Fiona was built by Higgs Brothers in Geelong, Victoria in 1938. She is 21 foot 6 inches in length. As was the case for many boats built in this era, it was unlikely that she was named when built and launched.
When a Couta fishery was established in the early 1930s in the fishing port of Lorne on the south west coastline of Victoria, the demand for fishing vessels in that region increased. Higgs Brothers in Geelong built a number of 21 foot Couta Boats to service the industry.
It is possible that Fiona, as she was later to be named, spent her early years as a commercial fishing vessel out of Lorne fishing for barracouta. She still has lifting hooks in her stern, indicating that when she returned in the evening to the Lorne Pier with her catch, she was lifted onto the pier as an additional protection from exposed seas.
As it was customary for fishermen to chase the barracouta as far afield as Kingston in South Australia, it is likely that Fiona also fished further along the Victorian south west coastline. However, she eventually returned to Port Phillip when she was purchased by Queenscliff fisherman Cliff Rossack in the early 1970s.
Custodian: Cliff Rossack; 1971 – Early 1980s
Cliff Rossack started life as a commercial fisherman in 1965 and purchased the boat in 1971 from a Lorne fisherman whose name he does not recall. However, Cliff does remember that the year of purchase was the final year in which the ‘couta ran outside Port Phillip Heads.
Shortly after the purchase, Cliff had to undertake some serious repairs on Fiona. Her ribs were all broken on one side, from the wear-and-tear of being lifted onto the Lorne Pier. However, Cliff made the boat seaworthy again and used her to fish both inside and outside Port Phillip Heads.
Mainly, Cliff did longline fishing and netting inside The Heads, but when the ‘couta were running in Bass Strait he would venture outside The Heads for his catch. However, on one particular run Cliff recalls he almost met his fate:
We came up over an enormous wave, but there was nothing behind it; we went down bow first and hit the water at great force; the force of the water split all the new paintwork and caulking fell out on the port side. We limped home to port.
After that experience, Cliff admitted that he didn’t go outside The Heads for a few days.
Cliff fished out of Fiona for approximately 10 years but after another serious mishap, he decided to sell her. On one of his regular fishing trips when he was leaving the creek where the boat was moored, she went sideways and hit a barge, punching a hole in her side. Because she was built of Silky Oak, the timber was very brittle and very short-grained, so she easily pierced. After this mishap Cliff decided that it was time to sell his boat.
Custodians:‘Dugga’ Beazley and Charlie Strong; Early 1980s
In the 1980s, Port Melbourne fisherman Dugga Beazley purchased the boat from Cliff for his good mate Charlie Strong to restore.
Charlie commenced the restoration in Port Melbourne, but due to changing circumstances he moved the boat down to the property of a friend in Longwarry, Victoria. The restoration was completed out in the paddock and the boat was renamed Mary.
After the restoration, Charlie returned Mary to Port Melbourne. Charlie and his mate Dugga sailed her a few times but Charlie was short of money and decided to sell her.
Custodians: Graham Heal and Others; 1980s – 1997
For the period of the 1980s to the late 1990s, the only record of Mary is provided by her current owner, Graham Cunningham. Graham purchased the boat from Graham Heal in December 1997. But it is not certain if Graham Heal was the person who purchased her from Charlie Strong, or if there had been another owner in that time. What is certain is that when Graham Cunningham bought the boat, she had been renamed Fiona and no longer was a fishing vessel – she was rigged to sail.
Custodian: Graham Cunningham; 1997 – Present
For over 20 years, Graham Cunningham and his crew have successfully sailed Fiona in the Division 2 fleet, initially out of Sorrento Sailing Club then Sorrento Sailing Couta Boat Club (SSCBC). She has won many accolades, racing in both the regular Saturday competition and the scheduled regattas, including: Division 2 1st Handicap in the 2001 Portsea Cup, the Victorian State Titles in three consecutive years of 2006, 2007, 2008 and in 2016, and the Division 2 SSCBC Season Aggregate Champion in 2018.
As the Couta Boat Association’s Portsea Cup race is considered ‘high-stakes’ for the competitors, Graham recalls the time in 2001 when Fiona was declared the Division 2 winner, but his moment of glory on the podium almost did not happen. Graham had loaned fellow competitor Harley Moffatt his old ox-blood mainsail that had C81 on it. Harley was duly placed 3rd in the race and Graham was first, but Harley thought that as his sail also had C81 emblazoned on it, victory was his! Harley promptly stepped up and grabbed the Cup, leaving Graham having to wrestle it back. That moment in time was captured on camera and is now a framed memento in Graham’s home.