Mr Somerville, who has been running tours of the Maribyrnong for 40 years in his rickety 1920s passenger ferry Blackbird, is a treasure trove of information about Melbourne’s maritime history.
He is a member of the Melbourne Maritime Heritage Network, established in 2018 to focus attention on the city’s neglected maritime history.
The network wants to see the establishment of a maritime trade museum, a marine skills specialist centre at Kangan TAFE in Docklands, a marine operations service depot near the Bolte Bridge and a water-edge maritime trail.
It has proposed potential sites for a maritime museum, including Collins Wharf, Yarra Bank North, beneath the Flinders Street viaducts behind Batman Park and the Marvel Stadium redevelopment.
“If you don’t know your history and you don’t recognise the past, you have no hope of good development for the future,” Mr Somerville says.
On a tour down the Maribyrnong in the Blackbird, he shows us a terminal in Yarraville, now stacked with rainbow-coloured shipping containers, that was earmarked to be a botanical garden in the 1926 Great Melbourne Plan.
“Now the only thing close to a botanic gardens are the colours [of the containers],” Mr Somerville quips.
An upturned boat, nestled among the palm trees on the banks of the Maribyrnong in Footscray, is a replica of the boat English surveyor Charles Grimes used to sail down the Yarra and Maribyrnong rivers in 1803.
At low tide at the junction of Coode Canal (the lower Yarra River) and Maribyrnong River, Mr Somerville says you can see a beach that used to be called Footscray Beach.
“All the young bucks used to swim there but after the Twin Towers episode (the September 11 terrorist attacks) the Port of Melbourne blocked everything,” Mr Somerville says.
Victoria Dock, the oldest, largest, single dock remaining in the world, was excavated by 150 men by hand and steam shovels between 1887 and 1892 to accommodate large ships of the time.
“There’s all these little bits, but if you are not interested in maritime history, it just does not get talked about,” Mr Somerville says.
Melbourne Maritime Heritage Network chair Jackie Watts says Melbourne has turned its back on its rich maritime heritage.
“Melbourne has the largest port in Australia and yet inexplicably there is no maritime museum,” says Cr Watts, who is a Melbourne city councillor.
“It is a lost opportunity to celebrate our maritime and trade history, which is the basis of the whole prosperity of the nation.”
Cr Watts says the focus of development in Docklands has been on land rather than the water, with no comprehensive strategic plans for water transport despite 37 kilometres of navigable water compared to 31 kilometres in Sydney’s ferry routes.
“Inaction carries the risk of the reclamation of the Docklands precinct becoming merely a sterile real estate development,” she writes in a research paper on the network’s website.
The network is also calling for a single maritime heritage authority, that would “address multiple bureaucratic conflicts, competing agendas and impediments”.
The report lists “bureaucratic tangles” including water access around Bolte Bridge, which is too low for ocean-going yachts and other tall ships to enter Docklands.
“Bridges across the river were all designed for road traffic not boating,” Cr Watts said.
Mr Somerville wants the history of his beloved Maribyrnong – “the Cinderella river” – to get the same attention as the Yarra.
Despite “the majority of people thinking it’s a drain”, Mr Somerville says he has seen dolphins, sea lions and fur seals in the Maribyrnong River.
“My ultimate aim before I shuffle off this mortal coil is to sit on the banks of the Maribyrnong with a plate of oysters and mussels from the river and a bottle of wine.”
Jewel Topsfield is Melbourne Editor of The Age.