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Alma mater uncovered

02 Apr 2019

Alma mater uncovered Image

By David Schout

Some family digging has led to fascinating information about a former engineer who served during WWII on the “Alma Doepel”, a 116-year old vessel that continues to be restored in Docklands.

Jenny McConachy, through studies at the University of Tasmania, was undertaking a family history project and had heard that her mother’s cousin, Keith Ratcliffe (1921-1999) was a former serviceman.

A family book also made reference to his connection with Alma Doepel, which piqued her interest.

“I knew what mum told me about sailing with Keith,” McConachy told Docklands News.

“I knew from his gravestone a little regarding his war service. I was interested in investigating and became quite invested in the project.”

Through her research, she gathered information from a number of sources including Jess Curtain of Deakin University who curated last year’s Soldiers at Sea exhibition.

Mr Ratcliffe, it emerged, was on board the Alma as first engineer and sailed to New Guinea and other Pacific islands in dangerous conditions deliver supplies and support to soldiers.

“Keith was a Warrant Officer Class One (a senior enlisted officer) serving with the Australian Small Ships Company,” Ms Curtain confirmed.

“The small ships units were part of the Army Water Transport, a motley fleet of whatever ships the army could get their hands on to deliver supplies and support to soldiers fighting in New Guinea and other Pacific islands.”

“These men were stationed in hard-to-reach places, on islands with rough terrain and few roads or ocean ports, surrounded by treacherous reefs, so they needed small ships (like AK82 Alma Doepel) to navigate them.”

The Alma Doepel, a 1903 tall ship, was originally a commercial ship that moved goods from Tasmania to Melbourne.

In 1943 however, like many other boats, it was required in the war effort.

After his discharge in 1946, Mr Ratcliffe’s close affinity with the sea continued.

In 1947 and 1948 he was a crew member on the Westward, a yacht that won back-to-back handicap honours in the Sydney to Hobart yacht race.

Then, in 1949, he skippered the motor yacht Coongoola on a 20,000-mile voyage from Brisbane to South Africa and return.

Docklands News spoke with Keith’s son Robert, who lives interstate.

While he couldn’t recall any specific memories his father had shared with him about his time on the Alma, there was a photo of the vessel on his wall at home (pictured).

The Alma Doepel has been berthed at No.2 Victoria Dock since 2009, and its extensive $3.3 million restoration continues.

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