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Editions

A future for wooden boat building

04 Jul 2018

A future for wooden boat building Image

By Meg Hill

The Wooden Boat Centre, on the western end of North Wharf, floats along the trajectory of Docklands history – if you take it for granted that a rising tide lifts all boats.

Docklands has always been subject to change. It was first hand witness to the industrial revolution – the Melbourne gasworks were built in 1857 and a pollution problem was reported in Docklands as early as 1860.

Victoria Harbour was once a swamp with a lively natural ecosystem. It was dug out in the late 1800s and filled with water for better boat access to Melbourne.

Since then, water and boats have been central to Docklands’ identity, despite the technological development of container shipping moving port activity away from Victoria Harbour.

The shipping industry moved increasingly westward to docks like Appleton and Swanston. By the 1980s the harbour was largely in a state of disuse.

That decade also marks the boat centre’s birth. Before moving to North Wharf, it was poised in the middle of Victoria Harbour on Central Pier. Brian Atkins ran the centre out of Shed 10 for more than 21 years.

His 29-year-old grandson Nicholas took over the business two years ago. He’d been learning from his grandfather since he was six.

“I spent after school and the weekends in the workshop. He never told me specifically how to do something. He was more interested in teaching the process,” Nicholas said.

“If I was stuck he would give me options, but he was about problem solving. I could build my first traditional boat when I was 10.”

Of course, the history of Docklands isn’t just one of changing water activity. Nicholas and his grandfather know the kind of interest that inner-city land attracts better than most.

“When my grandfather first moved into the shed at central pier he was told not to spend any money or invest in the future, that he was only going to be there six months before development took over,” Nicholas said.

“18-and-a-half years later they told him he had two years left. After that they said a year.”

Eventually the move did take place, but a similar situation looms over North Wharf.

“In this precarious business that we’re under, in the shadow of development, it’s hard to get long term courses and projects going.”

Currently, Lendlease plans to start development on the wharf sometime in 2019 ­– creating room for another 3500 residents and workers with five new towers.

Recognising the significance of the Wooden Boat Centre to Docklands and the water front, Lendlease has offered to house the centre in one of its future towers.

The new space will be significantly smaller than where the centre is now in Shed 2, where Nicholas can fit around 30 clients at a time.

“I won’t have the room in the future to help all these clients build their own boats, but I will be able to do group projects,” Nicholas said.

Group projects involve 10 or so people building a boat together. After its finished, the boat is left in Docklands to be used by the community.

Nicholas said he would have to find separate space to accommodate other aspects of his business, like his manufacturing of boat making kits and more client-customised projects.

“The new space will be just an educational facility with boats that people can use in the water. The idea is that they’re happy for us to keep building and teaching and passing on the ideas behind the traditional boat building.”

Patience is a virtue for small businesses dealing with large developers. Luckily, it’s a central aspect of the boat making tradition.

“Boats are not instant gratification, they’re self-development,” Nicholas said.

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