Boat of the Month - Lacco couta boat Gwen
The couta boat is alive and strong, particularly in its home-state of Victoria, and <I>Trade-a-Boat</I> finds one that’s still living a full life after some 50 years afloat
"You’ll never know the sea in a modern powerboat like you do in a couta boat," explains Robert Harvey at the tiller of his wooden 24-footer Gwen. The 46-year-old Warrandyte company director has been in boats since he was six and Gwen is boat number five, but the first of his flotilla to really teach him seamanship and the vagaries of the ocean.
"She’s been an education. I’d had planing trailerable boats up till then and she is my first displacement hull," said Robert. Trade-a-Boat caught up with the couta boat owner at his berth in Newhaven Yacht Squadron’s tiny marina on Victoria’s popular holiday destination, Phillip Island.
"She only does around 6 to 7kts, so without speed you soon learn to know the currents and tides, how waves form and move, and how Western Port Bay works," he explained.
To give you an idea of what local boaters have to contend with, the township of Newhaven sits at the eastern end of Phillip Island, immediately next to the only bridge to the mainland and San Remo opposite.
The bridge crosses one of the skinniest and trickiest bits of navigable waterways in the country; something like around only 600m at that point separates the island from the mainland. Here, a 100m length of the channel called The Narrows connects Western Port with the entrance to Bass Strait, and on king tides the water gushes in and out at some 5 to 6kts.
That in itself is not a problem, just a bit of inching along in the fast section, but when the tide’s outgoing, running into a strong southerly wind and a big Bass Strait swell it creates a long stretch of standing waves in the entrance.
On this side, Phillip Island curves around a wide bay to form an isthmus that juts out in a southeasterly direction at Cape Woolamai, its most southerly and highest point. The short, sharp chop carpets the entrance up to 500m offshore — most trailerboats rarely venture beyond, even on calm days preferring the sedate confines of Western Port.
That’s tough, but at least you can see what’s in store, unlike the northeastern side of Western Port Bay, it’s another challenge in its own right. The tides here fall away and leave water only 1.3m to 1.5m deep in between a myriad of exposed and shallow reefs and sand bars. Plenty of unwary boaters have come to grief, the luckier ones only getting stuck on a bar and having to wait awhile until the tide comes in.
For all this, Robert and his wife, La Trobe Uni marine biologist Dr Adele Harvey, regularly jump aboard their couta boat and head to the open ocean, as far as 4 to 5nm offshore. And advice has come freely from the old school since the Harvey family purchased the boat in 1995. You see Gwen’s appeal makes her a "social" boat.
"When you have a boat like this, the older blokes will talk to you… even yachties, who see the mast and expect a rag to be attached," says Robert, who adds that he is still to work out what purpose the mast served. "It’s good, they tell you what to avoid, and things like how to sneak around the rocks and stay close to the shore when it’s rough in the entrance. You don’t get this interaction or advice with a modern trailerboat."
These days, couta boats can be considered quaint and nostalgic, something to be mollycoddled and brought out for show on special occasions, hence the attraction. You could say they’re pretty, like the nicely maintained Gwen, dressed in a white hull and superstructure, light blue trim, and varnished jarrah for the decking, foot-wide gunwales and tabernacle mast. But for her old-worldly charm, to the Harveys she’s a full-on working boat.
You name it, it’s done it — dive boat, fishing boat, entertainer, family fun boat, and would you believe, research vessel (see box). The Harveys, their friends, and the kids have a ball, swimming and snorkelling from the accommodating jarrah swimplatform and its attachable stainless steel and jarrah swimladder — even the family dog Nikki.
Couta boats were developed for coastal fishing in Victoria, mainly from the southern Port Phillip Bay towns of Sorrento and Queenscliff. Ruling the waves from the 1870s to 1930s, coutas proved capable offshore sailboats, their fame seeing the marque spread out along the coast. The rise of power saw their demise from mainstream commercial enterprise in the 1940s. Their bombproof design, however, ensured longevity and coutas continue to be made by specialist wooden builders and enthusiasts to this day.
Built by Alex Lacco (one of two Lacco brothers, who were boatbuilders of some repute back in the day) at Mornington on Port Phillip Bay, Gwen started life as a motorised version of the famous couta boat design — as a net-fishing boat and one that could be beached.
Her history is hazy, but what’s known is the boat fished from Rosebud then ended up in Northern Tasmania’s Tamar River working as a charterboat — a wood-carved licence plate from back then is still on the curved transom coaming. After that, the couta boat was mothballed before the previous owner discovered her somewhere on the Tamar and restoration work began, bringing the boat up to its current standard.
Unlike her sailing siblings, Lacco’s couta boat doesn’t have a keelbox meaning the inboard engine can sit forward, and not aft if a motor was fitted to the former. The advantages are weight carried forward for extra stability, a beam that tapers in before amidships for streamlining, while onboard is left a massive cockpit, perfect for all the roles mentioned above.
In fact, you could say Gwen is almost all cockpit, the sole is polished jarrah and segmented for accessing a selected part of the bilge without having to remove the whole floor.
Designed as a half-cabin, a flybridge top was added to create a second forward helm (the skipper steering atop the engine box) that’s good shelter when it rains. There’s a forepeak cabin, but it’s only big enough for storing stuff like safety gear and anchoring equipment and what not. In other words, she is more a platform, an entertainment stage.
