Many people might think that Etihad Stadium, built in 2000, is one of the oldest things in the area, but along North Wharf Road, past the Library at The Dock, is something much, much older.
In 1903, ship builder Frederik Doepel launched a three-masted topsail schooner from Bellingen, New South Wales, and named her Alma Doepel, after his baby daughter. Today, she’s being lovingly restored here in Victoria Harbour’s own backyard by Sail & Adventure, a team of volunteers led by retired scientist Peter Harris.
The name Alma has many meanings in different languages, but the Spanish ‘soul’ seems the most fitting. It’s impossible not to be moved by something that has so much history.
Alma, as she is affectionately known, was designed as a workhorse, and work she did. After carrying timber between Port Macquarie and New Zealand, she was bought by IXL Jam magnate Henry Jones to ferry jam from his Hobart factory to Melbourne, where he owned South Yarra’s now iconic Jam Factory. During World War II the ship was recruited to carry troops and ammunition, then carried timber between Tasmania and Melbourne. In 1959 she was stripped of her masts and used to ferry limestone between quarries and factories in Tasmania.
If it weren’t for Sail & Adventure, Alma would have ended up as firewood and scrap, like hundreds of other ships of her kind. The team are the driving force behind the restoration, but their core still revolves around their youth sail training program, which Alma will be used for once she’s seaworthy. In the meantime, they run specially-tailored programs for corporate sponsors, a range of school education programs and even an occupational program for those with low-functioning autism.
At Shed 2, where Alma is propped up on her own custom-made barge, the Ocean Education Centre – run by the Alma and Enterprize crews – is also quietly toiling away on a variety of other original projects. On 17 April, their artist-in-residence will open an exhibition, along with works by seven other artists, inspired by Alma. The exhbition wil be open to the public from 10am-5pm on two consecutive weekends - 18/19 April and 25/26 April.
A marine biology student from the University of Melbourne has also set up a lab to demonstrate the relationship between predators in the ocean, where kids can watch as marine wildlife slowly devour each other. There’s also a library and a small museum on-site.
The shed contains 1000 pieces of the Alma that are patiently waiting their turn to be refitted. This task demands enormous resources, and while the team of volunteers is diverse and committed, the key labour required to complete the restoration – shipwrights, engineers, electricians and plumbers – is still largely unfunded. But Harris is confident. “We’ve done the hard bits, now we just need to get these planks on and get it in the water.”
In the coming month, Harris is reaching out to the Victoria Harbour community. A shipping container display, decorated by aspiring artists from Brunswick Flexible Learning, will be set up on Harbour Esplanade. Harris will be there to say hi weekdays at lunchtime. His infectious passion for the Alma Doepel Restoration Project makes for an interesting, informative and worthwhile trip.
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