Two steps forward and one step back

Two steps forward and one step back

By Cr Jackie Watts

… or in nautical terms, as we tack back and forth against the wind making slow headway against the COVID-19 virus.

There is tentative re-emergence of life in this city. However, activity within the Melbourne Maritime Heritage Network (MMHN) continues apace as we bring together our diverse maritime stakeholders - heritage, industry, educators, and “sailors” of all types.

Now in its second year of existence, MMHN is gaining recognition as a unifying force among maritime stakeholders. Significantly there has also been strong support from local government. However, gaining traction and acknowledgement among the relevant responsibility authorities, and the governing bodies actually managing our waterways and the maritime industry sector within the state and federal governments, remains a challenge. Nevertheless, MMHN advocacy is relentless and we have no doubt, good sense will prevail.  

The energy and enthusiasm of MMHN members is formidable. Some work tirelessly in Melbourne and around regional Victoria to protect and preserve maritime artefacts, memorabilia and, of course, our wonderful shipwrecks. Other MMHN members are looking to the future of the maritime industry sector, advocating for maritime education, skills, careers and maritime innovation, for example, in relation to ship propulsion, communications and de-fouling. Options for young people seeking a career at sea- or onshore-based the maritime industry have sadly diminished. Regrettably, apart from the Navy, adequate focus on our maritime skills base has eroded over recent years in Victoria - actually the nation as a whole.

There are, of course, recreational or hobby short-course options. For example, in Docklands on Collins Wharf, but given that Australia is an island nation, we must re-build our collective expertise in relation to serious maritime skills. MMHN is determined that this will happen. We are advocating on both state and federal levels and forging collaborations to bring change in the important area of maritime education.

The MMHN network approach is, in fact, triggering very unexpected and effective collaborations. For example, in the area of urban design OSSA (OffShore and Specialist Ships Australia) and ANARE (former Antarctic expeditioners) are collaborating with City of Melbourne urban designers on Seafarers Rest Park, which is tucked in behind the Mission to Seafarers at North Wharf. OSSA and ANARE are assisting in providing maritime artefacts for installation in Seafarers Rest Park. This wharf-side park seems to have been many years in its gestation. A recent discovery by an MMHN member demonstrated this. A plan dating from 2014, was found in his personal records. It featured a memorial to seafarers, a tall spire topped by an albatross designed by Captain Euan Crawford - a volunteer restoring the steam tug Wattle at that time (see images).

Other volunteers restoring the Wattle enthusiastically embraced this imaginative plan. But the momentum for the park sadly waned - until it bobbed up to the surface again in 2020. City of Melbourne urban designers working on the Seafarers Rest Park are now inviting stakeholder input. Estimated completion time will be in two years. MMHN believes that Docklands residents are key stakeholders and encourages all to grasp this rare opportunity to “shape” your new neighbourhood park. See

Given the name of the park, some maritime stakeholders are dismayed that while in earlier plans for Seafarers Rest Park made the “seafarer’ connection more prominent, current interim plans merely cite maritime “references” in the park. Currently plans indicate no actual monument or memorial to “seafarers” at all. This is a puzzling omission.

Docklands residents will be very familiar with the sight of the of Westgate Bridge. Perhaps less so the memorial plaque below it. “Just before lunch on October 15, 1970, the West Gate Bridge suddenly groaned. An eerie pinging noise filled the air. A storm of rust flakes peeled off weathered steel. The girders started to turn blue. The bridge fell away beneath their feet. Minutes later, 35 workers were dead.” See image and map at Eight years later, those bridge workers who survived the disaster paid for and installed the plaque to honour their colleagues.

Occupations related inherently dangerous work on or around our waterways are rarely memorialised. Many stevedores were maimed, or indeed lost their lives, earning their livelihood on the very dangerous wharves of Docklands. Few seafarers or wharfies or bridge builders are awarded such public recognition. Where in Docklands should such a memorial to recognise those who contributed so much to our city and our nations be installed? The relevance or appropriateness or legitimacy of monuments and memorials is, of course, currently being debated •

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