From an 8 foot Minnow class dinghy to a 32 foot Nepean Motor launch, and many Couta Boats in between, Tim Phillip’s Wooden Boat Shop builds, repairs and maintains these boats with consummate skills and a deep respect for their traditions.

Our visit to the Wooden Boat Shop on Sunday 23rd August was a revelation to many of us. Where we may think of wooden boat building as a small scale, backyard or cottage industry, Tim has brought together people and resources to create what he calls “a mini Herreschoff Manufacturing Works” here in Sorrento.

A measure of his energy and his commitment to the preservation of wooden boats and the skills associated with them is the fact that he arrived back in Sorrento from a delivery trip from Portland at 7am on the day of our visit. The 60 ft “Margaret Pearl” was purchased for $1 to rescue it from the chain saws and Tim has brought the boat to Port Phillip Bay to commence its restoration.

The yard, shop and associated sheds and workshops covers at least 5 acres and every space is utilized to store, maintain or build wooden boats. Tim has tried to bring all aspects of this work in house, so as well as the woodworking areas, we were shown through the engineering workshop where marine engines are repaired and new engines fitted, the metal work shop for making fittings in stainless steel, bronze or brass and the rigging area for making spars and the associated wire and ropework. A workshop for making covers and other canvas work is also being developed.

It is a policy of Tim’s to hand paint the boats he builds or repairs so there is no spray painting booth. As he says, he does not try to make wooden boats look like fibreglass boats and the application of the brush gives a softer look more in keeping with tradition.

The timbers used in the work they do is sourced from Tasmania and also from importers such as Matthews Timbers. Some kauri from WA has been stored for 10 years in the shop and is now being used. Iroko from Africa, Oregon and Spruce from Canada and the USA and other exotic timbers are used with a concern for the sustainability of these materials. The massive bandsaw dominating the main shed enables them to cut down flitches (the squared off trunk of a tree) to any size required.

Tim says that about 100 wooden boats have been built on the site. This includes 25 “Nepean “ launches and 15 “Cheviot 32” motor cruisers . These are large vessels requiring professional skills, high quality materials and serious investment. A look at the Wooden Boat Shop website will show you the magnificence of these impressive cruisers.

Most of the boats built have been Couta Boats and Tim has been the central figure in developing the Couta Boat scene in Port Phillip Bay. Couta Boat racing has become a feature of the summer holiday period on the Mornington Peninsula with a certain amount of celebrity participation. We were fortunate to see Tim’s latest Couta Boat under construction. The design is based on a Lacco Couta boat with an amalgamation of ideas and modifications from his experience and those of his team. This will be a racing boat with lighter laminated framing and Australian red cedar planking, allowing it to have a higher ballast ratio than the restored traditional boats. When complete the boat will be trucked to Sydney where there is a growing Couta Boat fleet.

Tim’s knowledge and skills in traditional wooden boat building began with an apprenticeship at Lacco’s. He says he is doing his best to carry on the Lacco family’s boatbuilding traditions. He was taught by Ken Lacco and describes his boat building techniques as “unusual but very sound”. Tim pointed out the signature cove line scrolls on boats built by Alex Lacco and the slightly different scroll of Ken Lacco.

As we followed Tim around his yard he told us the stories of various boats stored there for maintenance. A heavily built clinker launch gained our attention for its distinctive lines. Tim explained that it had been built for the Port Phillip Sea Pilots and sometimes carried a lugsail rig for moving to or from the pilot ship when the weather was suitable. After this service it was taken to Westernport Bay where the owner lived aboard in the tiny cabin space for some years.

Another boat with a cosy looking cabin with varnished sides, had a particular place in Tim’s story. Tim’s parents had honeymooned aboard this boat, not making much progress on a planned trip around the bay in their time aboard but having a great time with the fishing community of Queenscliff. However they did manage to arrange Tim’s conception whilst on this voyage according to family legend. There are not many of us who can take a group of people on a tour to the place where we were conceived!

Tim, Sally and the staff of the Wooden Boat Shop most generously provided us with a BBQ lunch at the end of the tour. In addition, Neil, a friend of Tim’s provided us with a serving of sashimi made from a freshly caught Bluefin Tuna. The size of this fish was demonstrated to us by holding up what looked like a work of art but was in fact a bedsheet on which the fish had been lain whilst covered in squid ink. We enjoyed having time to talk about the boats we had seen and mix with people from the yard sharing our stories of involvement with wooden boats.

There were over 30 WBA members who attended this event, making it the largest gathering we have had for a sailing day or club meeting in many years. Tim’s invitation to share his passion and tour his yard was clearly a unique opportunity to see a thriving traditional boat yard and meet the person who had brought it together and keeps it going.

In thanking Tim for showing us the wonders that his yard contains I pointed out the popularity of this event with our members. He and his staff were a pleasure to deal with in organising the visit. Tim was presented with a WBA burgee to display in his office and a fine Tasmanian wine to enjoy at his leisure. This was a special day for the WBA and we are sure it sends a positive message to Tim that there are many of us who want to see his work and his business continue.

Leigh McNolty.

Photos by Leigh McNolty

Photos by Chris Kelly

Photos by Peter Batchelor