The reopening of Titanic Belfast under Covid-19 health regulations was announced here recently, but it’s not the only museum celebrating our unique maritime history that’s been affected by the pandemic!

Whilst monitoring coronavirus’s burgeoning statistics, particularly across Europe, I am regularly reminded of places I have visited in the past.

Every virus-update leaves me pensively pondering my archived photographs - an Alpine stream, a Mediterranean village, an African market, a Middle East border zone - places I’ve been to, now in the grips of pandemic.

But the Impartial Explorer is a mere day-tripper compared with people from Northern Ireland who have made their mark on history, in faraway lands now overshadowed by Covid-19.

Our famous politicians, military leaders and industrialists, ‘exported’ to every continent; our explorers, our heroes of two world wars, our scientists, inventors, cultural giants, zealous missionaries and far-flung churchmen.

And our ships!

Reading about the recent lockdown in Melbourne, Australia, I was reminded of one of the city’s busiest and best-loved tourist attractions.

The usually-packed public gangway is now closed to a little Belfast-built ship in the city, with a long and colourful history.

The multi-award-winning Polly Woodside Tall Ship and Museum in the heart of Melbourne’s South Wharf, run by Victoria’s National Trust, is regarded as one of Australia’s most enchanting attractions.

Built and launched on the River Lagan in 1885, the three-masted cargo vessel carried coal and wheat between England and South America.

After travelling 1.7 million kilometres and circumnavigating the world 17 times, the Polly Woodside is now one of Australia’s most popular visitor attractions.

But because of the lockdown it is temporarily closed until further notice.

The historic little vessel was built by Belfast’s so-called ‘wee yard’ - Workman Clark & Co Ltd - actually one of the largest of the British shipbuilders and only called ‘wee’ because Harland and Wolff was the biggest of them all!

She was iron-hulled, barque-rigged, 192-feet-long, 678 gross tons, capable of around 14 knots with a crew of up to 20 men.

Polly Woodside’s owner was William Woodside, a Belfast ship owner.

He gave the vessel his wife Marian’s nickname - Polly!

Between 1885 and 1904 the Polly Woodside made 17 trips to many parts of the world including South and North America, Australia and Africa and rounded the infamous Cape Horn 16 times.

She mostly carried coal and nitrate, but as the trade began to diminish and returned little or no profit, between 1900 and 1904 the ship went on two round-the-world voyages picking up and discharging cargoes wherever they could be found. This was called ‘tramping’.

In 1904 she was sold to a New Zealand firm and renamed ‘Rona’, operating mostly between Australia and New Zealand.

As she was working in the transition-years between sail and steam, the increased competition provided by steamships meant that Rona’s mast and yardarms were removed and she was towed to Melbourne to be converted into a coal lighter.

Two mishaps occurred in the last years of her sailing career. In March 1920, a schooner in San Francisco harbour collided with Rona at anchor, causing minor damage.

In June 1921, carrying a cargo of coal, Rona grounded on Steeple Rock, off Wellington Heads, New Zealand.

Fortunately, she was she was able to be towed into Wellington harbour for repair.

In 1922 Rona was sold to the Adelaide Steamship Co. Ltd. for conversion to a coal hulk, transporting coal to steamships.

She came to Melbourne where she refuelled vessels moored in the harbour until 1964.

For almost 40 years Rona was one of around two dozen hulks that were in regular use in Hobson’s Bay and the Yarra River re-fuelling ships with coal in the Port of Melbourne.

Due to the 1930’s depression and the increased use of fuel oil, their numbers steadily declined until Rona was the only one left.

Between 1943 and 1946 she was requisitioned by the Australian Navy for war service, refuelling navy ships in Papua, New Guinea.

By the 1960s Rona was becoming dirtier, rustier and less in demand until she was finally laid up at Melbourne’s South Wharf while plans were drawn for her preservation.

In 1968 she was handed over to the National Trust of Australia (Victoria) and sold for just one cent.

She was given back her original name of Polly Woodside and for the next 10 years extensive renovations were undertaken to restore her as closely as possible to her 1885 configuration.

In 1978 the then Governor of Victoria, Sir Henry Winneke, opened the vessel as an onshore museum to the public in Melbourne’s Duke’s Dock.

She was closed temporarily in 2006 for major dockland development in the area and in 2011 Polly Woodside reopened on Melbourne’s South Wharf and was enormously popular, till Covid-19 temporarily closed her down.