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Wattle C28

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Boat Details

Current Custodian:
Russell Barrett

History

Early Years
Wattle was built in 1928. Her build brought together two prominent Queenscliff families, the Lacco’s and the Todd’s, each of whom played a significant role in the development of the Queenscliff Couta Boat fishing fleet and the fishing industry in Victoria. She was named after the Wattle Bird.

Custodian: Walter Todd; 1928 – 1939
Queenscliff boatbuilder Mitch Lacco had been building Couta Boats in Queenscliff for 10 or so years when he undertook to build Wattle for Queenscliff fisherman Walter ‘Cack’ Todd. Walter had her built for his son David to mark the occasion of his 21st birthday as was tradition within the family; boys who had begun fishing as crew for the older members of the family were given their own boat on attaining 21. However, David never became the custodian of Wattle. The pressure, no doubt, would have been on David to follow his father into commercial fishing, but he chose otherwise. Long-term Queenscliff identity Jack Beazley who is Walter’s grandson, tells:

He (Walter) had her built by Mitchie Lacco in Learmouth Street.

He was goin’ to give her to Dave but Dave joined the RAAF and gave up the fishing.

Wattle thus became Walter’s fishing boat and she operated out of Queenscliff, catching barracouta. She also became part of a larger fleet of up to 50 Couta Boats that sought fishing grounds beyond The Heads, often sailing around to San Remo in Western Port each spring to fish for ‘couta. Throughout the 1930s, Walter would move his family to San Remo from September through to the Christmas season, at which time they would then return to Queenscliff on Port Phillip. The family later settled permanently in San Remo, Western Port in 1939.

Jack Beazley recalls that a twin cylinder sleeve valve Kelvin Marine engine 7-10 Hp was installed into the Wattle at the approx. cost of 120 pounds which was more than the initial cost of the boat. Walter found that the engine was too small for fishing out of San Remo and pushing against the tide running out between Newhaven and San Remo so in the 1930s he replaced it with a 14 hp Rugby car engine. The Kelvin was sold to well-known St Leonards fisherman George Rigby who later sent it back to the Kelvin factory Scotland for rebuilding in the late 1940s. After a long period of use the engine eventually ended up in the RMIT museum.

As the Couta Boat fleet grew in numbers, so did the competition among the ‘couta fishermen, not only for the catch, but they pitted against each other in the regular sailing regattas held out of the various ports on Phillip Island, Western Port. Wattle duly competed in these regattas, with Walter at the helm often competing against the other Todd family boat, Dawn, which was owned and sailed by his son Jocka. Folklore has it that on more than one occasion Dawn out-maneuvered Wattle, causing friction between father and son.

In the San Remo Hotel hangs a board which records the winners of the annual San Remo Yacht Race conducted between 1934 and 1951. These winners were also the recipients of the Gerlach Victory Cup between 1946 and 1951. Listed are:
* W.Todd: Wattle 1934, 1935, 1936, 1937, 1938
* S. Todd: Dawn 1939
* H Kirkland: Dawn 1945; 1947, 1951
* W.J. Burgan: Wattle 1948

Notably absent on the board is a record of Wattle during the World War II years. Shortly after he settled permanently in San Remo in 1939, Walter parted ways with his beloved boat.

Custodian: Len Bagley; 1939 – 1943
Wattle was sold to young 16 year old Len Bagley from San Remo, Western Port, Victoria.

The Bagley family history records that the transaction, again, involved the two prominent families. Apparently Walter Todd gave young Len Bagley the choice of either Wattle or the Doreen, formerly, and later known as Surprise, which had been built by Mitch in c1916. Given that she was already over 20 years old, Mitch Lacco advised Len to steer clear of the Doreen, so he ended up with the Wattle.

Len’s daughter Gail Cleeland has provided a record of her father’s first-hand account of his early involvement in fishing and of his purchase of Wattle. Len’s account of fishing out of Wattle captures, in essence, the remarkable durability of the Couta Boats built in this period. These excerpts give a rare insight into Len’s association with fishing, commencing in his childhood when working with local commercial fishermen.

When we were goin’ to school we used to fish, we had a little net and we’d go fishin’ of a Friday night, send a box of fish to Melbourne an’ get 10 bob for it. Which was a lot for us kids. In 1937 I fished with Big Jim Shapter for a few weeks . Good hooker Jim.

