ambition to go sailing, we’re not doing that. You could go around the corner and talk to the Alma Doepel people’.”
Dr Harris said his biggest reward had been the ship’s ability to provide life-changing opportunities and skills for youths through its sail-training programs with a focus on helping young people at risk.
“They come back and say ‘this is the best experience in my life and I would like my kids and other people’s kids to have that experience’,” he said.
Dr Harris said he was also proud to be a part of the Alma’s “extraordinary piece of the history of Australia” which “gets people’s attention, and they just want to be a part of it.”
Built in 1903 by Fredrick Doepel and named for his youngest daughter Alma, the ship is the last surviving coastal trader from the early 1900s and originally sailed around the coast of Australia, carrying goods like timber, wheat, and jam.
During WWII, the Alma was used as an army supply vessel running from Townsville and Darwin to Papua New Guinea.
The ship was bought by Sail and Adventure in 1976 to be restored as a Youth Sail Training ship and underwent a restoration in time for the 1988 Australian bicentenary celebrations in Sydney Harbour.
Following major restoration work in Docklands, the hull’s exterior has been completed, and the Alma will soon have a new deck and engineering and accommodation fitted-out.
“We’re going to organise a launch ceremony; we’re hoping to run some tours around the ship, which will be COVID dependent of course,” Dr Harris said.
“She’s painted up and looking pretty smart. We’ll have an on-water viewing, then we might do a video and a Zoom commentary at the same time for people who can’t get here, and a reception.” •