Be an an­cient mariner for the day

Learn the ropes aboard the good ship Polly Wood­side

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - LEE MYLNE

FOR a short time on a sunny Mel­bourne day, I am James Young from Lon­don­derry, a 25-year-old able-bod­ied sea­man with a limp. My new per­sona re­quires me to present my­self quay­side for ser­vice aboard the good ship Polly Wood­side, con­sid­ered one of the world’s most sig­nif­i­cant sur­viv­ing iron ves­sels.

My pa­pers, handed to me as I ar­rive at the bar­que’s South Wharf dock, tell me my ship is bound for New­cas­tle and thence to South Amer­ica. I can ex­pect to be away for no more than two years. In re­al­ity, Polly Wood­side is sail­ing nowhere and I am bound only for a short visit aboard, to try to imag­ine what life might have been like for the real James Young and his ship­mates in the 1890s.

Af­ter a re­de­vel­op­ment that took four years, this spec­tac­u­lar and el­e­gant tall ship, loved by gen­er­a­tions of Mel­bur­ni­ans, is wel­com­ing vis­i­tors back to learn about its dis­tin­guished his­tory.

A glimpse of life at sea in the 19th cen­tury is of­fered to vis­i­tors in a small the­atre within the new gallery-style mu­seum in the orig­i­nal dock­side sheds. Shaped like a half-com­pleted ship’s hull, the the­atre runs a short film recre­at­ing the first voy­age of ship’s car­pen­ter Ge­orge An­drews in 1904. Based on An­drews’s diary, which is on dis­play in the gallery, it of­fers a re­al­is­tic and unglam­orous glimpse of the per­ils of life at sea. En­try to the gallery is through a re­volv­ing bar­rel walk­way and there are six ex­hi­bi­tion ar­eas, with in­ter­ac­tive dis­plays about life at sea, the crew, nav­i­ga­tion, Mel­bourne’s docks and mar­itime his­tory.

Each vis­i­tor is handed a cer­tifi­cate of com­pe­tency that gives them, for the du­ra­tion of the tour, the iden­tity of a sailor. There’s a bit of role-play­ing for fun, but the lead is taken by a first-mate guide who spells out what life was like aboard the 229-foot sail­ing ship in its hey­day. The rules are firm and fines are im­posed on trans­gres­sors: five shillings for as­sault­ing any per­son be­long­ing to the ship, for smug­gling spir­i­tu­ous liquors aboard or for drunk­en­ness (first of­fence), and for pos­sess­ing firearms, knuck­le­dusters, loaded cane, sling-shot, sword, stick, bowie knife, dag­ger or other weapon. Af­ter the first of­fence, the penalty for drunk­en­ness dou­bles. We con­sider our­selves well warned.

Once aboard the ship, crew ini­ti­a­tions take place on the hour be­tween 10am and 4pm, with the last one of the day giv­ing you the chance to help lower the sails. Tours are op­tional; if you pre­fer, you can just ex­plore the decks and cabins in­de­pen­dently.

Polly Wood­side, named for the wife of first owner Wil­liam Wood­side, was launched in 1885 in Belfast, and in the pe­riod to 1904 made 17 trips across the world, in­clud­ing round­ing the in­fa­mous Cape Horn 16 times. Af­ter World War II, the ship was based in Mel­bourne and for 20 years was used for sup­ply­ing coal to other ships.

Now run by the National Trust, Polly Wood­side is aimed at fam­i­lies and has lots of fun ac­tiv­i­ties and hands-on stuff for kids, in­clud­ing Pi­rate Day on the first Sun­day of ev­ery month, and story-time for un­der-sev­ens at 11am ev­ery Tues­day.

Polly Wood­side takes its ‘pas­sen­gers’ into the past

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