Mercury was built by Ken Lacco in Rosebud, Victoria in 1938. The name of her original owner is not known. She is 19 foot in length.
As recorded in a Marine Survey dated 11th October 1988, Mercury is carvel planked with steam bent frames. Her fastenings are copper riveted. The stem, keel and stern post are built of Western Australian Jarrah; the ribs of New Zealand Kauri; the deck tongue and groove of Kauri, while the deck beams are built of Oregon.
Custodian: Roy Hoffert; c1980s
Other than the marine survey, there is no documentation regarding Mercury’s history until approximately 1980 when Roy Hoffert owned her. A small, but vital snippet of Mercury’s history is documented by Roy in a detailed letter. The letter is listed in the Appendix.
In the letter, Roy ruminates on his own experiences of owning Mercury from the moment when he first spotted her at the breakwater at Sandringham Yacht Club, Victoria. For some time Roy had been searching for a Lacco boat to purchase. Despite his first sighting of the derelict state of Mercury:
I saw this battered little fishing boat almost flooded,… with a split Jubilee mast huge forest of weed and blistered paintwork ‘Jackson Pollocked’ by seagulls.
Roy was convinced that this old hull had ‘class’ and became the new owner. And so began a period of restoration of Mercury, including a new mast and jibboom and new rigging. In selecting Mercury’s colour scheme, memories were evoked of his wartime experience of flying in an unarmed aircraft over the Aegean Sea:
The Laccos might have come from that neck of the woods so what better than to paint the boat sort of Mediterranean like and make a statement. (Actually it was a beaut combination taking on and changing with the various colours of the Bay).
Mercury’s restoration was finished in time for one Couta Boat race held at Portsea at the bottom end of Port Phillip. However, plans for participating in this event did not go according to plan. In the week prior to the race a mishap occurred in the breakwater when a catamaran slammed her hull through the newly restored boat:
Knocking out three lovely precious Kauri planks on the starboard side.
But her owner was not going to be deterred. Immediately he slipped her and shaped some new planks from an old Kauri bench top to block up the gap. He also found the stuffing box lived up to its name so pulled the shaft out and bunged in a big cork. Come Friday evening. Roy had finished the repairs and Mercury was set to sail from Sandringham to Portsea. Roy writes a very vivid account of his journey onboard Mercury to compete in the Couta Boat race at Portsea.
According to Roy’s account of the race, Mercury blitzed the field and he was duly awarded a ‘Kenny Lacco biscuit barrel’ followed by an afternoon at the pub and a jolly evening with fellow competitors.
In the following year, Mercury returned to Portsea as the defending champion. Again, she proved her prowess in tactically outsmarting the 26 footers. The letter recounts that sometime after the race Roy attended a Couta Boat meeting:
At which some frustrated legal wallah presented an inches thick volume – the wonderful Couta Boat Class Constitution. Who in the heck needs that crap in a fun boat relaxing craft group? I felt there should be prizes for the most fish caught….
He then offers some timely advice to her new owner:
The Couta Boats have gone from strength to strength even if in the wrong hands they are one of the most dangerous boats on the bay having as a class drowned or near drowned a few folk in recent years possibly in the quest for more speed – not the way to go – but Mercury, if she still has the small rig won’t do that if in the right hands which I am sure yours are.….
In the remaining time of Roy’s custodianship Mercury reverted to her original role of pottering about the Sandringham breakwater, taking family and friends onboard.
Custodian: Sally and Tim Phillips; Mid 1980s – 1987
Sadly, Roy parted with his beloved Mercury when he sold her in the mid 1980s to Sally and Tim Phillips of Sorrento, Victoria.
Custodian: Liz Gibson; 1987 – Present
In 1987, Mercury was sold to her current owner Liz Gibson, the sister of Sally Phillips.
Liz declared that from the moment she purchased Mercury, she loved her history, her lines, her manageable size of 19 feet, and the half cabin which offered protection from the sea. She also recalled that the first time she was on her own on Mercury, she manoeuvred the boat on and off the mooring lots of times, to gain confidence about timing the speed and direction of the boat, taking into account the wind and tide to allow herself time to run from the helm to the bow and grab the buoy.
In recalling some memories, Liz ruminates:
Mercury has taught me a lot about the weather, tides, sailing, seamanship and about myself. I have had lots of great times on Mercury with family and friends. Most of the good times have been sailing and racing her but she has also been a great spectator boat when watching the kids learning to sail and competing in regattas. As for fishing, I am yet to really master this; I am not doing the ‘couta moniker much justice.
Like Roy Hoffert before her, Liz utilizes Mercury for both recreational and competitive sailing. Mercury is a regular and successful competitor in the Division 2 Couta Boat fleet at Sorrento Sailing Couta Boat Club (SSCBC) and has competed in regattas at various yacht clubs around Port Phillip, including at Queenscliff, Mornington and Brighton.