Then I went sharking with Tommy and Dugger Warren in the Rhonda. We worked a few months from San Remo, then to Queenscliff for a few weeks. Then to Port Fairy for the winter of ‘38. I left Port Fairy at the end of winter came home to buy Wattle and worked her from then till I joined RAN 3rd March 1943.

I had my first boat when I was 16, the Wattle. I bought her off Cack Todd, who used to come here from Queenscliff every spring. He told me I could have either the Wattle or the Doreen. Old Mitch Lacco, I said to him, “Which one would you buy?” He said, “Don’t buy the Doreen [now the Surprise], She’s been thrashed, she’ll be nail sick!”

Len’s account also gives a unique insight into the character of Walter (Cack) Todd.

Old Cack was a cunning ole’ bloke, sailing-clever. He won nearly every Couta Boat race here. The Dawn won once. He said to me, “I let him win because he’s gunna sell her.” Cack’s son Syd owned the Dawn. Cack was a good old bloke, rough ol’ diamond. Hard doer. Hard worker. The Queenscliff mob were pretty good blokes.

Len continues:

I had a good boat. She was only 10 years old when I got her and she could sail! Of course you used the sails a lot in those days. It was more reliable than the engine if you had wind.

Every day we used the sails. When we were craying down at Coal Point, about 17 mile down the coast, with north-easter blowin’ every morning, you’d have everything on her going down there. By the time you had pulled your pots you’d have a summer south-easter and you would have a nice breeze home. Yeah, and she’d sail like blazes.

All the boats in the area would all race for home. You were just as fast sailing as steaming coming home , if you had a bit of wind. Everybody had a Rugby motor, a great old motor. They were water cooled and treated pretty rough. It amazes me that they lasted so well, they went for years.

Len’s fishing days came to an abrupt end when on 3rd March 1943 he joined the Royal Australian Navy and sold Wattle for £230, after having bought her for £200!

Custodian: Billy Burgen; 1943 – 1953
Custodian Billy Chidgey; 1953 – 1956
Wattle’s new custodian was San Remo fisherman Billy Burgen who fished out of her on Western Port for about 10 years. She was then sold to fisherman Billy Chidgey who returned her to Queenscliff in 1953, to rejoin the local fishing fleet.

Wattle remained in Queenscliff for three years, during which time Billy carried out refurbishment including decking in her open cockpit, as was the trend for new fishing craft at the time.

In 1956, Billy Chidgey sold her to a fisherman from the fishing port of Robe, SA.

Custodian: Milton Hall; 1956 – 1966
Custodians: Numerous Fishermen, Robe SA; 1966 – 1980
Wattle was purchased by fisherman Milton Hall who fished out of her during the next 10 years from Beachport, a coastal village about 300km south-east of Adelaide, SA. Tim Phillips of Sorrento is in possession of a detailed log written by Milton during 1956.

Excerpts from that log show:

The date of purchase was 5/7/1956. At the time she was fitted with a new Lister air-cooled 12 ½ hp engine, and with a new gaff-rig sail cut down to fit a Marconi rig.

She was transported by road from Queenscliff to Port Fairy on the 6/7/56; then taken by water from Port Fairy to Portland on the 22/7/56. A month later, on the 21/9/56, she was transferred by water from Portland to Port MacDonnell in SA; the next trip from Port MacDonnell to Beachport was made on the 25/9/56; then on to Robe SA on the 29/9/2021.

Wattle was re-configured for the conditions in southern waters in accordance with the custom of the time: the log reveals that a new winch was installed; a wheelhouse was added, and new bulwarks and a rail. The log records the dedication but daily grind of this fisherman, and that Wattle was used predominantly for cray fishing and ‘coutering’:

Went coutering. 4 ½ hours but no fish. Slight breeze from SE; slight swell… (14/10/1956)

Laid new moorings this morning. Then set 200 hooks in Bay; about 3 boxes of stringrays for bait. Set 5 pots near outlet; fresh SE breeze, heavy rain and squalls. Heavy swell…. (17/10/1956)

Pulled pots for nothing – 1 slimy cod; fresh SW winds; no swell…(18/10/1956)

Over the years the Wattle was known to have had some 11 owners before ending up as a houseboat on the Port River in Adelaide, South Australia.

Custodian: Tim Phillips; 1980 – 1983
In 1980, the soon to be Sorrento boatbuilder Tim Phillips travelled to Adelaide looking for the Couta Boat that had been built by Walter “Cack” Todd. By this time, Wattle had been converted into a houseboat and was decked in, with a huge cabin on her. After the sighting, it did not take Tim long to negotiate with her owner to purchase the boat and return her to her home territory of Port Phillip.

