Launching of couta boat from 31 Beach Street (photo courtesy Queenscliffe Historical Museum)

The enduring Queenscliff Couta Boat

The Couta Boat design evolved in the late 1880s in Queenscliff because of the need to fish the open waters of Bass Strait. Its name derives from the staple fish of the early Victorian fish market, the barracouta. This fish was not caught with nets but with lines and jigs by a man and a boy resulting in the square transom design rather than that of a double-ender net boat.

Andrew Hansen is acknowledged as one of the earliest boat builders in Queenscliff. He arrived in 1890 from Denmark where he received his training in his family of boat builders for the Danish Court. He launched smaller boats off the Point Lonsdale front beach, rowing them to Queenscliff, or brought them by horse and dray. Later he obtained additional premises at the rear of the Vue Grand Hotel in Queenscliff, particularly for the larger vessels.

Mitch Lacco was born in McCrae into a lighthouse keeper family and became an apprentice to Hansen. He eventually established his own boat building business in Fisherman’s Flat in 1916 where he built boats in the backyard of 31 Beach Street and launched them, with the help of his mates, from right there – so close was the shoreline back then. Payment to the helpers was in the form of a keg of beer. Superstition prevented launching of boats on a Friday. And the fishing fleet also did not fish on that day, mainly because the Melbourne Fish Market was closed on weekends, but used the weekend for boat maintenance.

Peter Locke, a fisherman from St. Leonards, was asked by Mitch to join him. He eventually took over the business in 1926 when the Lacco family shifted back to Rosebud. In 1935 he relocated to a shed at the end of Beach Street which had two slipways to launch his boats, one running east and the other one running north; the latter is still in existence. He built a large number of couta boats, some of them are still part of the racing fleet that is registered with the Couta Boat Association.

In 1947 Bob Cayzer, his son Aston and Bob’s twin brother John, bought the business from Peter Locke who went back to full-time fishing.

The Queenscliff couta boat fleet was at its peak between 1900 and 1940, with some 60 boats working out of the port providing employment for 130 men and boys. It was quite common to consign 400 boxes of couta to market after a day’s fishing in that boom period. The early couta boats had no engines and the fishermen had to work with the tides to overcome the strong current at the entrance to Port Philip, the Rip. A common phrase of the time was ‘out with the ebb, in with the flood.’

It was dangerous work and required a seaworthy boat, and the need to bring their catch back to port quickly in order to get the best price resulted in a design that also assured good speed of the boats. This ‘first home’ achievement resulted in a fair bit of gloating by the winning boat skipper who immediately replaced his blue work jumper with a white one and stood at the pier to watch the rest of the fleet arrive.
Regattas had been held at Queenscliff in the 1850s between the crews of the Customs, Pilots and Health Officer’s boats. The year 1862 marked the first regatta when the fishermen joined in with their working boats. In 1865 it was the fishermen themselves who organised their first regatta, and these Fishermen’s Regattas became an annual event, held either at New Year or at Easter time.

The fishermen certainly liked to compete in sailing regattas, partly to show their significant boat handling skills, and partly to win the prize money. Queenscliff fishermen successfully sailed their working boats against boats built for pleasure in races up the Bay.

In 1888 Ben Chidgey won the Hundred Pound Cup at Hobson’s Bay, and in 1890 Water Shapter won the Mordialloc Regatta. This did not sit well with the city folk and in 1890 the Royal Yacht Club of Victoria, and the Yacht Clubs at Hobson’s Bay, Brighton and St Kilda excluded fishermen from their races on the grounds that ‘they were profes-sionals’.

Couta Boar Regatta 2017
Once a year couta boats from around Port Phillip come to Queenscliff to keep the yearly fishermen’s Couta Boat Regatta alive. Queenscliff Harbour offers free mooring space for participants for the day.

This year’s regatta was held on Saturday 25th of March and was run by the Sorrento Sailing Couta Boat Club. Conditions were such that the course was set quite a bit north of the Queenscliff Pier – a pity.

There were 27 boats competing. The winning boats on handicap were Kate C305 (built in 1983 by Tim Phillips) in Division 1 and Lucy C31 (built by Mitch Lacco’s son Ken in Rosebud in 1931 and named after his mother) in Division 2. Their trophy was a white fishermen’s jumper with the logo of the Borough of Queenscliffe and a framed poster designed by Andrew Watson of Queenscliff.