The profiles listed in this Register have been documented from the stories and photos contributed by custodians and others who willingly shared information. Readers who have additional information about the history of any Couta Boat are invited to forward it to email@example.com so that it can be added to the Register.
Peter Locke, Queenscliff, Vic.
Planking: NZ Kauri
Deck: Queensland Beech
Custodian: Syd Todd; 1934 – c1940s
Huia was built in about 1934 in Queenscliff by local boat builder Peter Locke for Syd ‘Knucker’ Todd, nephew of Queenscliff fishing identity Walter Todd.
Jack Beazley, retired Port Phillip Sea Pilot and grandson of Walter Todd, says she was a beautiful, carvel-planked boat and regarded as 10 years ahead of her time for her innovations, including a ton of lead bolted to her keel as ballast, a centre-plate that went through the lead and a self-draining cockpit. This made for fast sailing and improved processing of fish: the fish catch could be thrown in the cockpit and after gutting, the entrails would be flushed out to sea. Her fishing grounds were Bass Strait and Port Phillip; wherever fish were biting.
At the launch of Huia, the local Queenscliff newspaper reported:
Assistant Treasurer Mr Casey christened the 26 ft fishing boat near the Fisherman’s Pier…Mr Casey named the boat Huia, wishing her Godspeed and prosperity. He congratulated the owner, Mr Sydney Todd, on his enterprise, and the builder, Peter Locke, on his skill. The Huia is almost unsinkable. She has enclosed decks and valves in the cockpit which allow shipped water to escape.
It’s understood this new fishing boat was named after a grand New Zealand trading schooner which was famed for breaking the sailing record for a fast passage between New Zealand and Melbourne. In turn, the original Huia took her name from a revered New Zealand bird regarded as a symbol of nobility and leadership in the Maori culture. Quite an auspicious title!
Jack Beazley says while she was a fast sailing boat, there were problems when drift fishing, as the heavy lead frame contributed to an uncomfortable roll and jerk. Before long, Peter Locke was tasked with removing the lead.
Custodian: The Everett Family; 1940s
Huia was sold a couple of times after Syd Todd’s custodianship. And during World War II, Jack says the next owner was the Everett family of San Remo on Phillip Island, who fished for ‘couta and crays in Western Port Bay, Victoria.
Custodians: The Burnham Brothers; Early 1950s – Early 1970s
Then during the early 1950s, the Burnham brothers of Rosebud, Victoria purchased her. Tim Phillips recalls a story told by fisherman Andy Johansen who was asked to pick up the boat from San Remo and deliver her to a mooring in Sorrento.
Andy set off late from San Remo, after having visited the local pub, but by the time he reached Flinders, less than a third of the way, it was well and truly dark and he had to tie up for the night. It’s not clear what happened next, except the story goes that the Burnham’s probably took her from there.
The Burnham brothers sent her to Cayzer Boats in Queenscliff for maintenance and significant modifications, including removal of the centre-plate case and replacement of the motor. Steve Burnham, son of one of the founding four brothers, says the original motor was a Rugby engine, which was a type of car in those days and quite typical of the early motors for boats. It was replaced by a big Thorneycroft diesel, placed in the middle of the boat where the centre plate had once been.
For many years, Huia was used for commercial fishing in and outside Port Phillip; ‘couta, snapper, flathead, gummy shark were prolific. Steve Burnham says she was known as the ‘27 footer’ rather than by her name and he remembers one person would go up the mast on the bosun chair to spot for fish, then when ready a net would be thrown out. They also used long lines studded with hooks which could go on for miles, until in the mid-1960s when this form of fishing was severely curtailed.
By the early 1970s, commercial fishing in Port Phillip was declining, fishermen were retiring and the old wooden boat was no longer needed by the Burnham’s and was languishing in their yard at Rosebud. It was now that a new owner appeared on the scene, Terry and Victor Mulder, whose father had a house at Rosebud and who was also a friend of the Burnham’s.
Custodians: Terry and Victor Mulder; Early 1970s
Custodian: Victor Mulder; 1970s – 2021
Victor says his father would sometimes join the Burnham brothers out fishing. His enjoyment of fishing and sailing was passed on to his sons, and when Victor saw the old boat in the yard, his offer to buy her was accepted. Brother Terry also came in on the purchase but he was later to sell out to Victor. This was the early 1970s. At this stage, Huia’s large diesel engine was in the centre of the boat, there was no centre-board and her name was then unknown.
