Steam ships appeared in Australia in the 1830's but until the early 1950's both steam and sailing vessels worked the coasts of Australia. Gradually steam vessels took over transporting passengers, mail and important cargo whilst sloops and schooners were used to carry timber and lower-value goods. The "Alma Doepel" is Australia's last coastal trading vessel afloat, although at present she is undergoing restoration.
Frederik Doepel who was born in Finland in 1854 and Captain Gabriel (George) Pettersen decided to build a ship in Doepel's timber yard in Bellingen, on the Bellinger River in New South Wales, to transport Doepel's timber to market. He had very limited ship building skills but in 1903 he and Pettersen built the "Alma Doepel" which was named after Doepel's new born baby, Alma.
The ship was constructed with durable timbers like Grey Gum and Spotted Gum and took a year to build. After its launch on 13 October 1903 she traded the waters between Brisbane, Adelaide, New Zealand and Tasmania until she was sold in 1916 to Henry Jones of IXL Jams. Alma wrote to Henry Jones in the hope that he would retain the ships name and so it has continued as the "Alma Doepel."
Henry Jones used the vessel for trade between Hobart and Melbourne carrying jam ingredients, bottles and jars as well as general cargo and timber. General cargo was loaded on in Hobart and as the ship sailed up the coast of Tasmania it stopped at other ports and picked up timber which was piled up to the rails. A crew of 6 included the master, mate, 3 deckhands and the cook.
Most trips between Hobart and Melbourne took 2 - 3 weeks as the ship ofter needed to shelter in ports along the way, however she was a very fast ship and still holds the record for the fastest time for a commercial vessel to travel from Hobart to the Port Phillip Heads - just under 2 ½ days. Once in Melbourne the vessel needed tugs to bring her up the Yarra to the turning basin.
In the peak years of coastal trading vessels there were about 500 vessels in Australia and the "Alma Doepel" was one of the largest, being a 3 masted topsail schooner.
The "Alma Doepel" was requisitioned in World War 11 by the army, and converted to a motorised vessel. She carried troops and ammunition from the northern ports of Australia to New Guinea and other Pacific Islands. At wars end she was returned to Henry Jones who re-rigged her as a "bald-headed" schooner. The masts were not as high, there were no square sails and there was a much reduced sail area. She resumed trade across Bass Strait until the 1960's when she was cut down again to a motor vessel and used as a limestone carrier near Hobart. By 1975 road transport was a cheaper option and the "Alma Doepel" was put up for sale for the scrap value of her engines.
Fortunately 2 men, Michael Wood and David Boykett who had a passion for sailing and youth training decided she was perfect for a sail training ship. In 1976, they towed the ship to Melbourne and began restoration back to a sailing vessel. Volunteers raised $1 million and Elders IXL matched that with another $1 million. All physical work on the vessel was done by a large team of volunteers and she was ready just in time for the Parade of Tall Ships in the Australian Bicentennial Celebrations in 1988.
Chris Coghlan did a training course on the "Alma Doepel" when he was 15 years old. On these training exercises were 13 crew and 36 trainees. The voyages were held on Port Phillip Bay, and lasted 10 days and the ship generally anchored overnight. Chris has continued to be involved with the ship for 16 years. Some trainees have gone on to make shipping their occupation.
The expensive training program was subsidised by weekend adult cruises which could take up to 100 passengers but unfortunately in 1999 the ship failed to meet requirements of the Marine Board and she was taken out of service. She was transferred to Port Macquarie for restoration but due to lack of funds was simply used as a museum.
In 2007 funds were raised to organise the return of the vessel to Melbourne. It took 8 days to motor her down to her home at Shed 2, Victoria Dock in Docklands. Major sponsors for the restoration are the City of Melbourne, Lend Lease and Danish marine paint company. Hempel Paints.
Whilst restoration continues over the next 2 years, there is a visitor centre at Shed 2 Docklands which is open on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Contributed by Jan Hanslow (PPPG Member No. 1057)
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