As mentioned the wheelhouse is mainly for dodging junk from above, any green stuff coming aboard mostly washes along the broad gunwales and out the back, rarely inside, we’re told. There’s an electric auto bilge-pump at the ready on the off chance of that ever happening.
For seating there’s plenty of perching spots along the aforementioned wide gunwales and on the engine box, and if you need more, do what the Harvey’s do and add some fold-up picnic chairs — they had a couple of them tucked away neatly inside the wheelhouse.
Balancing the weight is 500kg of lead-ingot ballast in the bilge aft of the engine, making her an extremely stable platform at rest, and underway. This couta boat just glides along, has never once broached surfing the swells at double her hull speed, and Robert assures us people are rarely seasick.
With a draft of only 24in (0.6m), this boat can hug the shoreline, as mentioned, something the Harvey’s do when conditions get too rough in the entrance. It’s a definite advantage in Western Port and great for stopping off at a deserted beach.
Despite the lack of speed, going slow in a couta boat does have its plusses. "You spend more time cruising along the coast and finding areas to anchor, fish or dive on, that you may not have spotted from a powerboat. And going slow you can see the bottom more clearly," said Robert, adding that at full clip his boat’s four-year-old Yanmar diesel is sipping fuel at only 2lt/h.
Equipment may be sparse, but what’s onboard is enough for comfortable and reliable boating. A solar panel keeps the single battery charged, there’s an electric Muir anchor winch for quick retrieval, a compass and a depth sounder. Gwen also comes with a braked tandem-axle trailer. Minus her ballast she weighs 2000kg and is easily towed by a large 4WD, although her 2.58m beam is just over the trailerable limit and will require a permit.
Avid divers, the Harvey’s are not idle boaters, going out every day over the two-week Christmas-New Year break and every weekend of the season. Robert reckons Phillip Island, famous for its penguins, classic surf breaks and panoramic grand prix racetrack, is not so well known as having some of the best dive spots in the country. He reckons the underwater scenery is spectacular, the rival of anywhere, even the Great Barrier Reef, and it’s not unusual to have 100ft of visibility, too.
Robert said Gwen has been in the family for 16 years now. His mother Joan spotted and bought her, and he and father Reg formed a partnership and parted with the hard earned. Approaching the marina, Robert tells us it’s time to move on, he needs a faster boat to broaden the offshore range, and has bought a Caribbean 26 open boat, with twin petrol sterndrives, as the new replacement.
With a big stern-hung rudder, the couta boat deftly scoots around the skinny confines of Newhaven’s marina and with a dash of reverse slots perfectly into her berth. It’s something Robert will miss. "Manoeuvring the Caribbean in the tight marina is going to be a lot harder with skinny legs," he admits.
Gwen is for sale at $40,000 (ono) and interested parties should contact the owner Robert Harvey, phone 0488 555 001 or email: email@example.com
It was on a recreational dive in Western Port Bay from the couta boat Gwyn in 2004, that Dr Adele Harvey made an important discovery — the first recorded rhodolith bed in Victoria.
Adele is one of only five experts worldwide that can identify this particular type of colourful red algae, which resemble coral and form a unique marine ecosystem.
Previously better known in places like the Gulf of Mexico, Greenland, and British Columbia (Canada), Adele’s rhodolith-bed find was in depths of 1m to 4m and consisted of four species.
She tells us that a variety of sea creatures make a home within rhodoliths — worms, shellfish and small fish — and are a food-source for fish, such as one of Western Port’s signature species whiting.
There’s one in Melbourne’s Museum Victoria and in the Australian National Maritime Museum at Sydney’s Darling Harbour, even Liberal poli Malcolm Turnbull has one. We’re talking, of course, about Victoria’s endearing fishing boat, the couta.
These sailboats have been around for some 140 years and their appeal stretches far and wide across the continent from Perth to Sydney. The boat has its own associations, registrar, and regattas in its honour, plus a couple of boatbuilders that will carve one out for you for $120,000 brand-spanking-new (see www.woodenboatshop.com.au).
The main couta boat club is the Couta Boat Association (CBA), claiming 400 members; its affiliate Sorrento Sailing Couta Boat Club (SSCBC) has 2000 members, and is a merger of the Couta Boat Club and the local sailing club. CBA president, Andrew Skinner told us there are 150 couta boats registered with his association, the oldest the 1914-built Surprise owned by Mick Williams, son of prominent Melbourne businessman and thoroughbred owner Lloyd Williams.
Skinner said the CBA is responsible for managing rules and construction principles and conducts two major couta boat regattas annually, the SSCBC providing the venue. The KPMG Couta Boat Classic is a corporate affair and held in the first week of January, followed seven days later by the Portsea Cup, open to all couta boat owners and this year attracting 50 starters.
These regattas pay homage to the days when couta-boat fishing fleets left Sorrento and Queenscliff, sailing through The Rip at Port Phillip Heads bound for Bass Strait. Upon reaching their quota, the couta’s would race back into port to be the first to unload and get the best prices for their catch.
Lacco couta boat
FOR SALE: $40,000 (ono)
MATERIAL: Kauri (carvel hull and ribs); jarrah (keel, stem, sternpost, and decking); Oregon (deck beams and bearers)
DESIGNER & BUILDER: Alex Lacco
LENGTH OVERALL: 24ft
WEIGHT: 2500kg (total); 500kg (lead ballast)
ENGINE: 2007 Yanmar 3YM30 inboard diesel
RATED HP: 30
PROP: Three-blade brass
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