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Historic Alma Doepel makes victorious return to water

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By Brendan Rees

Photos by John Tadigiri and Murray Enders

After 10 arduous years of restoration, Docklands’ favourite historic tall ship, the Alma Doepel, is finally back on the water.         

The 119-year-old three-masted schooner was relaunched into Docklands’ waterways on October 16, marking a “triumphant return” to the precinct.

The vessel, which is Australia’s oldest surviving wooden tall ship, was quietly lowered into Victoria Harbour, where waves gently lapped her newly painted red hull for the first time in a decade.

It was a major milestone savoured by the ship’s dedicated team of volunteers who have poured their hearts and souls into making sure the ship’s restorative journey has been a success.  

While only a small gathering of media personnel and dignitaries including the Lord Mayor were able to witness the ship’s homecoming event in person due to COVID-19 restrictions, the milestone was live-streamed from a drone, attracting some 4000 viewers.

The majestic ship was towed from her custom-built barge and out past the Bolte Bridge before being lifted into the water by a crane vessel, the AAL Shanghai, which was at Melbourne’s Appleton Dock.  

There were loud and jubilant cheers from the balconies of residential buildings to celebrate the spectacle with Dr Peter Harris, the Alma’s restorative director, describing the long-awaited moment as “magic”.

“You imagine all these things – all your logistic spreadsheets, making thousands of project sheets … raising the money and putting it together, and all with this idea that there’s one day to head for and that’s putting it in the water,” he said.

 

This project is one of the most authentic, historic ship restorations underway anywhere in the world — bringing together a mix of heritage, youth development and traditional craftsmanship.

 

“[It] is a significant gain to the public space, and returning history to the community.”

While ominous clouds threatened on the morning of the big relaunch, the skies cleared with just some wind blowing by the afternoon “but not too much to disturb the lifting process,” Dr Harris said. 

During the past decade, the vessel has been on a barge at North Wharf Rd in Victoria Harbour undergoing extensive renovations with the ship’s planking stage having been completed earlier this year.

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. 

The ship’s relaunch has been a long time in the making with lockdowns resulting in setbacks and the project team facing challenges.

Dr Harris, who is also the founding president of Tall Ships Victoria, and is a recipient of the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in this year’s Queen’s Birthday honours, said while the Alma’s return to the Victoria Harbour was “extremely exciting” there was “still a huge amount of work to do” on her restoration.

He said the ship would again be used for sail-training purposes with a focus on helping young Australians at risk, which was projected to be in about two years’ time.

The community has thrown its support behind Alma’s restoration with the City of Melbourne having pitched in $300,000 towards the works and waiving berthing fees for 12 years.  

Development Victoria has also been a big supporter by providing 100-year-old timber from under North Wharf, which was recurved and laminated into structural parts of the ship.

Dr Harris said an impressive $3.5 million had so far been raised for the grand vessel’s restoration with another $1.5 million needed to finish the deck, rigging, interior fit-out and engineering.

This included installing water tanks, fuel tanks, and sewerage tanks – and “all the exciting bits to make the ship work, and then the engines will go in”.

Melbourne Lord Mayor Sally Capp said the Alma was a historical maritime asset to the precinct.

“The City of Melbourne is committed to making sure the Docklands maritime heritage is recognised,” she said.

“We are very excited to see the Alma Doepel make its triumphant return to Victoria Harbour Docklands.” •

For more information: almadoepel.com.au

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