Pompei Boat Builders
The Pompei family of traditional wooden boat builders.
Jack and Joe Pompei truly represent the heart and soul of Mordialloc and Melbourne classic wooden boat building. Jack was known as Mr Mordialloc over the last 40 to 50 years of his life. Jack was quoted in the media as saying...
Dad, over the years, used to...
you know, he taught us to build timber boats and he would say to me,
"If you can't walk round a boat, don't be on it."
In other words, it's dangerous 'cause it hasn't got enough stability.
We'd look at other people's boats and make our boats better.
Pompei Brothers mordialloc boat works
Pompei Boat Works, has been a Mordialloc and Victorian boat building institution for almost 100 years, the time honoured method of carvel planked wooden boatbuilding is how things are still and always will be done, here in Mordialloc.
There is a varied collection of old boats of all designs and uses, in a row, on the hardstand, out the front of the historical boat works factory and yard. The vessels in various states of repair are typically, propped up by a mix of wooden uprights, drums, stumps or brick stacks ... any material that will make a reliable hardstand.
Some of these old boats appear to the untrained eye to be beyond repair, but that is the beauty of a traditionally planked wooden boat, every individual piece is replaceable. Joe Pompei, the last of the famous family of Mordialloc boatbuilding shipwrights, views these tired-looking craft with a different perspective... he views them through his unique shipwright’s view. To Joe, no stage of decay is beyond resurrection, just a keel and a few ribs and new planks, it's all possible.
Boat building and traditional shipwright skills have remained unchanged at Pompei’s Victorian boat yard, for almost 100 years. Classic Wooden Boats from the yard, have sailed or steamed all over the Australian coast line. From the smallest carvel putt putt's to classic sailboats and working Couta boats to Bass Strait shark boats. Work and recreational vessels over 50 feet in length, classic wooden boats power or sail, were built in the Pompei shed, with up to 4 large vessels per year completed and ready to launch.
According to Jack.... "I was building wooden boats at home, and then we finished up over here because we couldn't get land. That's going back a few years. I was going to school and on the boats... what school I did.
Jack would go out and look for boat building projects. He'd do the initial talking with the people who wanted a wooden boat built, he'd draw up the plans, he'd work through all that initial detail and planning. According to Jack... A lot of fishermen didn't understand a drawing. They used to make half a model. They would cut the model up and then take drawings off it.
Brother Joe is more hands-on and reputedly works like three people. "He's so strong, he's got a great knowledge, he's got the trades to make all the parts of the boats that you need. If I need a bolt, or there's something missing, I just send up to Joe, tell him the size, and Joe goes into the tool shed and makes it. It was a part of his trade."
Pompei boatbuilders really was the complete family show. They did not have to go outside their own business for assistance to build boats.
Technology and Power tools
Under the ever watchful eye of Joe Pompei, there is no need or a place for technology, there are no computers, no CAD drafting or lofting, it’s all about the adze, mallets, caulking iron and steamers that are the norm. The old traditional way of wooden boatbuilding, is still the best way. Nothing has changed since Jack's passing in 2008.
Joe Pompei's views and focus remain fixed in the centuries old tradition of carvel, planked wood on frame boat building.
According to Joe, in more recent times... "We've got power tools now. We've got electric drills. We used to wind them up by hand once. Thousands of holes and boring bars. Now we've got an electric plane and a thicknesser, bandsaws ... I used to cut the planks out with a ripsaw.
And we still use the edge, of course.
You can't give up the old edge. You've got to be careful using that because you can cut your legs off. You've got to know how to use it. But otherwise, yes, we're using proper nails instead of 2-3 nails. Years ago, when we were all fit and young, we used to build three boats a year from 40 feet up to 50 feet. But that was really working.
Jack was quoted in 2002.... "We had approximately around about 13-14 men working in those days. They built three or four of those type of vessels a year, side by side.
Now, it takes us about 12 months. I think old age has caught up with us. Or stiff knees. I used to do some funny, stupid things.
We're probably going to build another one, 48 feet. Getting a bit old in the tooth now. But, um -- yeah, we still desire to build a wooden boat.
About Jack and Joe Pompei
Jack Pompei, was the third generation of the family who plyed their boat building trade alongside the Mordialloc creek. Jack a, boatbuilder, fisherman and non swimmer is unsure where he was born, but the year was 1924.
He thinks his elder brother, Salvatore, was born in Sicily and perhaps he was born there too. His own earliest recollections are of being a toddler in Williams Street, Mordialloc. The second child of Salvatore and Edna Pompei, Jack had three brothers, Salvatore, John, and Joseph, and two sisters, Maria and Rene.
Jack's father was a sailor on sailing ships and later steamers. "An orphan, he could neither read nor write," said Jack. "He was married in Sicily. He was torpedoed twice by the Germans during the First World War. He went right around the world and always wanted to go to New York but he never got there. Eventually he decided to settle with mum and the family in Mordialloc. Dad was a professional fisherman. When I was 14, 15 and 16, I would go out on his boat called Peter Pan, although it had a different name before that. Later he had the Victoria. which they started to build at Frankston and I finished at Mordialloc."
Jack had an unquenchable love for boatbuilding, Port Phillip Bay and the Mordialloc Creek. He went to St Brigid's school but played the wag a lot. He had no interest in school.
"I went and worked with dad while still at school and he taught me a lot about boats. I was boat mad. You could say I was born with a boat in my hand. I started to build boats at home and dad helped. Dad sent me down to Herbie Maumell at Frankston to help him in building boats.