The purchase of Wattle marked Tim’s venture into boatbuilding. He rented a shed in Braeside and, with the guidance and assistance of fisherman and boatbuilder Jack Norling, undertook a restoration of Wattle, including: replacing half of the stem and fitting a new deck, new centre-case, new ribs and rigging.

During the summer of 1980-1981, the restored Wattle, the recently built Hero and the restored Rita sailed off Portsea, almost daily. And these traditional gaff-rigged boats began to draw the attention of other boat devotees who were keen to acquire one and join in the regular races for gaff rigged boats.

During the summer of 1980-1981, the restored Wattle, the recently built Hero and the restored Rita sailed off Portsea, almost daily. And these traditional gaff-rigged boats began to draw the attention of other boat devotees who were keen to acquire one and join in the regular races for gaff rigged boats.

Over next few years Wattle sailed in the Petersville Regattas and many of the inaugural Couta Boat Club events including the Williamstown Cup held in March each year and also the Melbourne Cup held at Port Melbourne over the November long weekend, but both races were discontinued later in the 1990s. Tim’s friend Marcus Burke soon showed an interest in purchasing Wattle.

Custodian: Marcus Burke; circa 1983 – 1994
A keen fisherman, Marcus acquired and used Wattle for fishing and regular racing in the local regattas. He became the founding President of the Couta Boat Club (CBC) and, later, Honorary Life Member of the CBC, harnessing wooden boat enthusiasts in the establishment and promotion of the Portsea Fishing Boat Regatta and the conduct of regular races and regattas for the growing Couta Boat fleet right around Port Phillip, not to mention plenty of post-race social events.

Marcus raced, sailed, and fished out of Wattle for over 10 years, participating in all the Couta Boat Club events, and fittingly taking line honours in the Queenscliff regatta in 1989, as well as winning the Melbourne Cup Regatta sailed at the top of the Bay in both 1984 and 1989. Eventually Marcus sold Wattle to Mark Calvert-Jones.

Custodian: Mark Calvert-Jones; 1994 – 2004
Mark Calvert-Jones purchased Wattle from Marcus Burke in 1994. Mark and members of the family sailed Wattle regularly during the summer months but not so much during the rest of the year. She competed in the Couta Boat fleet competition at Sorrento Sailing Club and, later, out of Sorrento Sailing Couta Boat Club (SSCBC).

Wattle was one of the 10 to 15 Couta Boats from SSCBC to sail to San Remo, Phillip Island in 2001, to compete in a Couta Boat regatta organised to honour boatbuilder Ken Lacco, then living in Newhaven, on Phillip Island. The journey entailed leaving the safe waters of Port Phillip and sailing through The Heads into open seas then into Westernport where the regatta was held.

Russell Barrett, the current custodian of Wattle who was on board as crew, regarded it to be a tough race; sailed in the entrance to Western Port, passing under the Ran Remo bridge. Although used to the tide inside the Port Phillip Heads – the current here was something else again. He has not forgotten the sight of one of the competing boats seeking to avoid the strongest current deciding to sail closer to the edge of the channel- but failing to dip her gaff sufficiently to squeeze under the lower section of the bridge- with her rig brought to a halt by the bridge, but the tide pushing the hull relentlessly further forward….

Custodian: Russell Barrett; 2004- Present
In 2004, Mark sold Wattle to his crew, Russell Barrett. Russell’s first introduction to Couta Boats was in the 1960s when he would go fishing with Andy Johanssen in the historic Muriel C17, now owned by Tim Phillips, at Flinders on Western Port, Victoria.

She seemed such a “big boat” with steps from the cockpit to the deck. She had a Rugby engine which guided us from Flinders pier past West Head where Andy lined up two trees on the cliff to go through his “secret passage”. We would go to Cape Schanck, empty the cray pots and return to Flinders to put the crays in the coffs. Andy would helm Muriel and scull his beautiful clinker dinghy whilst rolling a cigarette in one hand and a swig of rum was the accompaniment. We were in the company of other wooden fishing boats including the Gardiner (Tom Delaney) and Barbara May (Max Mannix). There were other fishing boats, but to the best of my knowledge no other Couta Boats.

