Custodian: The Mackinnon Family; 1936 – Unknown
Mermerus was built in 1936 by Ken Lacco at Rosebud for Charles George Mackinnon of Sorrento.
Charles Mackinnon was born at Port Melbourne in 1889. His family moved to Shelley Beach Portsea not long thereafter, where they paid 24 shillings per year to lease a quarter acre block of land effectively on the beach.
He met Mary Clifford, who was working at the Whitehall Guest House, Sorrento and they married. Their son Edward (Ted) was born in 1911. Ted left school at 14 and went to work at the fisherman’s camp on the beaches of Portsea, where look outs on the cliff top would signal to dinghies carrying nets, where and when to shoot the nets to catch passing schools. Mostly, they caught salmon, trout and mullet with the occasional kingfish. Aged 15 he purchased a commercial fishing licence, which he held for 59 years until he was 74.
Mermerus was commissioned from Ken Lacco, Rosebud at a cost of £180. She is uncommonly beamy and shallow compared to most Couta Boats. Charles wanted a wide boat with additional carrying capacity in order to take guests on fishing excursions. Guests at Whitehall could make a booking the previous evening for fishing trips on the Mermerus. With her wide beam she was licensed to carry 28 people. Fishing parties were taken up until 1948 – 50 or thereabouts. At other times, Charles was fishing commercially out of Sorrento, along with men such as Erland Erlandsen and the Newmans. They mostly fished in the South Channel for schnapper or if they were not biting, headed up towards Rosebud looking for flathead.
Being so beamy the full length kauri planks had to be bent to some extreme curves and Ken Lacco recalled years later that he had broken a few on the way.
She was named Mermerus after the iron wool clipper of that name built in 1873 that as a youngster Charles had seen coming up the bay. She was one of the quickest clippers engaged on the Australian wool run.
Charles and Ted worked the Mermerus together for many years. For a period, they ferried parties of workers from Sorrento, over to Queenscliff on a Monday to work on the Point Lonsdale sea wall, where they camped on the beach. They would fish during the day. The men would be ferried home again on a Friday evening.
It was a common sight to see Charles and Ted cleaning and selling their catch at the end of the Sorrento pier, near the shed. They particularly tried to have fresh fish for sale on a Friday morning, regardless of the weather on the Thursday evening prior.
If they weren’t line fishing for schnapper they would be netting between Portsea and Blairgowrie.
During the winter, if it was too rough for fishing they built jetties – in fact most of the original jetties between Portsea and Sorrento were built by the Mackinnons as well as works on the ocean beach. If timber could not be got down the cliff it would be delivered to the Sorrento Pier, loaded onto the Mermerus and taken to the work site by sea.
They were also engaged in laying and servicing swing moorings from Portsea to Blairgowrie, particularly those for boats at Sorrento Sailing Club and Blairgowrie Yacht Squadron. Mermerus was rigged up with a roller and block to enable the ground tackle to be raised and either repaired on the deck, or taken ashore for more major works.
For many years, Mermerus was hauled out across the sand at Shelley Beach, Portsea for her annual maintenance. Later this was done at Tally Erlandsen’s ‘docks’ opposite Erlandsen Avenue, Sorrento where a large winch was installed, making the task a lot easier. However, as soft sand built up over the years this too became difficult.
In the last year of Ted’s life, 1989, the boat was hauled out beside the ‘old Baths’ on the Sorrento front beach, at the foot of the main street – a fitting reminder of Sorrento’s fishing boat heritage. Vale Ted.
Mermerus played a pivotal role as a catalyst for the revival of the Couta Boat. Around 1974, when Ted was still using her as a work boat, she was sailing on a reach from the heads back to Sorrento. A young Tim Phillips was in his family yacht, an H28 class. Seeing the old fishing boat ahead and to leeward, Tim naturally thought his modern yacht would soon pass ahead – but no! The skimming dish shape of the Mermerus on a reach was surprisingly fast and slowly but surely the fishing boat eased ahead. The speed, lines and heritage of this old boat piqued Tim’s interest – and the rest as they say is history.
At that time, Mermerus was one of only very few working boats still hoisting a spar. Indeed perhaps one of just two – along with Ariel of Portland. Ted Mackinnon took part in the early races for gaff rigged boats, which developed into the Couta Boat Club, Portsea Cup, sailing in every race until at least 1985. She was a classic example of the working Couta Boat and Ted Mackinnon was a classic example of the proud but humble men who worked from these craft.
Mermerus in particular sailed on through the middle of the 20th century while other craft were disowned, sold, converted or simply abandoned as fishing under sail gave way to larger powered vessels. She was a beautifully preserved example of the working days of sail-powered fishing craft that worked the southern end of Port Phillip.
On the formation of the Couta Boat Club in 1982, Ted Mackinnon was the first to be appointed an Honorary Life Member of the Club.
Mermerus has not been to sea for some years now. A restoration was commenced, with preparation for re-ribbing and she was moved from one boat builders yard to another. When the Pompeii yard in Mordialloc closed, a number of parts were auctioned off, including the rudder, spars and original rigging. She is believed to be on the Mornington Peninsula awaiting further restoration.
Fortunately, her lines have been taken and new boats such as the race proven Wagtail are based closely on her design and continue the heritage.
Burke, M., Phillips, T. & Mackinnon E. (1989). The end of an era. SCOOP Newsletter. Couta Boat Club Publicaton.
Mackinnon, A. (2014, February). Another Mermerus surfaces. [Letter to the editor.] Queenscliffe Herald. p.10