Victor recounts many happy times and adventures fishing and sailing around Port Phillip with family and friends. Initially Huia was exclusively for fishing exploits, plenty of yellow tail and snapper, and for scuba diving around The Heads. Then Victor decided to make a sail at his canvas manufacturing and supply business, which happened to employ a couple of sail makers. He fitted the boat with blue canvas sails and believes he was the only person sailing a Couta Boat off Sorrento at that time, about 50 years ago in the early 1970s.
Victor competed in the first Couta Boat race in the waters off Portsea, in the mid-1970s. This was organised by Marcus Burke and Tim Phillips. Tim says the Mulders were unsure about the name of the boat:
So to spice things up, I called her ‘Sorrento Flyer’. It was only later that I researched and realised her name was Huia, and naturally suggested to Victor to revert to her proper name.
Victor says Huia was a fast boat downwind, but otherwise quite heavy and the absence of a centre-board made racing somewhat difficult. It was a few years later the Wooden Boat Shop was employed to undertake a total restoration adding a centre-board and removing the cabin. Over the years, Huia has participated in many Couta Boat Club races and has won a few.
Over the years, Huia has been sailed by three generations of the Mulder family who have participated in many Couta Boat Club races and have won a few podium finishes.
Custodian: Nick Jaffe; 2021 – Present
In 2021, after 50 years in the care of the Mulder family, Huia was sold to seasoned adventurer Nick Jaffe from Tasmania. With ‘a history of sailing home from faraway places’, Nick was looking for another adventure, with the added challenge of sailing an open boat singlehanded across Bass Strait. Having sailed both fibreglass and steel boats in previous journeys, his preference this time was for a seaworthy boat built of timber.
With the guidance and support of Tim Phillips from the Wooden Boat Shop at Sorrento, Nick purchased Huia and planned his journey across Bass Strait. But it took him numerous attempts to finally embark on the journey, due to family commitments and, importantly, waiting for the right weather window. See below for Nick’s vivid account of the journey.
Huia is presently moored in Kettering, Tasmania, not far from the small town of Woodbridge where Nick and his family currently reside. He intends to re-deck her and carry out restoration works in 2023/2024 at the resurrected Woodbridge slipway.
The Sojourn of Huia – an unaccompanied voyage across Bass Strait in an 86 year old Couta Boat
Sailing, to me, has long signified a quest for solitude, exploration, and revelation. Over the past two decades, my consideration of boats has been primarily based on their ability to weather lengthy voyages: “How far might I sail?” has been my foremost inquiry.
The legendary Couta Boat has existed on my radar for as long as I can remember — who can ignore its fine lines, enormous traditional rig, downward bending bowsprit and renowned seaworthiness? Yet, the Couta Boat had also been relegated in my mind as a beautiful, traditional open boat with a keen racing heritage, culturally headquartered on the Mornington Peninsula — it was not a boat I might previously consider for any kind of voyage.
Although voyaging in open boats is decidedly niche, a rich history persists of audacious exploits across oceans in vessels devoid of any shelter from the elements. Perhaps the most famous, is the voyage of the James Caird, a small open boat commanded by Ernest Shackleton across the Southern Ocean in 1916 — not for the sake of adventure, but rather for the sake of survival. Or, in more modern times (for the adventure!), Don McIntyre with his Bounty Boat re-enactment voyage: Four strangers, 4000 miles, one 26ft open boat, limited rations & water, no charts, no modern navigation gear and no toilet paper.
My enthusiasm for small boats and adventure has been an unlikely fixation for half my life. I did not grow up anywhere near the water, nor with parents who could tell the stern from the bow or a sheet from the head. My love of boats stemmed purely and entirely from the romance of the sea, driven by the possibility of remote places and adventure. This drive would motivate me to sail singlehanded from Europe to Australia in my first boat, a Contessa 26 — I would then sail across the Pacific a second time aboard Harmony, my Aries 32. Some years later, in an attempt to complete my circumnavigation, I began aboard Constellation in a different manner, I set off in a Land Rover to drive back to Europe from Tasmania — an adventure foiled in South Africa by the pandemic.
