HISTORICAL FEATURE - Aged in Wood

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The Pompeis have been a Victorian institution for almost 100 years, the old ways of wooden boatbuilding still very much in vogue at the Mordialloc factory run by a never-say-die septuagenarian

HISTORICAL FEATURE - Aged in Wood
HISTORICAL FEATURE — Aged in Wood

There are no computers, no CAD drawings, no robotic routers, not a whiff of plastic; here it’s the adze, caulking iron, steamers and mallet that reign — the old traditional way of wooden boatbuilding, still the best way. This is Pompei’s Mordialloc Boat Building Works, some 24km southeast of Melbourne on the eastern shores of Port Phillip Bay. It’s an establishment, a local institution for almost 100 years, that’s holding steadfastly onto the past, while the modern world whizzes by on nearby Nepean Highway.

Crusty old boats of all shapes and sizes line the front of the two-story red-brick factory, propped up by a mix of wooden beams, fuel drums, stumps or bricks — anything that will make a sturdy hardstand. They in turn sit among long grass and self-sown shrubs, the whole scene seemingly incongruous with the rest of main street Mordialloc. Everywhere else in this gentrified bayside suburb are beautifully manicured foreshore gardens, curbs and modern buildings, as are the banks and walkways along nearby Mordialloc Creek.

Fair dinkum, some of these old boats you and I would probably put a match to, such is there apparent decrepitness, but not Joe. Possessing a shipwright’s eye, Joe Pompei, the last of the famous family of Victorian boatbuilding artisans views these tired-looking craft with a different perspective — to him no stage of decay is beyond resurrection, just a keel and a few ribs and voila, he’ll make a complete boat in a matter of weeks — as well as new ones, of course. The common denominator in that construction/restoration is wood.

That’s the way it has pretty much been at Pompei’s for almost 100 years. Boats from the yard, in the hundreds, have spread far and wide, from the smallest sailboat to coutas to anything up to fifty-something-footers, power or sail, and all leaving the shed complete turnkey and ready to launch.

Established by Joe’s Sicilian father Salvatore early last century, Pompei’s was in turn run by Joe and brother Jack, both locally born. The latter was for years the frontman of the operation until his death in 2008, Joe the backroom boy content with mastering his craft.

Jack Pompei, a talented shipwright and designer too, became known as Mr Mordialloc, an advocate for local issues, such as saving the local creek when it was blocked to stop flooding and nearly dried-up.
He was also awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia in 1987 for his years of service rescuing more than 600 stranded boaters out on Port Phillip Bay before the Water Police took over the role in the 1970s.

Apart from boatbuilding, the Pompei’s also ran a popular boat-hire service out of Mordy Creek for many years, leaving countless locals and out-of-town visitors fond memories of taking one of their open boats out for a day’s fishing.

TIME CAPSULE
Entering Pompei’s cavernous workshop today and you’re overwhelmed by a sea of stuff among four boat hulls on the floor, as well as being thrust back in time. Inside, there’s templates, ladders and craypots draping the walls, while timber planks, offcuts, milk bottle crates, tins, power cords, bench saws and planes, and other equipment and who knows what appear to fill the rest of the void.

There’s a loft on top of a brick construction, the latter housing the metal-working room with big lathe, props and shafts — in here Joe can whip up a bolt of any size and thread. He tells us that when his father began the family business, everything was done in the open, the small brick room among the first buildings, and eventually engulfed by the current factory.

It may seem a haphazard mess on the factory floor, but the obvious craftsmanship on the boats under repair tells a different story and everything does have its place. There are narrow walkways and ramps to each project, and two in particular have Joe’s attention. The first is a near-complete 15-foot clinker open boat, with rows of shiny new bronze rivets that was a few weeks earlier only a bow and ribs from somewhere in Tasmania. The other, on its side, is an 18-foot lifeboat from HMASGladstone, a WWII minesweeper launched in 1942 that saw service in New Guinea.

When Trade-a-Boat caught-up with Joe, neatly dressed in carpenter’s overalls and a black T-shirt, he was sitting in the middle at the back of the shop, ahead of a boat frame of ribs and keel perched up above the rest like a monument of sorts. This eventual 25-foot half-cabin, when finished, will be heading to the Hawkesbury River region north of Sydney.


Joe is scribbling numbers on a scrap of paper. "Working out the dimensions of where the next job goes," he explains. We’re obviously at one of his office desks — well that’s what one wag says — although deep cut marks suggest it also doubles as another workbench. There’s barely enough room for him to write, and nearby stools — the one’s he’s sitting on just bits of offcut nailed together — attest to this area being the place to talk work, natter and have a cuppa.

