Return of the Couta Boats by Bruce Stannard

Although Couta Boats are uniquely associated with Victoria’s historic fishing ports like Queenscliff, Port Fairy, Portland, San Remo and Lorne, few realise that the handsome gunter-rigged boats also have had a long and illustrious association with racing on Sydney Harbour – one that goes all the way back to the 1880s.
It was the prominent Sydney businessman and enthusiastic sailor, Mark Foy who brought the first Couta Boat north to the Harbour. Foy’s father had been the lighthouse keeper at Point Lonsdale and he had grown up watching the Couta Boats braving the treacherous tidal waters of The Rip.
Foy was in Melbourne attending the Centenary Regatta on Port Phillip Bay in November, 1888 and there he closely followed the outcome of the race for fishermen’s boats exceeding 25 feet.
He was deeply impressed by the astonishing speed shown by Charlie Miller’s Queenscliff Couta Boat Mayflower which had won the race easily. Mayflower was so obviously superior to every other boat in the event that on the third day of the regatta she was invited to take part in a special match-race against the crack Sydney open boat Aileen.
At stake was a purse of £50. In today’s money that’s the equivalent of $5,000.
According to a report in The Australasian newspaper, “The Aileen, which was sailed on the Sydney principle of live ballast, carried 13 hands, whilst the Mayflower was steadied by dead ballast, which her crew was not permitted to shift. The Aileen took the lead at first, but was soon passed by the Mayflower.”
Speed under sail was of the utmost importance to the Couta Boat fishermen because once their two-man crews had caught their quota of barracouta (the staple of Melbourne’s fish and chips trade) they were obliged to fly home as quickly as possible to secure not only the best place at the jetty but also the best price for their fish. Their lines had therefore evolved to reflect both good sea-keeping qualities and extraordinary sail-carrying power.
Mark Foy was so impressed with the Mayflower’s racing ability that he bought the traditional Queenscliff boat on the spot and had her shipped back to Sydney where he renamed her Kananook.
Mark Foy, first to bring the Couta Boats to Sydney.Foy soon learned there was a special knack to sailing the clinker-built Couta Boat with its standing lug rig and after several unsuccessful outings on the Harbour he swallowed his pride and called for the help of Harry Hoppen, a wily, weather-beaten couta fisherman from Queenscliff.
Hoppen, a natural sailor who understood the boat instinctively, soon had her winning. Kananook’s continuing success soon encouraged other yachtsmen to follow Mark Foy’s example in buying the fastest Couta Boats and shipping them up to Sydney.
In 1914, Sydney Amateur Sailing Club member Oscar Backhouse brought the 28ft Queenscliff Couta Boat Dawn and raced her with great success on the Harbour until 1938.
Mark Foy’s Couta Boat Kananook raced with Sydney Flying Squadron in the 1890s.In the second decade of the 20th century the Sydney Amateurs had a large number of half-decked centreboard vessels on its register. SASC members Fred Lomar and Walter Dendy (who was then General Manager of the Port Jackson and Manly Steamship Company) had two of these boats constructed by Balmain boatbuilder James Hayes.
In an article published in the Sunday News, Dendy (under the nom de plume Ben Bobstay) wrote that the boats were “renowned for their handiness, speed, seaworthiness and comfort for cruising.”
“What is not well-known,” he added, “is that they were ‘built on the lines of the Queenscliff fishing vessels.’”
In 1919, interest in the Couta Boats was further aroused with the appearance of the Charlie Peel designed Native.
Couta Boat fishermen, Portland, Victoria, 1890s.In 1914 Peel had moved from Melbourne to Sydney where he took up the position of foreman at the famous Hayes yard at Balmain. Native had enjoyed outstanding success in racing with the Hobson’s Bay Yacht Club before she was bought by Walter Dendy for racing with the Amateurs.
Peel continued to work with Charlie Hayes until his return to Melbourne in 1927. It was a period in which the Hayes yard turned out many of the Amateurs’ popular 25ft centreboarders and Fred Lomar’s 28ft centreboard coachhouse cruiser Sea Belle, later to become famous as June Bird.
Although the basic Couta Boat was very successful at racing, it seems that SASC members in the 1920s also expected their boats to be comfortable cruisers as well. Many of the Couta Boats were therefore given coachhouses while their centreboard cases were removed and replaced with lead keels. These modifications were made to the Native when she was converted to a cruiser in 1921.
The Queenscliffe Couta fleet arriving home after a day’s fishing.In the same year, Walter Dendy took delivery of Sea Bird, a new Couta Boat from the renowned Melbourne designer and builder J.B. Jones. She soon went through the usual Sydney modifications, the addition of a low-slung coachhouse and a hefty lead shoe on her keel. Within a year Dendy ordered another Jones-built Couta Boat named Salacia and in 1922 yet another he named Sea Rover.
Dendy continued his almost obsessive practice of buying and selling Couta Boats. In his 27 years with the Amateurs he owned no less than 33 boats. At the club’s AGM in 1924 he presented a lantern-slide lecture in which he extolled the virtues of the Queenscliff Couta Boats.
Kananook wore her traditional standing lug rig on Sydney Harbour although Foy gave her a garish green and white striped suit of sails.When he eventually gave up sailing to concentrate on building the Manly ferries Dee Why, South Steyn and North Steyn on the Clyde and steaming them out to Sydney, his driving impetus went with him and no new Couta Boats were built for the Sydney market.
Although the existing Couta Boats continued to race successfully on the Harbour for many years, the shape and style of the SASC fleet began to change with the introduction of Bermudan rig. Two of those early Couta Boats, Salacia (later renamed Nyria) and Sea Rover are still with us, although sorely in need of urgent restoration.
Sea Bird, a Queenscliffe Couta Boat racing on Sydney Harbour, 1921.Now, a new generation of Couta Boats is making its presence felt, not on the Harbour, but on Pittwater where a fledgling fleet of five race in their own division at Royal Prince Alfred Yacht Club. These were the beautiful boats we saw at the Old Gaffers Regatta.
They were all designed and built at Sorrento by Tim Phillips’ Wooden Boat Shop. Tim is the boat builder who is primarily responsible for the extraordinary revival of the Couta Boats in Victoria. His passion for traditional fishing boats has sparked an almost evangelical fervour among Victorian sailors, so much so, that more than 180 of these beautiful boats have now been restored or newly built in and around Port Phillip Bay.

The Sorrento to Queenscliff ferry provides a grandstand view of the Couta Boat fleet.
It is an unforgettable sight to see fleets of up to 60 Couta Boats racing neck and neck in the regattas that now go on throughout the year. In the fullness of time, it’s hoped that similar fleets might be seen in New South Wales waters. Mick Morris, who races his boat Cariad with the Alfreds, believes that the Pittwater fleet will double in size by the year 2020.
Couta Boats racing neck and neck off Queenscliff.Two of the Pittwater boats are owned by syndicates who share the cost of construction and maintenance and also enjoy the shared fun and camaraderie of racing together.
We don’t know what Mark Foy paid for Mayflower back in 1888, but the “sail-away price” offered by Tim Phillips for a newly-built Couta Boat is $130,000. Not bad for a custom-built 26footer with a 10ft beam that comes complete with all spars and sails and a compact 15hp Yanmar diesel discreetly tucked away beneath the cockpit sole.
“My Couta Boats are built with exactly the same traditional techniques that were used in the 19th century,” Tim said. “We believe it is vitally important that we retain their historic integrity. That’s one of the great attractions in a Couta Boat, the sense of being an integral part of a heritage that goes all the way back to our beginnings as a maritime nation.”
For further details on Couta Boats visit www.woodenboatshop.com.au