Custodian: Tom Thwaites; 1936 – c1947
Lonsdale was built by Peter Locke in Queenscliff, Victoria and launched in September, 1936 for fisherman Tom Thwaites. Originally named Unice, she was one of the few Couta Boats built with a tumblehome, which gave her a broader beam.
Tom fished commercially out of Queenscliff. But, unlike many of the Queenscliff fishermen in this era who also fished out of ports along Victoria’s south west coast, Tom did not take Unice further afield than the regular fishing grounds just beyond Port Phillip Heads. Although his livelihood was fishing, Tom had considerable expertise in the mechanical field, and among the fishing fraternity he was known to be a problem-solver. For many years he and his son Cliff were the unofficial engineers who maintained the Queenscliff lifeboat.
As there is no written documentation on Unice, tracing her history is reliant on oral accounts. Queenscliff identity Jack Beazley recalls that in his childhood he frequently saw the Unice fishing with the Queenscliff fleet; the boat was distinctive because of her tumblehome design. Jack also recounts that after some years working out of Queenscliff, Unice was sold.
She was there one day and gone the next day.
Custodian: Harry; c1947 – c1985
Unice had moved to the northern end of Port Phillip. In 1947, Jack spotted her berthed at the Gem Pier in Williamstown and discovered that she was owned by a chap named Harry who used her for fishing parties. Harry was an old identity around the area and lived in a shed near the estuary of the Werribee River, Melbourne. It is possible that she was used to fish the waters between the two vicinities, as the areas of Hobsons Bay and Altona Bay were and remain, prime fishing grounds.
Custodian: Tim Phillips; c1985 – c1995
Circa 1985 marks the next known phase in Unice’s history. In the early to mid 1980s, Tim Phillips from Portsea was combing the Victorian coastline for old and derelict Couta Boats. He heard of a boat sitting in a railyard in Malvern, a suburb in Melbourne. When Tim found the boat she was located on a wood heap near an old wooden hut where she had been resting for about 20 years or so.
The caretaker of the railyard very quickly informed Tim of her derelict status. She came by crane and was abandoned.
I got a feed of mussels off her and I nearly died. I was sick for four weeks.
Tim recognised her as the distinctive Unice, so he retrieved her and transported her to his mother’s yard in Portsea, Victoria. Unice was in Tim’s custodianship for about 10 years, during which time he carried out repairs for her next custodian Jamie Spencer. He also renamed her Lonsdale, as she had been restored by a member of the Victorian Police Force whose surname was ‘Lonsdale’; divers from the Police Force had used her as a dive boat for training in Port Phillip.
Custodian: Trevor Pearsons; c1995 – 2001
For a time, Lonsdale was owned by Trevor Pearsons.
Custodian: Michael Innes; 2001 – Present
In 2001, she was acquired by Michael Innes, executive editor of ‘First Home: the Couta Boat and Victoria’s ‘couta coast’.
Prior to the sale transaction, Lonsdale had been moored at Royal Brighton Yacht Club during winter and raced at Sorrento during summer. After the transaction she was moved to a mooring in front of the Royal Melbourne Yacht Squadron for the winter and to Sorrento at the southern end of Port Phillip during the summer. Michael recalls some of the long days of sailing Lonsdale to get to Sorrento from St Kilda, either via the South Channel Fort or down the west side of the bay to Queenscliff.
The South Channel Fort was accessed via a narrow channel which was always tricky to navigate. One time when returning to St Kilda we accidentally ran aground on a sandbar and only got off from the waves created from a large ship passing in the nearby shipping channel. But it was always great fun racing at Sorrento, also exciting because of the tide, sand bars and large number of boats racing.
Lonsdale took part in a range of on-water events, from Classic Yacht races and club racing, to leisure sailing across to Portarlington, on Port Phillip for fresh mussels; to occasional day fishing trips to the Williamstown back beach or just mooring off the beach at St Kilda on a hot evening after work for a bite and swim. A highlight was her involvement in the 2006 Commonwealth Games where Lonsdale participated in the opening ceremony. In recent years, Lonsdale has had one major restoration at the Wooden Boat Shop in Sorrento where she had her centre-plate case replaced. This was a major job that involved removing the whole cockpit floor and centre-plate casing; Merbau was used to replace the cockpit floor.
Shortly after buying Lonsdale, Michael started looking around for information on the history of Couta Boats, but discovered that not much was available. Because of his background in publishing and graphic design, he soon began to look for the people that could help to compile a book covering the Couta Boat.
The first person was Garry Kerr, an amateur historian from Portland who had already published several books on fishing boats in Australia. When I visited Garry to get some advice, Garry, instead, handed over a huge pile of documentation and photos that he had collected for a book on Couta Boats but had run out of steam – what luck! From that point it was approximately three years of finding people and pictures to complete a story that was little known in Victoria: about the south west ‘couta coast and the history of a distinctly Australian fishing boat culture. The book set out to record the rich but almost forgotten maritime heritage and its economy centered on Victorian coastal towns along the stormy waters of Bass Strait. It covered the stories of early fishing families and the boats that have been restored, including Lonsdale.
Today, Lonsdale is moored alongside several restored net boats at St Kilda Harbour at the northern end of Port Phillip.
Innes, M & Burnham, S. (2005). First Home: the couta boat and Victoria’s couta coast. Melbourne: Arbytes Communication Pty Ltd.