After Russell purchased her, Wattle remained on her mooring at Lentell Avenue and Russell sailed her in the Couta Boat competition out of SSCBC. However, he was missing the familiar waters of Flinders on Westernport, where in earlier years he used to fish on Muriel C17 when she was owned by fisherman Andy Johanssen.

After three years of sailing with the fleet at SSCBC, Russell decided to return Wattle to her more familiar waters of Western Port. He and his crew Susan Burne then sailed, raced and cruised around Western Port in Wattle, and circumnavigated Phillip Island. But each summer season they would return Wattle to Sorrento for annual maintenance works at the Wooden Boat Shop (WBS).

In 2008, the 80th year marking Wattle’s build, major works were carried out to give her a “birthday refit”; the brief being to return her to the configuration of a classic Couta Boat. She was rebuilt. The laid deck was replaced with a traditional deck including the substructure, sister ribs were removed, broken ribs replaced and the hull re-aligned; it was two pac’d, repainted and fully restored. And the Yanmar diesel from the 1980s was retained.

The relaunched Wattle was ready for the next 80 years. She was launched at Sorrento slipway, rigged and spent a couple of years sailing without much success at SSBC. Russell said:

She looked magnificent!

In 2011, Wayne Parr convinced Russell to transport Wattle to Pittwater in NSW, to sail in with the burgeoning fleet. A ready-made crew in Pittwater launched her, rigged her and prepared her for sailing, leaving Russell somewhat amazed by the camaraderie, generosity and friendship of the Pittwater Couta sailors. Wattle sailed on Pittwater including voyages to Sydney Harbour to compete in the 2011 Sydney Amateur Sailing Club Gaffers Day Regatta.

I never dreamt I would sail Wattle on this famous waterway.

In 2012, Wattle returned to Sorrento after an unforgettable summer in Pittwater. But Russell, instantly, decided to return her home to Flinders.

That ‘sail’ changed everything! We set off from Sorrento onto Cape Schanck when an unpredicted sou’easterly blew up. It was rugged and the winds were too strong to lower the sails. We motor-sailed around the Schanck to Flinders, surfiing around West Head. My reluctant crew had had enough so ‘abandoned ship’. Alone and with great difficulty, I put ‘Wattle’ on her mooring and secured the sails. The water was strangely warm when I dived in and swam to the beach.

Wattle’s sojourn in Flinders, however, was not to last. Russell had been captivated by the tranquillity and beauty of Pittwater, in comparison the ‘wild’ coastline of Flinders on Western Port. The next day he decided to return Wattle to Pittwater where she remains today.

In 2013, Russell and Magnus Mansie instigated a ‘trophy’ annual regatta, now the ‘Wattle Cup’, to promote competition and camaraderie among the Couta Boat sailors on Pittwater. The ‘Wattle Cup’ has been presented annually since then, initially by the Royal Prince Alfred Yacht Club and now by the Avalon Sailing Club, in conjunction with the N.S.W Couta Boat Association. The cup itself was the ‘San Remo Victoria Regatta’ cup dated 1946 and won by W Croft, and had been previously won by the original custodian Walter Todd in Wattle.

By co-incidence and unbeknown to Russell, in the vaults of the Royal Prince Alfred Yacht Club was another ‘Wattle’ Cup’ donated by Percy Arnott, a business colleague and friend of Russell’s great grandfather, awarded to a racing Couta Boat (26 footers) fleet in the 1920s.

The Wattle Cup honours this remarkable boat and has been run continuously since 2012, apart from 2020 with the Covid pandemic. Wattle has won it three times. It remains an important part of the N.S.W Couta Boat Association and is keenly south after by Couta Boats from Sydney Harbour, Pittwater and at times boats from Victoria.

Wattle remains moored in Pittwater where she is a regular competitor in weekly races. As well as racing, she is used for day sailing along Pittwater and up the Hawkesbury River.

I am lucky to have the most amazing group of sailors who look after her, sail her and love this remarkable Couta Boat. She is, I am sure, one of the few Couta Boats which has sailed and fished in Victoria, SA and NSW. She is still competitive despite her age and looking forward to her 100th birthday in 2028.

Despite all her many owners and different “guises”, she is one of the most remarkable historic Couta boats.

References
Burnham, S. (2005). In M. Innes & S. Burnham, First Home: the couta boat and Victoria’s couta coast (pp. 85 – 101). Melbourne: Arbytes Communication Pty Ltd.

Wooden Boat Shop. (2008, Autumn). Wattle’s 80th Birthday. In Grommet, Newsletter of the Wooden Boat Shop.

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