LAST week a major milestone in the restoration efforts of three-masted wooden topsail schooner Alma Doepel was reached by installing the lower steel masts. More wooden extension pieces will be added later, with the spars and rigging to follow.

“Stepping the masts”, as it is called in nautical vernacular, is another major step in getting the ship ready for her role in offering a “voyage of a lifetime” for young people.

The masts, which had been prepared in the shed next to the ship with rigging attached, were lifted onto the ship by a 250-tonne crawler crane situated on a jack-up barge alongside the Alma. Baghwan Marine kindly took a day out of their busy schedule of wharf remediation at Station Pier to come over to North Wharf and carefully lift the masts into place.

Maritime traditions

Part of installing the masts is an age-old tradition where a coin (usually brass) is placed under the main mast. When placing the coin the following words were said: “May this coin maintain among us cheerfulness and a good ship’s spirit in all we do both ashore and afloat. Grant us fair weather in all our voyages and always bring us safely to port.”

The ancient Greeks had a practice of placing coins under the mast of their sailing vessels. This was copied by the Romans and through the ages the custom remained. Historians believe the tradition is connected to the funeral practice of laying coins on the eyes of the dead. The coins were to pay the ferryman for the crossing of the river Styx into the afterlife.

Because sailors regularly lost their lives at sea the placing of the coin under the mast was to be a payment for the crew to pass into the afterlife. In Alma’s case the coin was a 1903 penny, the year the Alma was launched in Northern NSW by timber merchant Frederick Doepel.

The restoration

The Alma Doepel has been undergoing a major restoration program whilst alongside North Wharf in Docklands over the last 10 years. Initially the ship was floated onto a barge as she had to be completely re-planked with 300 spotted gum planks. In late 2021 she was lifted off the barge into the water with assistance of the heavy lift ship AAL Shanghai and Svitzer tugs. Since then, the deck has been completed, engines installed, and she has been prepared to install the masts.

So far, more than 100,000 volunteer hours, a few million dollars, including generous contributions from individuals and industry have got the ship to this stage. Subject to sufficient funding, the ship will be completed by late 2025 or early 2026 to resume her role of youth development training.

The Waypoint Foundation will facilitate sailing voyages on the Alma Doepel for youth experiencing a range of life challenges, a role which the ship undertook in the ‘80s and ‘90s. We hope that the Alma will facilitate positive changes in the lives of the young people that sail on her in the future by delivering life-changing programs on building leadership, resilience, empathy, self-esteem, tolerance and understanding.

Head to the Alma Doepel website for more information and photos of the event, or if you would like to donate to the project.