It was raining, cold and miserable as I crossed The Rip, but as soon as the Queenscliffe ferry slowed on her approach to Sorrento the sun came out and I went to the weather deck to take stock of the enormous changes that have washed over the bayside village since I last came here 30-odd years ago. All the pretty little weatherboard fishermen’s cottages that once adorned the hillsides have long since gone. But it was not the trappings of extraordinary wealth that caught my eye so much as the array of gleaming white flagpoles seen in front of virtually every house.
Right along the shore, Couta Boats with their arching jib-booms and handsome Cheviot Launches were bobbing cheek by jowl at their moorings: so many in fact that I lost count before the ferry docked. They’re all products of the Wooden Boat Shop, the result of the creative genius, the energy, the initiative and the passion of one remarkable man.
The Tim Phillips story is one we should all know and not least because it demonstrates what can be achieved when a person with talent, drive and passion sets his sights on an ambitious goal and refuses to compromise in its pursuit.
In affluent Portsea and Sorrento I was struck by the sensitive use of weathered timbers and galvanised iron, materials that echo the early vernacular architecture of the Bellerine Peninsula. Barefoot in salt-stained shorts and a bulky old roll-neck sweater, a black woollen beanie is clamped down tight his whiskered head and gives his deeply-lined, weather-beaten face the authentic, unvarnished look of a lobsterman. Tim is that rarity in Australia these days, a specialist wooden boat builder who is as passionate as he is knowledgeable about the traditions and the practice of fishing under sail in the treacherous waters of Bass Strait. At a time when every other wooden boat builder in Australia seems barely able to keep his head above water, the Wooden Boat Shop in Sorrento is thriving. Tim employs 25 men including six specialist wooden boatbuilder and four apprentices as well as diesel fitters, painters and engineers, all of which makes him Australia’s biggest wooden boat builder. The Couta Boat fleet, which had numbered several hundred at the turn of the 20th century, had long since been broken up or dispersed as they were overtaken by bigger, faster, more efficient motorised boats. Tim ferreted them out of muddy backwaters and farmers’ fields where their upturned hulls were often used as dog kennels and chicken coops. Without knowing it, he was starting a movement that was to grow and grow into something approaching a Couta Boat cult. From the observation deck of their splendid new clubhouse, Tim has the satisfaction of being able to look out over the broad arc of the bay and see over a hundred boats that he has either built or restored. She was on the point of being sold to a fellow who planned to seal the holes in her wet-well and turn her into a fancy cruising boat.
This great photo of a sailor polishing the HMAS Arunta's builder's plate with pride is part of the Australian War Memorial Naval Historical Collection ID No.300200. Buried somewhere in my corrugated iron garden shed, which is classified by the National Trust as a blot on the landscape is a set of grown t1-tree knees that is exactly my own age.
Two Sydney architects John Crawford and John Howard, commissioned the 9ft Nipper form builder Nigel Shannon for a number of reasons. Nipper now sits in the reception area of their converted warehouse office, hopefully as an inspiration to the designers, builders and tradesmen who cross their threshold.
Nigel Shannon, of Shannon Boats from the Sydney suburb of Balmain, built a half model, then the real thing. John Crawford says Nipper satisfied the nostalgia for a 9ft clinker dinghy in which he learned to sail as a child. The fittings are Bronze; items like rowlocks or the bobstay-forestay fitting on the spirit, are beautiful castings.
John Crawford says he enjoys his foyer’s centerpiece because of the skill involved in building it and a love of the materials used. 2004 Nustar Custom Craft 535HC Half-Cab, powered by a Honda Four Stroke 90hp, with just 262 hours.
Front cover: Peter Woolman and Phil Webb work hard aboard Noodle Tour during the 2008 Australian 505 Championships held at Hamilton Island.


