The deck of Pier 35 offers the best views of the confluence of the Maribyrnong and the Yarra Rivers and vessels heading to Swanson Dock.
Pier 35 is an isolated island of hospitality on the Yarra River downstream of the Bolte Bridge. Pier 35 and associated d’Albora Marina is publicly accessible but privately owned. The land was sold in the Kennett government years to Buxton who redeveloped the site.
At the southern margin of Pier 35, on a narrow sliver of land, are remnants of timber piled wharf structures.
The graffitied interpretation panel explains that ‘Old and derelict craft were a problem for the Melbourne Harbor Trust … and many ships often sunk at their moorings along the Yarra. Wooden vessels in particular posed a fire problem, and were often sunk deliberately to put out fires, but were often not raised again.
As part of fire safety measures in the 1890s to protect the port, a large timber depot was later established at Fishermens Bend, and a number of wharves and piers were built to service the yards. Six finger piers and 1100 ft of wharves were built in 1889. It was planned for moats to be built in the area behind the wharves, which was to be divided into blocks surrounded by water filled moats to prevent any potential fires spreading. However, before this work was completed, the timber trade collapsed, and the site was used as an area where old ships were moored and abandoned, which was known as Rotten Row or Siberia.’1
Even by 1937, the wharves were deteriorating and evoked a bygone era of shipping as captured in this article:
“Rotten Row” is passing, gently and peacefully, to a dirge of rippling water round rotting piles and silent, blackened hulls, but one feels that the day may be close at hand when progress and commerce will no longer permit this slow and gentle dissolution, and impatient hands will dismantle the old wharves, remove the old ships and raise some new and shining structure to take their place.
Then “Rotten Row” will be as if it has never been, and a picturesque relic of old Melbourne will have passed away.’
The wharves perhaps had a new lease of life during the Second World War.
By the late 1950s, the wharf structures were even more derelict but an exciting and slightly dangerous place for boys from Port to explore.
By the 1990s, the area had become an embarrassing eyesore and redevelopment of the site was welcomed. No mention was made in the planning permit about respecting the heritage of the site.
What happens to ships now when they reach the end of their useful life?
Last year, 763 ocean-going commercial ships and floating offshore units were sold to the scrap yards. At present, 70 – 80 percent of the international ship breaking and recycling market for ocean-going vessels is in South Asia: in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. China and Turkey cover most of the remaining market. Only about 5 percent of global volume is scrapped outside these five countries.2
In those countries, ships are broken apart directly on the beach instead of in an industrial site: a practice known as “beaching”. It is notoriously unsafe work and environmentally damaging. Since 2009, 430 deaths have been recorded.3 The value of the ships lies in the recovered steel. The industry is important to the economies of these countries but the labour practices and environmental damage have led to campaigns for improved practices in ship recycling.
Recognising the human and environmental costs of ship breaking, the International Maritime Organisation developed the the Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships which is aimed at ensuring that ships, when being recycled after reaching the end of their operational lives, do not pose any unnecessary risk to human health and safety or to the environment. However, only sixteen countries have ratified the convention so far.
The EU has set higher standards. Under the EU Ship Recycling Regulations, the beaching method is not allowed. EU listed ship recycling facilities are also subject to a higher level of scrutiny: there is independent third party certification and auditing. Requirements for downstream waste management and labour rights are included.
Next month, a conference in Rotterdam will look at ways forward from ‘the self evidently unhappy ship recycling scene’. It will showcase best practices for ship demolition and design, waste management, and material recovery and how the disposal of a ship is anticipated even at the design phase. The conference is sponsored by Elegant Exit, a company working to introduce finance and industrial process innovation to ship recycling.
And in Kiel, Leviathan GmbH has begun recycling the first vessel at the German Naval Yards in a sustainable way, pioneering green ship recycling.
Heritage Victoria Maritime Infrastructure Heritage Project Stage One: Melbourne Brad Duncan 2003, updated to 2006.
2Ship Breaking in Bangladesh Young Power in Social Action
Thank you to Allan Marshall, Reg Macey, Geoffrey Dougall, David Wallace for sharing information and photographs on Rotten Row