In wood we trust

Geoff Middleton | VOLUME 25, ISSUE 2

The art of wooden boat building is alive and well on Melbourne’s Mornington Peninsula.

In these times when it seems life is all about doing things faster, working harder and being more cost-efficient – times in which our boating is supposed to be easier, more efficient, more ‘high-tech’ and even clinical – it is refreshing to know that tucked away in a small, picturesque corner of Victoria, some 90km from Melbourne, there is someone doing it differently.

At the Wooden Boat Shop, in the historic settlement of Sorrento on the Mornington Peninsula, the traditions of wooden boat building are being kept alive by Tim Phillips and his team.

Walking into the Wooden Boat Shop is certainly like stepping back into another world; a world in which things are slower, more relaxed and a little quieter.

Now, I have been to many boat manufacturing facilities, both here and overseas, but this is one of my favourites. No robotics here, no sir. No sounds of computer-controlled machinery trimming fibreglass and Kevlar – and, what’s that? No all-encompassing smell of resin.

I found that, unlike on my visits to more conventional boat builders, my boat shoes were not sticking to the floor and being progressively rendered more useless on my boat due to the resin build-up on my soles. And I didn’t have to shout to be heard over the cacophony of machinery.

No. Here was the smell of wood, the swoosh of the plane and the adze. The ambience was enhanced by the waft of varnish and the occasional sparkle of polished bronze in the sunlight filtering into the building through the huge sliding doors.

I didn’t feel repulsed by the heavy dusty and pungent odours of industrial chemicals assaulting my senses. Rather, I wanted to stay and explore and find out what made this business tick, for tick it most certainly does.

Tim Phillips has been working on wooden boats for more years than he’d care to admit. He originally started with the couta boats that are famous in this part of the country due to the heroics of the men who used to sail them in Bass Strait, and more recently for the hardy souls who regularly race them on Port Phillip in all weathers.

Phillips has worked for some of the most respected names in the wooden boat industry and his experience is renowned throughout the timber boat fraternity.

Phillips will build you a couta boat if you like, race-ready and competitive, but full of the latest technology and a sweet Yanmar engine. But his recent designs go much further than that.


Like the couta boats, all the Wooden Boat Shop boats are modern classics. They are built in the traditional manner of boats of yore, but they are packed with the latest technology.

The larger boats have the latest in electronics, as well as the aforementioned Yanmar engines. And they’re finished in the latest in paints and varnishes.

As the Wooden Boat Shop’s Wayne Parr told me: “With the modern technology in paints and lacquers, the upkeep on one of our boats is very similar to a fibreglass boat.

“People get put off by wooden boats because, in the past, they have been harder to maintain than a ’glass boat, but that’s no longer the case.”

The bigger boats in the range all come with electronics packages that include full instrumentation, chart plotter, solar recharging, fridges, optional auto pilot, bow thrusters, you name it. If you can get it on a ’glass boat, you can get it on a Wooden Boat Shop boat.

Similarly, some of the designs are more modern under the water than the external styling would suggest. The Cheviot 32, for example, has two underwater designs. The traditional round bilge design for sea-keeping ability has a speed of around 15 knots (28km/h) and then there’s the hard-chine design for more sporty performance, which has a top speed in excess of 20 knots (37km/h).


Although the Wooden Boat Shop is renowned for its beautiful couta boats, the range offers everything from a small dinghy right through to a stunning 44ft luxury motor cruiser.

WBS dinghies come in 10ft and 12ft designs and can be either rowed, sailed or motored. The design is similar to that of the Tasmanian cray fishing tenders, which were designed to be robust and have the ability to carry heavy loads. The construction is clinker, with copper fastenings and steam-bent frames.

The sail plan is a gaff rig main with a small headsail and they have a swing-down keel and a folding rudder.

All dinghies are finished in a two-pack epoxy, which makes them virtually maintenance-free.