MR MUSCLE
Lean and tanned, Joe’s arms and hands are well-muscled from years of working with wood mixed with a diet of sporting prowess, local footy champ, and noted swimmer and lifesaver. Some say in his day he was as strong as three men and anecdotes such as a physician breaking a needle while having a deep gash in his hand stitched – without painkiller mind you – are legendary. Oh, and he was also a talented boxer back in the fifties, when trained by Ambrose Palmer no less. Famous Aussie boxers Johnny Famechon (also from the Palmer gym) and Lionel Rose, regular visitors at Pompei’s.

Time marches on and, as mentioned earlier, Joe is the now the last of family’s boatbuilders. The business in its heyday employed 15 tradies, including the likes of Ken Lacco, who would go on to become famous in his own right as a designer and boatbuilder. Joe reckons these days it’s hard to find tradespeople proficient with wooden boats, particularly for the big jobs.

BUSINESS AS USUAL
Joe says he’s 94, but hedges at being asked as age and adds, "How old do you think I am?" A hunch of the shoulders and he muses, "You’re only as old as you feel." He clearly won’t say, fair enough, but we work out from an old clipping from the sports pages of the defunct Melbourne daily The Argus, that he’s 77.

It’s obvious he has no time for getting old, let alone retirement, the next job always at the forefront of his thoughts. His craft is his life, he’s never been married, has no dependants, and is always at work, even on Christmas Day. He doesn’t know what will happen to the family business, there’s no-one to carry it on. But before that ever happens, Joe remains busily at work — there’s a steady stream of clients to keep him so, with a family business name as famous as his, he doesn’t have to advertise.

His knowledge of boatbuilding timbers is sort by not only boat owners but also others, like scuba diver friends, who happen upon an old wreck and seek his advice to find out the country of origin from the wood. There are plenty of shipwrecks that dot Australia’s rugged southern coastline, the eternally shifting sands revealing their presence for a short time before covering them up.

He rummages around in a milk crate and pulls out a lump of wood and a thick, dark-coloured dowel with a stamp of some description etched in the end, possibly a builder’s mark. "They used dowels like this instead of nails," he explains. The other piece has been shaved at one end to reveal the white grain, but Joe doesn’t know the wood and says he will forward it on to the CSIRO for analysis. "You can trace a boat by the timber — it could be English oak or elm," he adds. "The Portuguese, Spanish, French and English boats were all made of different types of wood specific to the country. And who’s to say it isn’t an old Chinese ship, they’ve been in the Australian Bight too."

HUON V KAURI
Pressed for an opinion, Joe prefers Tasmania’s famous Huon pine just over New Zealand kauri as the ultimate boat material. "Huon is only a young tree when it’s 2000 years-old — beautiful smell too," he says, pointing to a stack of the hard-to-get timber piled on the floor for one of his next jobs. But he can build a boat from anything a client wants: Queensland white beech, mahogany, teak, Douglas fir, whatever, he says.

Pompei’s Mordialloc Boat Building Works is the last of a string of establishments that plied their craft along the banks of the creek. Names like Peter Payne, Benson & Shaw, Seacraft are now consigned to history’s pages, and Pompei possibly the last chapter in Mordialloc’s rich boatbuilding heritage.

And when it goes the only reminder will be the red sculpture of a boat’s ribbed frame that rises alongside Nepean Highway’s four-lane Mordialloc Creek bridge that was rebuilt and completed in 2008 — and renamed Pompei Bridge by popular demand.


The 54ft Schooner Friendship (above) is a Pompei, designed on a North Sea trader and in charter in the Whitsundays.

Joe Pompei still hard at work.

The jobs pile-up out the front of Pompei's Mordialloc factory.

Space is at a premium on the workshop floor.

The Pompei 45 Fernanda was advertised in Trade-a-Boat Issue 424.

Pompei boats are found Australia-wide; here's another somewhere in the Whitsundays.

Joe takes a break from his busy schedule.

A Pompei fishing boat in Darwin.


Schooner Friendship being launched at Mordialloc in 1992.

Joe at his trusty metal-working lathe.

Joe inspecting his handiwork on the lifeboat of the WWII minesweeper HMAS Gladstone.

A diver found these two pieces of wood from an old wreck, but the origin and type of wood remain a mystery.

Superbly maintained wooden boats line Mordy Creek today.

You can't miss Pompei's, just look for Seeker's towering hull in fading orange primer. A former 54ft Cairns fishing boat, she's had several owners and Joe is still waiting to be paid on work he did years ago... and won't let it go until he does.

The new Mordialloc Creek bridge (above) was dedicated (below) to the Pompei boatbuilding dynasty.


A
red sculpture was also erected in recognition of Mordialloc's long boatbuilding history.


Joe with another job a client dropped off - he doesn't need to advertise.

From Trade-a-Boat Issue 425, March-Apr, 2012. Photos by John Panozzo; Supplied.

 


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