When my cousin Geoff Hyde asked me to build him a new trawler it was not the first time he had approached me to build him a boat.
Geoff bought me a twenty-inch band saw and I had a homemade circular saw on which we would cut the planks. Three of my sons are boat builders, one works from my yard, one has his business in the Philippines, while the third is now an engineer on a gas ship in North Western Australia delivering gas to Japan. I had built a small sixteen foot dinghy for myself in 2007, and I thought that would be the last vessel that I would be building, as I was already 83.
The trawler would be thirty foot, with a 12ft 6ins beam, shallow draft to fish in Fullerton Cove a shallow bay on the Hunter River.
Now Geoff had expected that Gary and I would try to talk him out of this deck arrangement but when we didn’t, he questioned us why? It was to have a flush deck, with twenty-inch high bulwarks, the beam shelf was laminated to 4x2ins and birds mounted into frames. To get as much aperture as possible, the bottom of the stern only draws three inches of water. The hull, deck and cabin is covered with fibreglass chopped strand mat, there is a focsle up front with a bunk under the deck, six cupboards, a rope locker and a toilet.
The engine is a Swedish computerised turbo charged six-cylinder 150HP Steyr diesel that is housed under a hatch. The winch has an eight and a half Honda motor, driving through a Combi gearbox and differential and sits on the engine hatch. Christened the Hod by Geoff and his daughter Amanda, after the nickname of Geoff and his wife Pat’s daughter Anne who passed away in 2007. Thirteen years earlier Anne had been injured in a terrible car accident that had left her a paraplegic. In conclusion the boat is very fast for a semi-displacement hull … with an estimated speed of twelve knots. Neatly manicured lawns were spiked with magnificent traditional poles, all shipshape and Bristol fashion, with their yards neatly squared and their gaffs set at precisely the right angle to carry the national flag. Along the way he’s helped to create a seachange in attitudes ashore as well as afloat.
Like the boats in the bay, many of the houses have a charming, timeless quality that reminded me of that other wooden boat mecca, the Atlantic coast of Maine. He does not belong to the hi-tech world of the 21st century, nor even to the 20th century if it comes to that. I found 50 boats standing around the yard in various stages of repair, but almost double that number are due to come in over the next few months for their annual haircut and shave, ready for a spring re-launch and the up-coming summer of sailing and fishing. He fell hopelessly in love with the lines of the lovely Couta Boats, the big, beamy, open centreboard sloops that were once at the centre of Victoria’s fishing industry. Many of the old boats with their dipping lugsails and gaff-rigged gear were taken down to South Australia where for a few more years they fished the waters of Spencers Gulf. He and his mates bought them for next to nothing and trucked them back to Sorrento where he restored and sold them. The wealthier citizens of Melbourne, whose opulent summer homes had long since replaced the humble fishermen’s cottages around the outer edges of Port Phillip Bay, lined up to commission new boats.
So great is the enthusiasm for the Couta Boats that Tim and his clients formed a club at Sorrento where they now race throughout the year.
I keep them because they are leftovers from the great family boatbuilding project, when Pater built an open wood launch intended, as so many boats are, to help him escape the tedious double duty of suburban living and parenthood.
Initially they wanted a picturesque tender for a picturesque 40ft wishbone yawl, but a secondary role became apparent.


Balmain, until surprisingly recent years, was one of the great boat and shipbuilding areas of Australia.
The partners enjoyed the concept of patronage, commissioning from a craftsman what they see as their resident work of art. Ribs and stringers are American White Oak, one of the world’s classic boat-building timbers. He had seen a boat rigged like this on his first trip to Tin Can Bay in Queensland in the Pam Boy back in 1957. We couldn’t get a hardwood keel so used 6x8ins Oregon pine, also for the bow-post and deadwoods. It is the same height as the bulwark in front of the cabin and extends into the cabin as far as the console does, to give more headroom.
The back of the cabin and across the stern has two, one on the outside edging and one on the inner edge, also protected with stainless steel wherever chaffing can occur.
Gleaming white helicopters are now stationed where humble fishing boats were once drawn up on the narrow sandy beach and in the summer months there are probably more Porsches, Mercedes and BMWs here than in any other part of the country. He is instead a genuine throwback to the latter half of the 19th century, a time when deepwater windships reigned supreme on the oceans of the world and sail was still the only motive power among the myriad small boats that fished and traded around the Australian coast.
His real wealth lies not in the bank, but in his profound understanding of and unwavering commitment to the maritime heritage that once shaped the lives of the fisher folk of Port Phillip Bay. Although he recently completed what is undoubtedly his most ambitious project so far, the restoration of his own boat, the magnificent 54ft topsail cutter Storm Bay, he is now embarked on yet another, the resurrection of the lovely 50ft Huon Pine ketch Jane Kerr, a crayboat that had long lain neglected down the Victorian coast at Portland. After handover, the builder's plate was sometimes kept highly polished, sometimes it was left to go green with neglect. No matter how far you stray from the boats of your childhood, they are the ones that remain most evocative. The premises from which Nigel works, one the last old slipways in the region, is about to succumb to the relentless onslaught of the upmarket townhouse epidemic in this area because of the large areas of industrial land occupied by the ship repair yards. Floorboards are White Beech, knees and stem are grown Ti Tree, keel and mast step are Mahogany, spars a beautifully clear Oregon, and oars Sitka Spruce. Unfortunately we aborted one of our planned meetings when the Aston’s ignition system gave trouble. I had built several open prawn boats for pre-trawling and three small river trawlers, two under 20ft and a 21-footer for myself before the Pam Boy.
But we told him it was his boat and if that was what he wanted then that’s what he would get. There is a second mast at the back corner of the cabin in the centre of the boat that has two booms, one to the starboard side for lifting the cod end onto the picking table.
No matter how satisfying the flutter of the telltales across a broad expanse of Kevlar, the vision of a bit of oiled teak or a bronze fitting is the image you take home with you at the end of the day. The wheelhouse was aft, with the cabin in the centre of the boat to the port side and the picking table on the starboard side with just enough room between the table and the cabin to carry a fish box. Roger & Lough Marine Engineers of Bulimba Queensland have made my propellers and under water gear for many years.
Custom made for the owner who copied a design from the mid 1800s, from a black and white photo - a replica of his grandfather's boat.




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