Replica ship kept afloat by volunteers after COVID closure

Liferafts don’t come much bigger than a 27-metre-tall ship, but Melbourne’s Enterprize has been a lifesaver for volunteer sailor Marcus Byron.

“If I wasn’t able to go down and work on that ship, I would have gone nuts,” says Mr Byron, a production manager in the arts who has been out of work for the majority of the pandemic.

With little else to do until theatre and stage productions are allowed again, Mr Byron has spent up to five days a week during the pandemic volunteering on the topsail schooner which is a replica of the ship that brought the first European settlers from Tasmania to found the city of Melbourne in 1835.

Ship lovers Russell Newman, Kornelia Ring and Marcus Byron are keeping the Enterprize afloat until she can set sail again when restrictions are lifted.Credit:Paul Jeffers

Mr Byron has kept his stage rigging skills sharp by tending to the masts, sails and deck of the vessel – which is kept and maintained in the exact way it would have been in the early 19th century.

“Ironically, it’s very much like theatre — we use the same terminology in sailing,” he says.

After being a lifeline for Marcus, he and a group of ship lovers are giving back to keep the Enterprize afloat after the not-for-profit that manages the ship ran out of cash and its two paid staff members were made redundant last month.

David Symes, one of the directors of the trust which oversees the ship said the redundancies were unavoidable, and COVID-19 payments from the government were unable to cover staff overheads.

“The thing about a not-for-profit, if it doesn’t have its own income generation – its costs are purely losses,” he said.

Like hundreds of tourist attractions across the city, the pandemic brought the Enterprize’s voyages to a stop. Pre-COVID-19 she would take school students out in Port Philip Bay, take passengers on trips to Portland, King Island and Hobart and service weddings and funerals alike.

But the 19th-century sailing ship has been anchored in Docklands gathering barnacles for months, and it’s now up to a volunteer crew of around half a dozen people who live within the restricted travel radiuses to take turns visiting the ship and keep up basic maintenance to stop her rotting away.

Melbourne’s Tall Ship Enterprize (replica of the ship that founded Melbourne) has run out of cash due to COVID-19 restrictions.Credit:Paul Jeffers

“We have all sorts who volunteer,” says volunteer steering committee chair Russell Newman. “Students, designers, retirees, accountants and even some astrophysicists.”

“Without volunteers maintaining her – I dread to think what would happen. A wooden ship needs constant care and maintenance or it’ll fall apart.”

Without their paid engineer and sailmaker, the volunteer crew needs specialist knowledge to do some major maintenance work needed on the ship before they’re able to take people out again.

“There’s a lot of skills that have been lost in a very specialised person,” Mr Newman said. “The [paid role] was rigger and all-round ship maintenance person – it would be certainly a piece of luck to find someone like that these days.”

For Mr Byron and Mr Newman, the easing of COVID-19 restrictions that would allow a crew of volunteers to meet up again and do the major work needed on the vessel can’t come soon enough.

Beyond that, Mr Byron hopes that after months locked down, Melburnians will be keen to get out on the high seas and bring the wind back into Enterprize’s sails this summer.

“Let me tell you when you’re on a sunset sail on a balmy summer’s evening, and you turn her around into the sunset up the Yarra [River]… at that moment you’re just cruising,” says Mr Byron. “It’s just beautiful.”

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