Later I went to school at Footscray Tech where four or five of us were taught about boat building. It got to the stage where I was helping the teacher. It was Alan Richie who taught me about engines.
There was a time when I was building boats on Ken Kirby's farm in Follett Road, Cheltenham where he lent me a shed. It was about six months later when dad came to me and said he had some land for me at Mordialloc. We built a shed there, where the factory is today."
Since his school days, Jack has built and repaired hundreds of boats at his Mordialloc factory on Nepean Highway. There are Pompei boats at King Island, New Guinea, Queensland, Western Port Bay and of course on Port Phillip Bay. He estimated he has built 90 per cent of the clinker-built boats on the bay. (The clinker boat is one where the boards are overlayed like on a weatherboard house.)
Even today at 76 years of age Jack keeps working, building and maintaining boats, and yarning with friends and fellow fishermen about their catches. "How did you go?" is a question asked of returning fishermen.
Beside boats being repaired, the Mordialloc factory is full of timber and off-cuts that might be used for some small part of a boat to be built in the future. From the wall hang patterns for section of boats and tables overflow with boat plans, evidence of Jack's draughtsmanship skills.
It is these same skills he has used in drawing up proposals for the development and preservation of the Mordialloc Creek.
Jack has worked tirelessly over the years to protect the creek.
"Take the creek out of Mordialloc and there would be nothing here," is how he expressed it. "A few years back you couldn't get a mooring for your boat, now there are 80 moorings vacant because the creek is silting up and we have the problem of the reeds. They stop the flow of water and collect rubbish but some people like them."
There is also the problem of vandalism. "There was a time when you could leave things in a boat with no worries. Everyone helped one another, there was community spirit amongst the fishermen. Now boats are damaged and graffiti scrawled across other people's property." "At one time", he said "the Pompeis had 44 boats on the creek for hire, and three people were employed full time, but the vandals made short work of them." They now have six boats.
"There was a time on a Saturday when we would have 88,000 people at Mordialloc having picnics and enjoying the beach and creek. We used to sell them hot water during the Depression in the 1930's. You had to do this to survive. There were six passenger boats that would bring people to the Mordialloc pier.
There were twenty fishermen tying up their boats in the creek. People enjoyed the creek as it was full of fish. There was bream, flathead, whiting and snapper. The record for a bream was six and half pounds. Fish would swim up the creek with tears in their eyes. That was how clean the water was. You could take passengers up as far as the Springvale Road Bridge. There were 90 boats moored on the school side of the Railway bridge."
Severe flooding in 1934 brought about a decision to block the winding Mordialloc Creek and in the years that followed silt and pollution built up. Fish disappeared from the creek. The murky stretch of water became so badly fouled that people were warned that swimming there was dangerous.
Various committees investigated the problems of the creek and made recommendations but Jack believes not enough action has occurred. "When Stan Hawkins was Mayor of Mordialloc the water in the creek stopped. It was bone dry. A petition to save the creek, to dredge it, was organised and 8.000 people went through the factory to sign it. There was a meeting with the EPA in Sir Dallas Brookes Hall in the city where it was said $75,000 was needed. We have had meeting after meeting, it goes on forever. If you're not prepared to spend money on it you might as well barrel it and fill it in."
Jack has himself put in walls on the creek bank where he moors his boats and worked with the Public Works Department to create walls on the opposite bank. Through his efforts the mouth of the creek was changed to a little south of the pier, part of the pier was enclosed to stop water rushing through and thereby help restore the beach, and the creek was widened in some parts. Dredging has been undertaken at various time with the silt being deposited at different sites including the Parkdale Primary School, the Mordialloc and Cheltenham Community Hospital, St Brigid's, and what was once the Warren Road tip.
Jack's proposals for the creek include extending the mouth of the creek to the end of the pier and to curve it around to the deep water, to prevent it being choked up with sand banks. "Too often people have not been able to get their boats out of the creek because of the sand bars. We have the safest port and the worst entrance, it must be protected in all seas.
Bring the passenger boats back to bring tourists into the town. They will spend money and people will be employed. Put in silt traps, replant the red gum trees that produce durable wood and dredge once very three years." To Jack it is common sense to put a drag line through the creek and dredge it to Carrum. "They are building houses at Aspendale Court so they could use a boat to go shopping but the top end is silted up and boats are sitting on mud.".
Like his father before him, Jack has rescued many people stranded on the bay and although the water police took over this task in the 1970's Jack has continued to provide assistance when necessary. Over the years he has rescued more than 600 people. He became involved in rescue work because locals valued his knowledge of the bay and because he was willing to take his boat out day or night, no matter what the weather.
He commented, "People just started calling me whenever there was someone overdue or there had been an accident. The bay can be treacherous to those who don't know it and very unpredictable." In 1987 Jack Pompei was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for his services to marine search and rescue in Port Phillip Bay.
Whitehead, G. J., (1998) Interview with Jack Pompei, November 1998.
Sun, Saturday June 8, 1985.
The author has had the pleasure of owning two Pompei classic wooden boats, a 12 ft clinker fishing boat at Marlo in the late 1960's and Amazing Grace, his current vessel of the last 5 years. A heavy displacement, carvel planked, Huon Pine, motor sailer ketch that will feature in the boat stories section. It is with great pleasure that I compile this page on Jack (deceased) and Joe, who has been an invaluable source of information and help, as I continue to work on Amazing Grace.