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From Alma to ATET: new barge project to enliven Docklands

By Sean Car

In what will come as a much-needed boost for our struggling precinct, the Alma Doepel’s barge will soon be given new life with the creation of a floating events space in Victoria Harbour, launching in spring.

Representing a win-win for the Alma and the barge’s buyer – Gippsland man Jake Hughes – the sale will provide both a new destination venue for Docklands, as well as vital funds necessary to help complete the 12-year restoration of the historic tall ship.

To be made available for music events, weddings, parties, corporate events, floating cinema and even morning yoga, ATET – a reference to Egyptian mythology – will see the Alma’s barge transformed into a flexible two-level event space, envisioned as an “urban island oasis.”

Designed as an open-air space with a fully retractable roof and blinds to cater for any weather conditions that Docklands throws at it, ATET will largely be a fixed events space at the tip of North Wharf Rd underneath the Bolte Bridge.

Mr Hughes told Docklands News that the venue would also have the ability to be relocated to areas such as Harbour Esplanade, while it could also be towed out into the harbour or the bay for larger events with a connecting ferry service.

The family-owned business has been in discussions with Development Victoria, the City of Melbourne and developer Lendlease about other exciting ways of activating the largely disused wharf.

With a mixture of connectivity options via Uber or taxi, the Collins St tram and a short walk from Southern Cross Station, Mr Hughes said the location suited the needs of what would be a “destination venue” perfectly.

“We fell in love with the location at the end of North Wharf. It’s so close to the city but feels completely secluded,” he said.

“It’s a part of Melbourne that almost no one has ever really experienced, it feels like a completely forgotten space. The site is almost underneath Bolte Bridge which provides such a dramatic backdrop, the whole setting feels a bit surreal.”

“It’s nice being slightly removed from the built-up part of Docklands. There’s a bit more privacy and we can really create our own vibe down there. It also helps to prevent noise issues, the distance from apartments means we can do our thing without affecting the amenity of local residents.”

“The great thing about what we’re doing is we’re a destination venue and people will come specifically for the events we’re doing – we don’t really rely on foot traffic as we’re not a walk-up bar or restaurant.”

“We’ll be doing music events, corporate events, weddings; events that people are specifically coming for. So, we think we can really help draw people back to the area. When people experience it, they will see the potential and how beautiful it is being on the water and hopefully people will start to see more opportunities to do more things here.”

“We want to bring a bit of creative culture to the Docklands area, which is something that has been a bit lacking.”

Ahead of the Alma’s anticipated return to water in June, Mr Hughes and his team were on site last month gathering final specifications of the barge in preparation for the installation of pre-fabricated infrastructure.

As an architect and DJ who grew up on the Gippsland lakes, Mr Hughes’s skills and passion for design, music, and life on the water are all tied up in the ATET project, which he said had been more than four years in the making.

But having originally sought to purpose-build a barge from scratch, something that he said would have been far more challenging and expensive, he described the Alma’s barge as a “one-of-a-kind” opportunity.

Understood to be worth around a million dollars, he said the 40-metre-long and 12-metre-wide barge was quite a “unique asset” as it was specifically built for the purpose of restoring the tall ship.

“These types of barges don’t really seem to exist in Melbourne so if we wanted to replace this, anything we could find was up in Darwin or Perth and you’re looking at a sea tow and hundreds of thousands of dollars just to get it here,” he said.

And in addition to providing vital funds to see Alma back in the water, Mr Hughes explained that there was another nice angle to the story, with the barge itself travelling full circle with its original naval architect Paul Bury.

“We originally engaged Paul to design a concept for a new purpose-built vessel which we worked on together for at least 18 months,” he said.

“We were planning to build it from scratch, but then when we found the Alma Doepel barge we gave him a call to ask for his opinion to see whether it would be suitable. And it turned out he designed the barge originally so he had all the engineering details, hydrostatics and everything. It’s a nice little synchronicity there.”

“The builder is also based down in Gippsland and was a contact of his [Paul Bury] in the same town and he has just the right level of marine experience building barges and pontoons and things like that.”

On track to launch in late spring, Mr Hughes said the project team would soon begin construction, with all materials prefabricated offsite and trucked in for installation once the Alma was back in the water.

He said ATET had been engineered to cater for more than 600 guests and while it would largely focus on music events, he said it was open to anything from weddings and fundraisers to major public and community events such as Fashion Week.

“It’s designed as a really versatile space that is capable of hosting a diverse range of events. It’s essentially a big open deck with loose furniture that can be rearranged to suit any event or activity. The whole space is fully enclosable with a retractable roof and retractable blinds, which is required for the Melbourne climate,” he said.

“The entire space is defined by a six-metre-high steel portal frame. The idea is that we get a lot of days in Melbourne that are beautiful and warm when the sun’s out and you’re sheltered from the wind but as soon as you step out into the wind it’s cold. So, the space can be enclosed on the sides to the full six metre height with motorised PVC blinds and then we can open the roof to get the sun in, creating a sunny, sheltered courtyard.”

Docklands News caught up with Mr Hughes and the Alma Doepel’s restoration director Peter Harris at North Wharf last month as the ship approaches its long-awaited return to water.

In praising the efforts of Mr Harris and the Alma’s many volunteers, Mr Hughes said ATET looked forward to continuing its support of the project.

“It’s a great project to be able to support. They’ve had something like 78,000 hours of work donated by volunteers, which is an incredible number and shows a huge amount of generosity and dedication to the project. It’s nice knowing that our purchase of the barge is helping to fund the restoration,” he said.

“We want to help to support them as much as we can and we’d love to host some fundraising events for them once we’re up and running. I’m sure when the launch [of Alma] happens we’ll offer our space as one they can use.” •

For more information: atet.com.au

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