Be an ancient mariner for the day
Learn the ropes aboard the good ship Polly Woodside
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