Australia’s oldest and largest fishing club and its treasure trove of over forty working wooden boats from the last century.

On Sunday 27 June, twelve members of the WBA Vic enjoyed a pleasant luncheon at a Melbourne icon the Albert Park Yachting and Angling Club. The upstairs restaurant is literally on the beach with stunning views over the Bay. After an excellent meal we all embarked on an interesting tour of the Boatshed, in which are stored over 40 old Clinker style 14’ 6” (4.3 metre) wooden fishing boats. These are still working fishing boats with most still in semi-regular use for amateur bay fishing. The rack stored boats are launched via a travelling crane and two overhead gantries projecting into the bay. This is the story of the club and its boats.

The club was founded in March 1909 with a group of 10 fishermen meeting in the old bandstand at the end of Kerferd Rd Pier with the idea of building a shed to store their boats and gear in. These early meetings resulted in a public meeting being called and to be held in the Continental Cafe at the northeast corner of Kerferd Road and Beaconsfield Pde. The foundation members agreed to build a club boat house and to put in £2 each to pay for timber, nails and other necessary materials.

The local paper recorded; “The meeting held on Thursday night, 27th March 1909, was attended by The Mayor and Councillors and a membership fee of 5/-was set”. Back in the late 1890’s there had been a severe economic downturn and Port Phillip became a source of low-cost food for many of the people of Melbourne. The areas around the top end of the Bay had extensive shallows off-shore from the then holiday resort of St Kilda and extending around the Eastern shores of Hobsons Bay to the Port Melbourne Lagoon and Station Pier. The shallows were prolific fishing grounds with extensive beds of oysters and mussels and huge schools of migrating schnapper.

These shallows were easily accessible with a small boat and a cottage industry grew up on the beaches of the new suburbs of Albert Park and Middle Park with local men building small clinker planked rowing boats to access this fishery. One of the early professional builders with a small factory in Middle Park resident, was one John Joseph Savage. He used good timbers and had a distinctive stem shape with a old style reverse sheer. Around the end of the 1890’s he moved his boat building operation to a riverside shed at Richmond near where the Punt Road bridge now stands. To fish these waters the boats needed to be relatively flat bottomed for a shallow draft and stability, with low freeboard to make them easy for rowing and netting. In the shallows, the fishermen used small throw nets fishing for flathead, flounder, garfish and in season, schnapper.

The boats also had to be strong, durable and seaworthy to cope with the sudden bad weather that the Bay is notorious for. The early boats were of simple clinker construction and had quite different lines to the later boats from the 1920’s onwards, which were built with a wine glass transom for fishing in deeper water and required less drag for better rowing efficiency, and after the 1930’s, the installation of motors. When not in use the boats until the new shed, were rolled over on the beach above the high water mark at the end of each voyage.

WBA and APYAC member, Bob Morgan’s boat “Larrigai”

“Larrigai” PA031 is believed to be the oldest clinker remaining in the club and from the lines of the boat, old records and historic photos is believed to have been built at the Middle Park workshop of John Savage around 1897-98. Savage knew his trade and used clear New Zealand kauri pine single piece planks, spotted gum ribs and bronze fittings with copper clinched nails in the build of this boat.  Sometime before the first world war it is believed the then owner of the boat joined the Albert Park Yachting and Angling Club and the boat was moved into the club shed. The boat has been in the club longer than anyone can remember. It is the quality of the build, the timber quality, the dry storage and its use in salt water that has ensured its survival rot free into the modern era.

In the early 1920’s lightweight marine engines such as the ubiquitous Chapman Pup appeared. And in 1931 the then owner altered the boat by fitting engine beds and a deadwood to support the shaft and propeller and installing a 1931 4.5 hp Chapman “Super Pup”. The deadwood was bolted on with steel bolts which corroded over the years causing the biggest restoration problem.

The Chapman had serious internal waterway corrosion and as “Super Pup” pots were no longer available, I decided to re-engine with a modern 2cyl NANI 10 hp diesel in 2018. The restoration took 18 months and required 16 sister ribs to be installed and the deadwood replaced. All the planking was perfect and none required removing. Thwarts required replacement and are now from recycled mahogany, the centre rowing thwart having been roughly hacked into shape to fit the original motor. The original rudder and tiller were re- useable, with the bronze fittings probably dating back to the conversion to power in 1931.

Finished only two days earlier, it was re launched at the Paynesville Wooden Boat Rally in 2018.

The APYAC Annual Australia Day “Clinker Boat Race”

The race is an annual affair from the Club’s 1909 clubhouse at Kerford Road Pier to Princes Pier and return and has been a club tradition since the early 1900’s. It is believed it was originally held to settle a bet between fishermen over a beer or two and was for row boats in the early days.

The boats are all 14 feet 6 inches in length as that was the length of the racks in the Boathouse. The last race was held in 2019. (The 2020 race was cancelled because of poor weather and the 2021 race because of Covid.) Out of a fleet of 20 boats in 2019 “Larrigai” came in fourth overall and third in the Diesel class. Mind you, it was around 35 years older than the next oldest boat in the race.

“Larrigai” is the one and only early Hobsons Bay Flattie hull shape known to be currently in seaworthy condition. This beautiful classic boat is typical of the 40 or so clinker boats stored and operating out of the boat shed at the Albert Park Yachting and Angling Club. They are in various stages of condition but nearly all seaworthy and most in regular use.

Builders include Pompei, Blunt, Lacco and Savage. Others were built by current and unknown former club members. All of my boat’s bronze fittings are original except for the running lights and flag stanchion. Traditional boat builder, Michael Hurrell of Williamstown has carried out restoration work on a small number of the club boats in recent years. Now with Pompei’s and Blunts gone it is unlikely any other than very few amateur built boats of this type will be built in the foreseeable future in Victoria.

The remaining boats of this type are a labour of love to maintain for the owners and long may they survive as a window into past era. I would be pleased to hear from any other WBA members that have any stories pictures or memories of the small clinker putt putts of the Bays. It is interesting that in the 110 Year history of the club and thousands of trips, no lives have been lost in this type of boat.

Bob Morgan 0418 109 383