Custodian: George Darley; 1903 – c1930
Custodian: Bert Perry; c1930 – 1936
Custodian: Reuben Kelly; 1936 – 1946
Thistle was designed and built in 1903 by J R Jones at his boat works on the Maribyrnong River in Footscray, a suburb of Melbourne, Victoria. In keeping with other Jones’ boats she was built straight in the stem, deep in the forefoot and with a hollow in the water line forward, whereas his son J B Jones cut away the forefoot with the aim of increasing manoeuvrability and straightened out the water line. J R Jones built a great many boats of various descriptions, having acquired his skills as an apprentice in the trade in England before immigrating to Australia mid nineteenth century.
Thistle has the open oval cockpit which became a defining characteristic of the Couta Boat and when first launched, carried a lug rigged mainsail of cotton that could be raised or lowered with a single halyard. She is regarded as one of the few Couta Boats that can be classified as having originally been ‘cutter rigged’, simultaneously carrying a staysail flown from the bow stem and a jib from the end of the jibboom. At 28 foot in length she is a little longer than the majority of Couta Boats that followed.
Stan Evans has investigated Thistle’s early history. His view is that she was built for George Darley who took her to Port Fairy, a fishing port on the Moyne River on the south-west coast of Victoria, circa 1912, where she was involved in the commercial fishery. It is thought she was originally used for ‘couta or cray fishing, depending on the season.
From as early as the 1870s, Queenscliff Couta fishermen had been working from Port Fairy in the winter months, bringing their boats down the coast by steamer. Through to the 1880s, there were just a small number of Couta Boats permanently fishing from the port. Then the railway arrived providing quick access to the markets and by 1890 there were more than twenty catching up to five tons of ‘couta in a day. When Thistle arrived, there were more Couta Boats fishing from Port fairy than from any port other than Queenscliff.
Fishing for ‘couta became less reliable towards the end of the 1920s, due to the grounds having been substantially fished out, so interest grew in the edible shark fishery. Gummy and school shark started to replace ‘couta as the mainstay of the fish and chip trade. Port Fairy was becoming a leading Victorian ‘shark port.’ Stan Evans documents that George Darley was one of the first fishermen to fish regularly for shark, catching his first longlining from Thistle.
Darley was the custodian of the Thistle until approximately 1930 when she was sold to GA ‘Bert’ Perry. He used the boat for both shark and cray fishing. Then in 1936 Perry sold Thistle to Reuben Kelly also of Port Fairy, Victoria and he continued the same use. Whereas ‘couta had once been the target species, now it was just used for bait, and the boats were heading well out of sight of land in search of shark.
Custodian: Donald ‘Scotty’ McDonald; 1946 – c1970
In approximately 1946, Thistle was purchased by Donald ‘Scotty’ McDonald to replace the sister ship Escort, lost in floods. He owned her for the next 25 years. Little is known of Thistle’s history in this period. It is thought he fished for a number of years, but by about the mid 1960s Scotty was using Thistle as a work boat in the Moyne River. The most productive fishing grounds were now out of the practical reach of a day trip in a Couta Boat
Local boatbuilder Garry Stewart recalls when he first came to Port Fairy in 1966, old Scotty McDonald used to hire Thistle to tow the Ports and Harbours Department dredge in and out of the harbour; she was powered by an old rugby engine with no gearbox. On his return to the harbour, Scotty would have to cut the motor at a precise point so that Thistle could glide gently to the jetty without incident. Although first constructed without an engine, one was probably fitted by the early 1920’s. At some stage a Rugby petrol engine was fitted. Many of the boats would use the motor to get in and out of the river then sail to the fishing ground and fish under sail.
Custodian: Bob Johansson; 1970 – 1987
A few years later, in 1970, Port Fairy identity Bob Johansson purchased Thistle and was the sole custodian for approximately 15 years. He replaced her Rugby engine with a Yanmar diesel engine, fitted her with a trunk cabin and removed the centre-case.
Old Bob lived on-board, utilising the small vessel efficiently; he would crawl into the small cabin through the hatch and sleep on the port side and cook on a small stove on the starboard side. Although he was a bit of a loner, Bob welcomed the locals on-board to sail and fish out of Thistle.