I was eventually back at sea in 2021 aboard our 42ft pilothouse cutter, as our young family ventured north along the eastern seaboard of Australia, headed for the Great Barrier Reef and beyond — only to be stopped (again) in our tracks by pandemic. Pregnant with our baby boy and fed up with being locked down on a boat, we decided to sell our good ship and return to Tasmania. Perhaps we would try our hand at gardening instead of adventure for a while?
Yet, with four months until our son was due to be born, I wondered if I could fit just one more little adventure in… The parameters of the adventure needed to be something inside Australia and something relatively close to home. With a history of sailing home from faraway places, the adventure started to evolve and became clear: I decided upon the idea of sailing home singlehanded across Bass Strait, through the Furneaux Group. What would make such an adventure already more interesting than it was? I thought I should do it in an open boat — perhaps something built from timber since I had already owned fibreglass & steel boats before? I started researching small timber boats, and two hours later, I was on the phone with Tim Phillips, keenly discussing the Couta Boat named Huia.
A new world began to open up to me — I had very much been siloed inside my own universe of cruising boat culture. Tim inhabited another world, a world full of bronze hardware, gaff rigs, exotic timber and tradition. Like many subcultures, within sailing there are worlds within worlds: Parallel passions under the same principles of sail.
Like every idea I have had for an adventure, there comes a time when you have to start telling people what you’re up to next — sometimes the idea is well received and other times one is laughed at. I kept asking Tim about the seaworthiness of Huia, and the seaworthiness of Couta Boats in general. How is the ballast secured?
How does a Couta Boat handle in a seaway? What is the rudder construction like and how many pintles secure it to the transom? These were perhaps unusual questions for a boat most commonly purchased for bay racing. “Tim,” I said over the phone, “I want to sail Huia across Bass Strait” — I listened intently, attempting to discern a chuckle or any other sound that might non-verbally suggest his thoughts on such a scheme. “Oh, that would be an incredible adventure,” he said, as he began to reel off a list of places and the most suitable route I ought to take. Quite inadvertently, I found myself conversing with a man more passionate and knowledgeable about the Furneaux Group and Couta Boats than any other soul on earth. As far as I was concerned, the adventure was set in motion. Sight unseen, I placed a deposit on Huia, and nearly a year later, I lay at anchor amidst a gale, midway across Bass Strait in the rain, rueing my decision and pondering how I would much prefer to be with my family and now 8-month-old son.
This marked my third attempt to sail home aboard Huia. I never did manage to sail her home before my boy arrived, thwarted by relentless south easterlies. I tried once more in October, but the weather window I had identified crumbled after I had flown to Melbourne to prepare. Returning home, I continued to examine the weather daily, until December rolled around — finally, a double high pressure system settled over Victoria, yielding a week of agreeable, albeit windless, days. It wasn’t an idyllic northwesterly, but it was something. This was my opportunity.
Some ten months prior when I had hoped to depart, I’d provisioned Huia: two weeks worth of dry provisions lay on top of the lead ballast, mostly still in date. My friend Paul, who also had his boat at the Geelong Yacht Club where Huia spent winter, had been diligently looking after her in my unexpectedly prolonged absence. I arrived in Geelong, tidied up the boat and set off to Queenscliff the next day.
After a night at the cruising yacht club, with Storm Bay laying almost within arms length on her mooring, I set off through the heads. It was one of the first proper summer days of the season — the water was flat with a blue sky and light northerly.
Without mishap, we made San Remo in the dark, after a long day mixed with sailing and motoring. The relief of finally exiting Port Phillip was palpable. The adventure was well and truly underway. I woke at 4.30am for another big day — the nonstop passage to Refuge Cove. With all our canvas up, we powered off the mooring and quickly reached hull speed — a short lived bit of idyllic sailing before a near complete calm, forcing us to motor most of the remaining distance.
With excellent visibility, I mentally broke the trip down: Cape Paterson, Cape Lip Trap, the Glennie Group and finally Wilson’s Prom Lighthouse. This kind of coastal sailing was counting landmarks, not miles. I found the constant proximity to land stressful — unable to properly rest, with the lack of a steady breeze forcing me to rely too much on the little Yanmar.
At this time of the year, we had reached peak daylight. The timing, from a visibility standpoint, was flawless, as we steamed into Refuge Cove at 9:30pm, with ample light to navigate by sight: 17 hours at the helm, warm air ushering thousands of insects seeking their own sanctuary in the cockpit — I lay in bed listening to their scuttling across the boat.