Originally designed as fishing boats, couta boats are a huge hit in and around Melbourne, where fleets of up to 60 make an incredible spectacle on summer days.

The coutas from WBS come in three sizes: 20ft, 24ft and 26ft. They have a powerful sail plan and are fitted with modern, reliable Yanmar diesels.

In a testament to the strength and longevity of these boats, some still racing today are up to 70 years old.

However, the Wooden Boat Shop is not just about dinghies and couta boats. Its range of power boats is just as impressive.

The smallest in the range is the Wyuna, which is an 18ft open boat designed along the lines of a Port Phillip pilot boat. These craft were designed to ferry pilots from the larger cruising pilot boats to the ships waiting to traverse the notorious entrance to Port Phillip Bay, commonly known as The Rip or Heads. They were designed by the pilots themselves and had to be extremely sturdy to handle all the weather that Bass Strait and The Rip could throw at them.

WBS has recreated these lovely clinker-built boats using modern technology and fitted them with two-cylinder 12hp Yanmar engines that push them along at a respectable 6 knots (11km/h).

Fitted with shaft drive and tiller steering, they are very manoeuvrable and remarkably seaworthy.

Next in the powerboat range is the Nepean Launch. This is a 30ft traditional launch that is perfect for days on the water or weekends away. It has a fully-equipped cabin with galley, double berth and head.

Powered by a choice of 40hp, 54hp or 75hp engines, it is a delightful boat intended to appeal to the gentleman cruiser.

The next in the range is the Cheviot 32 – a stunning boat you can read more about in the adjoining article.


The flagship of the fleet is the Efficient 44. According to the Wooden Boat Shop’s Wayne Parr, it is called the Efficient because it is just that: “It’s designed to have an efficient hull, which makes it fuel-efficient. It’s electrically efficient, with solar panels running the fridge, and it’s efficient when it comes to luxuries, such as the TV in the saloon fully-equipped with DVD and Foxtel,” he said.

The Efficient 44 is designed for the family, with the master bedroom forward and two bunks to port for the kids (or friends who’ve stayed too long) and a big, fully-enclosed head to starboard. Up on the main deck, the galley is to starboard behind the helm station and there is a comfortable lounge to port. Overhead, there is a huge electric sunroof so you can enjoy the outdoors while cruising.

But the cockpit is the really big feature. Outdoor dining for eight or more? No problem. This is a real entertainer and one can just imagine the heads turning as you cruise up to Melbourne’s Docklands or Sydney’s Darling Harbour in this beauty.

As mentioned earlier The Wooden Boat Shop is located on the Mornington Peninsula in the beautiful coastal town of Sorrento. It sits on around a hectare of ground and has three separate sheds. I found that at any one time you can see a modern classic being built alongside a 50-year-old couta boat being lovingly restored to its former glory. (In fact, I spotted the famous Wattle in the yard. She’s a 1928 couta boat that the WBS boys restored in 2008.)

The sheds are all named after the mentors of Tim Phillips – there’s the Lacco shed, the Clark shed and the Norling shed. Added to that is the chandlery, where you can get all you need for your wooden boat, including wooden blocks, brass fittings, fastenings and all the paints and varnishes to make your boat sparkle. It’s a pleasure just to go in there and have a look around.

According to Phillips, the business has grown over the past few years.

“We’re now building more boats and bigger boats,” he said. “We’ve grown by about 50 per cent over the last four or five years,” he added.

Wayne went on to say that, up to now, the Efficient 44 was the shop’s biggest boat: “But we can fit boats up to about 65ft in the sheds,” he said, which may just hint at where the Wooden Boat Shop is headed next.

In this case, bigger is almost certainly going to be even better.

Cruising in the Chev

Geoff Middleton watches the world go by at a leisurely pace.