Garry Stewart remembers an occasional sail on Thistle with Bob. After he sold Thistle, Bob continued to live in the Port Marina, having purchased a Clansman 30 fibreglass production yacht. Sadly, it was on this yacht that Bob fell over and died a few years later at the age of 97 years. Vale Bob.
At the time of his passing Couta Boat Club President Carmen Bell wrote:
In 1970, he purchased an old Couta Boat named Thistle. He built a cabin and moved into his new home- much to the annoyance of his mother Grace who was living in Port Fairy with her third husband Scotty. He lived in the thistle until 1987. Bob’s early days in Port Fairy were spent tinkering with the Thistle, helping out at the Port Fairy Aquarium, taking himself out fishing and also going out on some other fishing boats. In his later years, his main occupation was talking to passers-by.
Custodian: Tim Phillips; 1987 – 1988
Restoration of Thistle for the Australian National Maritime Museum:
Thistle was acquired by Sorrento boatbuilder Tim Phillips from Bob Johansson in 1987. After some negotiation, in recognition of the important and unique place the Couta Boat holds in Australian maritime history, it was arranged that she would be restored by Tim at the Wooden Boat Shop, Sorrento under the supervision and to the conservation standards of the Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM) in Darling Harbour, Sydney, NSW and then included in their collection of vessels afloat.
Although many original craft have been restored and are still in active use, conservation and restoration to museum standard requires application of different standards, designed to maintain the integrity of the original form and function and replacement, only where strictly necessary, of like for like. Michael Staples, who was the Conservator at the ANMM as well as being a former shipwright, taught Tim the requirements and skills required for the restoration of marine vessels, specifically gutting and rebuilding them to museum standards.
Michael says that unlike a restoration for private recreational purposes, this requires minimising the loss of original material. This includes all the fine detail. For example, the original anchor line was ‘coconut fibre’; so, the museum obtained coir rope from Denmark for the new line. This restoration would not admit modern block and tackle, roller bearings, fine tunes on the sheets, synthetic ropes or, indeed, Dacron sails.
Thistle was in a rather degraded condition. The meticulous conservation and restoration work included removal of the engine, carefully removing and refixing original Baltic pine lining boards, and conserving the centreplate case, beams and deck. Where replacement was required in order to preserve structural integrity it was done, using the same species of full-length timbers originally selected by Jones.
Col Anderson’s Melbourne loft, Hood sails at the time, was engaged to make a set of cotton sails, hand stitched to a panel layout as was originally on the boat in her working days. She was restored to her lug rig and what by today’s standards would be regarded as a small jib. At 596 sq. ft. her sail area is about 100 sq. ft. less than that which would be allowed under the current class rules for a craft of her length. Although after a day’s sailing it must be said the cotton sails seemed to have stretched considerably.
Rail track iron was procured for ballast as that was what was used originally. Her new paint was based upon scrape samples taken from original pieces of timber. The end result is that the Thistle that is now seen on display in the Museum and occasionally sailing on the harbour is an excellent representation of how she and other Couta Boats were originally constructed and sailed in the early 1900s.
Custodian: Australian National Maritime Museum; 1988 – Present
Tim retained custodianship of Thistle until after he delivered her to Sydney, so he could sail her in the Gaffers’ Day Regatta on Sydney Harbour. Although work was to be done to conservation standards, it was also fundamental that she be capable of going to sea in moderate conditions, and she still does that – competing in Sydney Amateur Sailing Club Gaffers Day events and similar signature events, including the annual Balmain Regatta on the Parramatta River.
Thistle can be seen on permanent display at the Australian Maritime Museum, Darling Harbour, Sydney.
Evans, S. (2003). Fins Scales and Sails – the Story of Fishing at Port Fairy 1845 – 1945. Daylesford: Jim Crow Press.
Evans, S. (2005). Port Fairy. In M. Innes & S. Burnham, First Home: the Couta Boat and Victoria’s couta coast. (pp 59-77). Melbourne: Arbytes Communication Pty Ltd.
Kerr, G. & Jansson, J. (2005). Timeless Classic. In M. Innes & S. Burnham, First Home: the Couta Boat and Victoria’s couta coast. (pp 1-19). Melbourne: Arbytes Communication Pty Ltd
The restoration of Thistle brochure (1988). Couta Boat Club Inc, Sorrento, Victoria.