My days at Refuge Cove were spent walking to the top of the nearby hill for Predict Wind weather updates and drinking coffee in the cockpit, under a homemade oilskin tarp in the rain. I slept in a swag, tarp overhead, my face carefully positioned to avoid the dripping foredeck.
Deal Island seemed like the true brink of no return on this voyage. A modest window for the crossing appeared two days later, as I left Refuge Cove beneath a full moon at 2.30am,aiming to outpace the coming weather. Winter Cove appeared supremely sheltered on the charts, a veritable haven from anything originating out of the southwest.
The Hogan Group marked roughly my halfway point when the winds started to gain in strength. Huia began to soar, maintaining a steady 7+ knots. Erith Island came into focus as we rounded the top of the Deal group with excessive canvas aloft. Once we found shelter in the lee of the island, I hastily doused the main, as the wind fiercely funnelled through Murray Passage. I have no doubt in my mind that, had I not taken the main down swiftly, Huia would have been knocked flat on her side.
Azure waters, white sand and flat seas — Winter Cove could have been the Caribbean. With the anchor set, I sat down to relax for a moment after a long day. Out of nowhere, Huia’s rode stretched and creaked, as she danced violently sideways. What on earth!? This would go on for two days, as the windward hills created an almost katabatic effect. I barely slept, doubled the rode, reset the anchor twice and didn’t leave the boat for two days, in fear of being swept out into Bass Strait aboard my tiny inflatable packraft tender.
After days of strong winds, I set off into a horrible chop. Quickly drenched, I sat at the tiller in veritable misery, kept hopeful by the slowly growing landmass of Flinders Island. Picking up a mooring at Port Davies, I went straight to bed after a packet of noodles and a pillow over my head to block the late summers light.
The pub at Lady Barron was a wonderful sight. From the vantage point of the pub deck, I watched the breaking waves and sand bars beyond Vansittart Island. The options for making mainland Tasmania, were Banks Strait, or east about Cape Barren Island. Tim suggested the eastern route, as I looked warily at what appeared to be a narrow passage with surfable waves on one side and a beach on the other. I ate my parmigiana in mild angst.
This next hop was a major milestone: Mainland Tasmania. As Vansittart Island passed, the wind came up stronger than expected, as I found myself on a lee shore. I doggedly pushed on, raised all the canvas, pulled the sheets in tight and left the engine ticking over for an added degree of positive heading. Between Cape Barren Island & Gull Island, I was overjoyed as the northern tip of Tasmania came into view. The relief of seeing this friendly landmass was tangible — up until this point, I had actually felt very alone — there was virtually no other sea traffic thus far and the landscape had felt desolate in its unfamiliarity and my growing solitude — 11 days on passage and counting.
The weather would now allow me to rejoice for too long. After a hellish night on a mooring at Binalong Bay, the bowsprit regularly submerged in the swell, I found myself in 50m of visibility with raindrops the size of my clenched cold fist. I sailed with one hand on the tiller & one hand dangled in front of the wet hot exhaust of the Yanmar — my tiller pilot had given up a hundred miles prior, leaving me to hand steer the entire eastern coast of Tasmania. As the lightning and thunder rolled in, I envisioned myself being morbidly discovered as fried corpse on the cockpit floor. The weather had quickly become the crescendo of this mad idea, as Cape Bernier passed in a cloud of fog, crests white capping, Huia rolling from gunnel to gunnel and my determination to push on, when I really should have sought shelter at Maria Island. The leads into Marion Bay marked the final challenge. It was dark now. I carefully motored into Dunalley, as the weather abated. I was home.
The following day, a friend came out and rowed me ashore for coffee — this wonderful madness was officially over. I looked back at Huia from the tender, where she appeared more beautiful and elegant than ever. After 87 years at sea, what was 13 days on passage? I had much to learn.
Special thanks to Tim Phillips, The Wooden Boat Shop, Helly Hansen, Geelong Yacht Club, Predict Wind, Packraft Australia, Refuelling Solutions (biodiesel supply), Paul Sayers and my beautiful family.
For more stories on life, my book, the sea and my work, see www.nickjaffe.com.au
Raced in the first Couta Boat race off Portsea.