Liz holds fond memories of Mercury from these journeys.
Sleeping on Mercury on the mooring, sleeping on her at Mornington Yacht Club (MYC), sailing her for over eight hours to Royal Brighton Yacht Club (RBYC) for a winter series, racing off Queenscliff, being becalmed for hours and hours in a Petersville race off Capel Sound when the time limit was about seven hours, being becalmed in another race off Sorrento, being offered a bribe of a ‘six pack’ to retire and not delay the next race of the day, and sailing in very fresh conditions with the main sail reefed, and everyone ‘hiking out’ like sailing a dinghy…
An unintentional Chinese gybe that occurred just as we were finishing a race off the Club, with a very dear girlfriend who had been sitting on the boom then did an elegant ‘swan dive’ into the water. And another man-overboard incident where a friend was ‘hiking out’ in a race with his feet pushing against the engine box when the lid suddenly lifted and my friend lost balance and went backwards into the water! We were about to retrieve him but he was very quickly back in the boat. He had kept holding the jib sheet and had pulled himself in. It certainly helps to have agile friends on Mercury! Needless to say – lessons learned.
Mercury is over 80 years old and is regarded by her owner to be the prettiest boat in the fleet and very seaworthy in a blow. The affection Liz has for Mercury is clearly expressed in her own words.
Thanks, Mercury. And thanks to everyone who has come aboard.
Mercury is moored off the SSCBC.
Appendix: Transcript of letter by Roy Hoffert
8th September, 1997
To the lovely owner of dear old ‘Mercury’.
At the insistence of that very nautical knowledgeable good friend of mine John Rivers Key (please don’t let him know I said he was knowledgeable, it would weaken my case in the more than numerous arrangements we have) – as I was saying Key insisted on me sending you (per Key’s safe hand) this naïve sketch of ‘Mercury’ returning to the Sandringham Yacht Club’ breakwater.
I had often looked around for a Lacco; as having restored a Dragon I found the only active Dragon fleet was across the Bay at Geelong. Whenever I spotted a suitable Lacco, either the owner didn’t want to sell or if he did, I didn’t have the money.
Walking along the pens at Sandringham one day, I saw this battered little fishing boat almost flooded. Taking the liberty of stepping uninvited aboard another members boat, I thought what the heck and proceeded to pump it out.
When I got her floating on her marks I got back on the jetty to survey my good Samaritan act and notwithstanding the split ‘Jubilee’ mast huge forest of weed and blistered paintwork Jackson Pollacked by seagulls – I thought that old hull has class.
So out with the scrapers and blowlamp and restoration was started. Cuddy top too far gone to varnish so cover with jute and Watershield Dulux – lots of coats. Likewise with deck, but used unbleached calico as membrane. Make a pattern for gaimen iron for bowsprit, a new mast – Yep a very small rig (self-tacking jib) because up the North end of the Bay very often the late afternoon sea breeze is up to 25kts with good big waves to match; no the conditions for an old grandfather and grandchildren to be in with an over canvassed open boat.
Oh yes the colour scheme:- way back in the 40’s I was in an unarmed aircraft over the Aegean Sea seeking cloud cover in which to hide but still taking a moment to think I must get back there some day in peaceful times. I never have, but restoring Mercury I got to thinking probably the Laccos might have come from that neck of the woods so what better than to paint the boat sort of Mediterranean like and make a statement. (Actually it was a beaut combination taking on and changing with the various colours of the Bay).
So I gave the small sail plan to John Bertrand who at the time had the ‘North’ loft. Blow me down if the loft computer didn’t miss fire and produced a sail only about 1 foot long on the gaff. I guess the computer was programmed to handle only three sided sails not 4.
Anyway the error was corrected although the panels were of different widths. Mercury had already been launched and with a week to go before the Couta Boat Race.
On the Monday morning I picked up the corrected mainsail and returned home to a phone call from the cotton picker who at that time had a catamaran higher business at Sandringham – sure enough one of his blooming cats had just slammed a hull through lovely newly painted Mercury knocking out three lovely precious kauri planks on the Starboard side.
I raced up the club and was able to slip her before the waves lapped in through the hole and sunk her. Fortunately a mate had an old kauri bench top thick enough so I could shape new planks without bending to slip into the gap. It was a stinking hot week and to add insult to injury I found the stuffing lose lived up to its name so I pulled the shaft out and bunged a big cork in, no time to do anything else.
Friday evening just before the yardman knocked off, I bent the sails on for the first time, was lowered down the slipway – anchored in the shallows, waded ashore for my sleeping bag and tucker and took off at sunset in a spanking sou’easter across Carrum bight to overnight at Mornington.
