The Couta Boat
The Victorian Couta Boat:
The Victorian Couta boat is a distinct Australian designed working boat, with a long history that continues unbroken to the present day. The origins of this type, which worked the Bass Strait areas out of Port Phillip Bay and southern Victoria, go back to the latter part of the 1800s.
The name is derived from the fish barracouta (Thyristies atun), a common fish found off the Victorian coastline and not to be confused with the fierce barracuda found in warmer waters. "Couta" as they are called colloquially, are up to 1.2 metres long, and are caught on hooked trolling lines. A strip of rawhide was used for bait. As an abundant and inexpensive fish it was used to supply the fish and chips trade in Melbourne.
Queenscliff, just inside Port Phillip Heads was a fishing community which initially worked their local areas inside the bay. To go out the heads required a boat capable of handling the "The Rip" as the passage is known, and then the much rougher offshore conditions. By the 1890s they had established a fleet that was working out into the strait, using sailing craft that were different from the inshore boats. When railways reached coastal communities the ability to transport fish quickly to Melbourne encouraged the fleet size to expand and made it practical to fish offshore and the freight the catch to the market.
These craft were designed and built locally, probably as a combined effort between the fishermen and boat builders in regards to their arrangement, proportions and structure. The requirements, based on the conditions, type of fishing and small number of crew quickly evolved into a vessel up to 26 foot long, 10 foot wide and over 3 feet of hull draft. It had a foredeck, side decks and small aft deck, enough to keep the boat dry in rough seas, but not too decked in to make it awkward to fish from. There was a steel plate centre board, a lug rigged mainsail and a jib. These simple boats were usually planked in New Zealand kauri around a hardwood keel, framing and stringers. Just two crew members were needed to man the boats, with a set of oars to use when the wind dropped.
The straight stem and moderate sheer were typical for the period, but other features could well be the hallmarks that distinguish the craft and make it unique. The keel profile was straight or had just a small amount of rocker and the forefoot was deep enough to allow the boat to drift broadsides to the wind without falling away from the head. The hull had good carrying capacity, and was nicely balanced so that it would sail easily.
The moderately proportioned lug rigged mainsail used a single halyard arranged as both a peak and hoist, so that one person could easily set or stow the sail, and there were no runners to complicate tacking or gybing. It could be set so that the boat would drift while lying ahull, beam on to the wind. When hauled in it was trimmed to sail at speed to and from the grounds. The cockpit was fitted with a sole, a thwart, rowlock blocks and had rounded coamings in plan view.
Development of the type:
There does not seem to be any individual craft recorded that defined the characteristics, it was more likely to be a gradual process of small changes. Photographs of vessels in the late 1880s show a mixture of craft from 18 feet upwards, some clinker, with various amounts of decking and no centreboard. The move toward a more standard form probably happened over the decade or two leading to the 1890s. Change would come about as the fishermen developed their practices and the builders responded with features that worked and were retained in new boats while undesirable details were not repeated. Eventually the differences between boats became more subtle and started to reflect a builder's particular preferences.
There is the possibility that the naval architect and boat builder Henry Murray introduced the centreboard in the early 1880s. He had come from England in the 1850s and built a large number of craft for Port Phillip Bay and nearby areas, and was familiar with many types of craft. His design WANDERER from 1891 appears to have a centreboard and most of the typical characteristics of a Couta boat. This certainly shows that by that period the basic elements of the type had been formed.
Fleets and craft worked from communities on both sides of the heads and speed became an important factor as it would help to be first to the fishing grounds and then first home again to get the best position to unload the catch. The craft did race each other in special regattas or events from time to time, and bigger sails were used as this became a serious activity, but above all they were still working craft and the fishermen's livelihood and safety depended upon a hull and rig appropriate to that job.
A significant change was when the gaff rigged mainsail was introduced after the 1900s. The better set of the mainsail compared to the overlapping lug rig would have improved the speed, and still been easy to handle. The peak could be set higher, the mainsail would set evenly on either tack, and downwind the problems caused by the lug yard extending beyond the mast and bearing on the rigging were eliminated. Two or three jibs were carried for different wind strengths, and a smaller main may also have been carried on the lug rigged craft. Not everyone adopted the gaff rig, to some the tradition of the lug was strong and they were reluctant to change something that worked well enough for them.
The Introduction of the Engine
The next major change was the introduction of the engine. This became widespread after the First World War, and gradually many craft were adapted to be fitted with engines, but in the meantime the newer craft were given more volume aft and a properly fitted aperture for the propeller. As the reliability of the engine improved and became accepted, then the need for a good sailing rig became redundant, but a rig was still needed for drift fishing, so it was not abandoned totally, just reduced in size. The process of adaptation was slow, and again the reluctance to accept change meant that some boats continued to work under sail alone up the 2nd World War.
Fishing for barracouta was the primary task, but as the trade fluctuated the vessels were adapted to other tasks either temporarily or permanently. They were used for cray boats, and mullet or shark fishing. The railways that took the catch to Melbourne from the coast, brought visitors for day trips on the weekends, often in great numbers, and the craft took them out for a jaunt around the bay or just offshore of the major ports. Some craft became private yachts or launches and moved out of the commercial area entirely. The style of craft also spread to other parts of the coast and interstate, such as South Australia, but by then the proportions were well established.
Later builders were Jones, Hanson, Blunt, Lacco and Locke, and there are close connections between some of them. JR Jones is credited with building boats of deeper draft, such as the THISTLE which is referred to as a 'wedgey" shape in cross section. Andrew Hanson at Point Lonsdale was known as a craftsman, and one of his apprentices was Mitchie Lacco in the early 1900s. Lacco set up in Queenscliff, and was a fisherman and builder. He was also keen on racing and experimented a lot on his designs, and made a significant contribution to the development of the fastest sailing couta boats. Mitchie's sons became involved as well, and the family moved to Rosebud and continued there. Meanwhile Peter Locke took over Lacco's Queenscliff shed. Locke had been apprenticed to Lacco, and had then bought him out.
Post World War II
The peak of the sailing couta boat was around the 1920s. They were used right up until the 2nd World War, but post war the diesel engine became the standard method of propulsion, and the sailing rig was then more or less abandoned on any new fishing craft. The once large fleets no longer worked their favoured areas under sail, but a number of the craft remained extant in various forms of usage.
Their history was still alive with memories and stories told by the older fisherman and builders. Inspired by this a number of the existing craft have been restored and new craft built very closely along the lines of their forebears. Tim Phillips from Sorrento is recognised as a leading influence on this resurrection and maintains a yard that has restored some craft and built new boats along the lines of the original boats. There is now a strong fleet of craft in Victoria and other states, which sail and race with the traditional gaff rigs, as they once did for a living.
Wooden Boatshop www.woodenboatshop.com.au history pages.
Craft and Craftsmen of Australian Fishing, Gary Kerr