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Alma Doepel supporters gather for 110th birthday dinner

29 Oct 2013

Alma Doepel supporters gather for 110th birthday dinner Image

By Alan Edenborough

It all began in 1903 in northern New South Wales when the Doepel family launched a topsail schooner, built on the banks of the Bellinger River, for the coastal trade, naming her Alma Doepel.

Few would have guessed that 110 years later that ship would still exist. After a long working life, she is now undergoing a major restoration in Docklands.

Over the years Alma was a regular visitor to Docklands bringing in cargoes from Tasmania. Today, she is a genuine link to the history of the area and that link will continue after her restoration as Alma goes back into service, sailing from a new Docklands base.

All of this was in the minds of Alma’s supporters and sponsors when they gathered at the Royal Yacht Club of Victoria in Williamstown to celebrate Alma’s 110th birthday.

As has become traditional at these birthday dinners, as chairman of Sail & Adventure, Alma’s not-for-profit owners, I gave an illustrated report on the progress of the project during the last 12 months.

The last year has seen some dramatic events. Not least was Alma’s positioning on the purpose-built barge, which the company commissioned, so that work on the hull could take place with the ship out of the water. The birthday dinner guests heard the story of the docking which was carried out with the generous assistance of BAE Systems in their Williamstown graving dock. Michael Smith showed a time-lapse video shot over the several days of the docking procedure to show just how it was done – all in about two minutes.

Back in Docklands, high and dry on her 40 metre barge, work began on Alma’s hull restoration without delay. There is critical timing here – too long out of the water and irreparable damage can be done to the ship’s exposed hull timbers as they dry out. The hull restoration, which involves replacing and strengthening hull frames and planks with specially-sourced and seasoned timber is being carried out by a professional shipwright team led by Ferdi Darley.

Volunteers are absolutely essential to the project and they are assisting the shipwrights in hull preparation to save time and that other precious commodity, money. In the restoration project’s workshop, Shed 2 on North Wharf, Docklands, the envy of historic ship restorers around Australia, the Alma volunteers are showing just what can be done when skilled people pass on their learning to willing students.

To enable the work to be carried out on the hull, the ship was stripped of much of her gear, including the rig, engines, tanks, accommodation and even one of the deckhouses. All of this is in Shed 2 and it is there that the volunteers are restoring, refurbishing and rebuilding the thousands of items that make up an historic ship.

The regular volunteers are augmented by others who come to experience volunteering, spending a day away from their offices to join in the work at Shed 2, or on Alma’s barge.

National Australia Bank volunteers have been regulars, so too those from Ford, and Bridge Project volunteers from the YMCA. In total, more than 20,000 volunteer hours have been contributed to the restoration project to date.

Alma birthday dinner guests heard the planned timetable for the remainder of the project. Alma should be undocked from the barge in 2014, again at Williamstown courtesy of BAE Systems, ready for re-rigging and for her all her machinery, accommodation and other services to be refitted.

The ship will be alongside at Shed 2, Docklands during this work and visitors will see the ship take shape again as the work progresses.

The date for re-commissioning has been set for Australia Day, January 2016, and it is hoped that another Tall Ship Festival can be arranged in Melbourne as part of the welcome to a restored Alma Doepel. The ship will then resume its role as a youth development and training ship, operating in Port Phillip.

No Alma birthday dinner is complete without a tribute being paid by the chairman to the man who with patience, skill and leadership manages the restoration – Peter Harris. The long applause indicated how well this tribute is deserved.

And, of course, there is the ongoing appeal for funds to ensure that the project stays on schedule. The generosity of major sponsors such as the City of Melbourne is greatly appreciated. So, too, is the generosity of individuals who give what they can to the project. They, like so many others, believe that it would be a tragedy to see this fine ship lost. With her would go her the history and links with Docklands, as well as her record of achievement in her earlier youth sail training work in Melbourne over more than a decade.

Visitors to Shed 2 are always welcome and so, too, are donations for this important heritage restoration.

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