Next morning Race Day, Mercury left Mornington and in a very light breeze reached Portsea Pier about 20 minutes before the start. Sailing close to the pier I was hailed by Eaden Alica an old yachtie and then president of the V.Y.C. Eaden called across the water did I need a crew? As I was solo. Great, I got him aboard and as the President and an upholder of Yachting tradition and a thirsty one at that, Eaden politely asked what did race protocol require as to liquid refreshments and if any, at what stage in the race should cans be popped?
Well it was a very hot day with only a fitful Easterly drift of air and as both Eaden and I were in very real danger of dehydration it was agreed that we would open a can after we crossed the start line. Bang! We slowly crossed the line cans opened, cans emptied at a gulp. The breeze dropped, ebb tide, back we drifted back behind the start line. Breeze came in again, crossed start line, cans opened and emptied; breeze dropped, drift back, breeze lifts, cross line for the third time, cans to lips and we are actually on our way.
Ebb current, light East breeze, short tack very close in to shore even past raising centreplate to get into still water. Stand way above first mark buoy at entrance to Sorrento channel so as to cross the stream without drifting down onto the buoy. Spring sheets and reach for the Chinaman’s Hat the second mark. We are halfway to the Hat and the big boats having to stay out in the ebb stream are still struggling to round the first mark.
Round the Chinaman’s Hat return to the first mark and again stay high of the rumb, yep I know there is an ‘h’ in rhumb but because I was so thirsty remembering the great race I made a Freudian slip thinking of rum and beer chaser??? Anyway as I was saying heading back to the first mark again we stood high over the sands where the current was weakest so the mark could be cleared without being swept below it.
Safely rounded, it was a run with the current to the start/finish boat where a shorten course and finish was displayed. Winner – Mercury and some cad said our motor had been used – Even if it had there was no propeller – silly chap.
With the race won, a change of mood, a change of paper.
With the presentation of the Kenny Lacco biscuit barrel or ice bucket and the lid being dropped in the water twice but recovered; it was up to the pub then to Will Baillieu’s for a jolly evening during which I was not too far gone to suggest to Will that as a rower and sailor he should contact John Bertrand who was putting together an America’s Cup crew (later that week I suggested also to John that Will would make a good winch grinder)
So come Sunday after a dreamless sleep aboard Mercury; about midday I upped anchor and headed home. Progress against the current was slow in the fairly reluctant NE to N wind. About 5 pm I was just gaining Mornington when the dirty great Cunimb which had been building up all afternoon dumped. As the wall of white spray came roaring down I was very glad old Mercury had a tiny rig which was dropped and lashed in a few seconds.
When the squall passed it was obvious the SW cold change was on the way also so I settled for sleeping in Mercury safe overnight close in under Mornington.
Monday early I hoisted sail in a spanking S/Westerly complete with frequent rain squalls and surfed off across Carrum Bight for Sandy.
And after all that foregoing scribble I get to the point namely that the naïve painting is supposed to represent Mercury having gybed onto Starboard reaching into Sandy at the end of an eventful weekend.
Oh yes – next year I picked up Lex Bertrand (John’s brother) and again the first leg of the race was to the buoy off Point King. Again the current was on the ebb, but this time there was a fresh S/S Westerly. So once more the shallows were worked even closer in, as sheets were slightly sprung and the plate could be lifted even more than last time. Again we rounded the mark first with the larger deeper craft forced to stay out and buck the stronger current. However on the run to the Chinaman’s the 24/26 footers caught and passed us. But blow me down as they rounded the Chinaman’s for the beat back to the finish at Portsea Pier; for some odd reason they all hardened up chasing one another on Port tack, being carried further West towards Queenscliff by the now strong current. Little old Mercury on rounding nipped onto Starboard and with the current carrying her to windward all the time making her track over the ground a direct line to the finish; laid the finish in one tack to finish second overall. Funny that, I thought the locals would have known better.
The foregoing while being unashamedly boastful and no doubt boring, does show Mercuries potential even with a tiny rig, if the old nut is used.
After that I attended a Couta Boat meeting I think at RBYC at which some frustrated legal wallah presented an inches thick volume – the wonderful ‘Couta Boat Class Constitution’.
Who the heck needs that crap in a fun boat releasing craft group. I felt there should be prizes for the most fish caught thing, or the best bikini clad crew (with Eaden Alica and next Lex Bertrand I would sure have missed out there).
No, Mercury reverted to its original role of pottering about Sandy with grand kids other kids even teaching their lovely mums to sail??? Or with old friends and a well filled hamper.
But there without my participation the Couta Boats have gone from strength to strength even if in the wrong hands they are one of the most dangerous boats on the bay having as a class drowned or near drowned a few folk in recent years possibly in the quest for more speed – not the way to go – but Mercury if it still has the small rig won’t do that if in the right hands which I am sure yours are. Many hours of drifting around the clear waters of your end of the Bay are assured for you and your little family in dear old Mercury.
Old Hoff (Roy Hoffert)
Ps: Please excuse scribble and spelling