Tyranny of distance?

Tyranny of distance?

By Melbourne Maritime Heritage Network (MMHN) chair and City of Melbourne Cr Jackie Watts

Many readers will be familiar with the book by prominent historian Geoffrey Blainey, The Tyranny of Distance: How Distance Shaped Australia’s History.

Amid a global pandemic, few would dispute the present reality of the phrase “tyranny of distance”. This is certainly a reality for many with loved ones overseas. But in some ways the “tide has turned”.

COVID-19 has demonstrated there is tangible benefit in Australia’s “distance and isolation” from other places, and these features of our national character are now being viewed positively. Leaving to one side the Ruby Princess debacle, the Greg Mortimer fiasco and other cruise ship “challenges”, the vast oceans surrounding us have served us well during this pandemic crisis.

The vast oceans that surround us drove the development of the maritime trade, both coastal and international, which historically enabled Australia to prosper. Post-COVID-19, they will do so again. Maritime trade will certainly play a key role in allowing Australia’s economy to “snap-back”, “re-boot”, “up-anchor” and most importantly go “full steam ahead” in due course. Maritime trade and Melbourne’s Docklands will, once again, play their part in resuscitating our stalled economy.


The pandemic has certainly highlighted the acute, urgent necessity of Australia developing a greater level of “self-sufficiency” in maritime skills capability. Two key Melbourne Maritime Heritage Network (MMHN) objectives are firstly the establishment of a Maritime Specialist Skills Centre in Docklands, and secondly, fostering greater recognition that maritime education and careers are vital. See the MMHN submission to the Australian Industry Standards (AIS) on the MMHN website – mmhn.org.au

In the halcyon days of Australian shipping a vibrant industry provided coastal shipping services to move goods around our island nation. We were not then reliant entirely on overseas vessels and their services. Times have changed. The number of Australian-flagged vessels available for coastal shipping has dropped dramatically – and alarmingly. But a recent paper by Rigby Cooke Lawyers has challenged us to address this malaise - see rigbycooke.com.au/can-the-blue-highway-of-australian-coastal-shipping-provide-a-viable-option-to-remedy-some-of-our-supply-chain-issues/

Maritime Museum reviews

While we are in pandemic lock-down mode, the MMHN Heritage/Museum Special Advisory Group suggests this might be the right time for all of us to spend time reflecting on examples of Maritime Museums we have encountered elsewhere – their collections, functions, funding and quality. This is an invitation to all Docklanders: share with us your comments and insights about Maritime Museums you have visited elsewhere. What impressed you – and what did not? Your information will inform planning for Melbourne’s Maritime Centre of the future. Email [email protected]

River Communities

Historian, MMHN member and founder of History@Work Emma Russell has published the wonderful River Communities - an engaging, evocative narrative of Melbourne’s maritime heritage relevant to all in Docklands! Emma writes, “We did have our backs turned to the river for a while ... the port thrived, becoming the biggest in the southern hemisphere, and became a community unto its own.”

“Governed by the Melbourne Harbour Trust and with a population of stevedores, shipping merchants, sailors and a bevy of others that serviced, regulated, facilitated or sustained the shipping and maritime trades, thousands of people worked beyond the end of Flinders St and along the Yarra River every day, while many also lived there. Hundreds and thousands of vessels from steam ships to tugs to submarines (during WWII) came and went loaded with flour, oil, wool, dried fruit, cars, agricultural machinery, timber and butter. For about 15 years the Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition (ANARE) was sustained by the goods sheds and ships at North Wharf.”

MMHN agrees that we had our backs turned to the river for a while, but there is now a vibrant, new community alongside the city riverbank - and it’s called Docklands! See [email protected]

Docklands Heritage Fleet at Collins Wharf

Denied access to their teams of volunteers, the usual buzz of restoration, maintenance and operational activity on the Collins Wharf ships - steam tug Wattle, tall ship Enterprize and the Alma Doepel - has slowed. Enterprize’s rigging and sails are now stored for winter, but maintenance checks on engines and bilges are continuing as the vessel prepares for a resumption of operations in due course. The Alma Doepel project is still progressing towards completion of hull works by the end of 2020. Social distancing is being practised as four professional shipwrights continue to work on the 25 remaining planks and caulking. The heritage fleet’s steam tug Wattle reports that while the social distancing policy is in place, “essentials-only” work maintenance cycle is taking place.

Maritime archaeology

To the delight of many in the MMHN, April has been a big month in marine archaeology circles. News broke of a significant “discovery” in Port Phillip Bay - the 39ft schooner Barbara, which was built in Tasmania in 1841 and wrecked off Rye in 1852. Shipbuilding was colonial Australia’s first manufacturing industry but very little is known, as yet, about the ways Australian-built vessels such as the Barbara engaged in coastal trade from the early 19th century.

See The Age April 12, 2020, p.6 and vhd.heritage.vic.gov.au/shipwrecks/heritage/68.

Seafarers today

Seafaring life in times past was harsh and dangerous. Nothing has changed - especially during the pandemic. Both seafarer support services, Mission to Seafarers (Northbank) and Stella Maris (CBD) report on the hard times today’s seafarers are facing. Along with stevedores, seafarers have been frontline key workers during this pandemic. It is normal for crews to work in risky and dangerous places, but this has been complicated by the need to be vigilant for sick passengers and shipmates. Crew members can find themselves trapped in dangerous circumstances and the stresses must be great. Even if they are cleared of COVID-19, when in port, crew members are viewed as potential carriers of infection and seen to be vulnerable to infection once onshore. They are being confined to their ships by port authorities and prohibited by shipping companies from taking shore leave, due to health and safety and economic risks.

Crew rotations are curtailed and the option of flying home to care for families in danger in far-away places has become non-existent. Massive costs are incurred when ships are quarantined. Seafarers and dock workers enable the transport of medical supplies and other essential cargo and their labour is critical to the global economy, but the burdens they are facing are great.

Do keep well •

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