After our tour of the Wooden Boat Shop, we headed down to Blairgowrie Yacht Squadron to take a peek at the Cheviot 32 on the water. This lovely boat is owned by a local, who regularly takes it out for a cruise with the family – and why wouldn’t you? These strong and seaworthy boats have spent many a day at sea in Bass Strait. In fact, the first Cheviot 32 acted as a support vessel for Michael Blackburn when he sailed his Laser across Bass Strait in 2005. The Australian champion and bronze medallist at the Sydney Olympics decided he was going to be the first person to sail a Laser across Bass Strait and he asked Tim Phillips to accompany him. So Phillips put the Laser inside the Cheviot 32 and he and Michael headed for Stanley, on Tasmania’s north-west coast.

After a few days wait for the right conditions, Blackburn headed off from Stanley toward Tidal River on Wilson’s Promontory, with Phillips watching over him in the Cheviot.

After 12 hours and 211km of pounding across the Strait, the pair arrived at Tidal River: “The Cheviot handled it beautifully,” said Phillips. “We averaged about 8.5 knots (16km/h) and the GPS said we had a top speed of nearly 20 (37km/h). The 6LP Yanmar used only 22lt per hour for the trip.”

Wayne and I weren’t going to attempt anything as drastic as that. A gentlemanly cruise around the Mornington Peninsula was more than enough for us.

The Cheviot is a lovely boat, with a very sturdy feel. In fact, it has a very sturdy look as well. A proud boat with lovely lines and a timeless design.

We undid the covers (high quality Sunbrella items, I noted) and slipped out of the marina on a clear day, with about a 15-knot (28km/h) breeze ruffling the top of Port Phillip. The Cheviot is powered by a 300hp 6LP Yanmar diesel that will propel the boat up to around 23 knots (43km/h) at 3600rpm, so it’s no slouch.

I found a pleasant cruise was about 2800rpm. This had the plotter showing 15 knots (28km/h), which is plenty of speed to get you places without pushing it.

From the helm, there’s a wonderful view from the big picture windows and there’s a great array of shiny stainless-steel gauges to let you know exactly what’s happening.

The skipper can sit back and pop on the optional autopilot and watch the world go by at a leisurely pace. Meanwhile, the co-pilot can make a cuppa in the galley to port or grab a cold drink from the fridge to starboard.

Once you’ve reached your destination, you can relax in the cabin and watch tele on the flatscreen mounted on the bulkhead or even make a feed in the microwave.

If a barbecue is more to your liking, there’s one that mounts on the gunwale to port and you can set the big table in the cockpit for dinner for six or more.

The cockpit is huge. We spread out deck chairs around the table and still had ample room to walk around.

The Cheviot comes with a sun awning that covers the cockpit so it’d be a great place for lunch on a sunny summer’s day.

If you do get too hot and want a swim, no problem. A transom door leads to the wide swim platform that’s almost a work of art in itself.

I liked the traditional touches, like the brass cleats and nav lights, and the lovely little wooden mast with the juxtaposed high-tech aerials for the TV and the plotter.

Our little sojourn was over all too quickly. I could have quite happily pottered down the South Channel and poked our nose out through the Rip or over to Queenscliff. But time wasn’t on our side and we didn’t really want to use all the owner’s fuel, so we headed back toward Blairgowrie and into the wind and chop.

I noted that the Cheviot was a very dry boat and even at speed into the chop we didn’t get any water in the cockpit and only a few little splashes on the windows.

It pushed through water beautifully and, thanks to its solid structure, hardly moved in the chop or wakes.

We slid the Cheviot back into its pen with hardly a touch of the bow thruster – “very manoeuvrable”, said my notes – tied her up and put the full covers back on.

As I bade farewell to the Cheviot and to Wayne and Tim, I pondered just how many manufacturers there are like the Wooden Boat Shop, who construct precision-built wooden boats that will literally last a lifetime.

Not many … not many at all.

For more information, go to:


LOA: 9.75m

Beam: 3.3m

Draft: 0.91m

Weight: 4500kg

Fuel: 600lt

Water: 140lt

Power: Yanmar 6LP 300hp

Price: $375,000