The Captain gets an invite into the Cootacraft factory in Mallacoota, Victoria. It comes directly from the owner/builder known as Mark ” The mad Russian”. He’s also a hunter and expert marksman. What could possibly go wrong?
The name Cootacraft evokes images of high horsepower, wavebreakers, sharp deadrises and slightly mad skippers who change props at sea to guarantee bringing home the bikkies in any race back to port. Owner and chief builder at Cootacraft, Mark “the Mad Russian”, wasn’t thrilled when the Cootacraft Coldfront model was pitted against an Edencraft Offshore and Bass Strait Ocean Pro back in issue 2 of The Captain. In fact, he rang up The Captain’s hotline and asked what right we had to do that. Fortunately, we’ve managed to leave that little misunderstanding in our wake. Mark even invited us down to Mallacoota for a tour of the factory and a dive. Just to be on the safe side, we let assorted wives, girlfriends and life insurance agents know where we were — and that if they couldn’t find us, to be sure to check the craypots around Gabo Island.
Mark, why can’t we show your face in the magazine?
Well, I like to be anonymous. When I go somewhere, I don’t want people to hassle me. When I go to boat shows, nobody knows who I am. I don’t need to be popular and I like to keep my life private.
OK, we probably can’t help you with that. Anyway, where did it all start for Cootacraft?
I used to rebuild boats when I was a kid. I’d buy a wreck and do the transom stringers and floors. I then worked as a panelbeater and spray painter, but the boat work never really left me. I did some work on abalone boats, extended a few Haines Hunter V19Rs, repaired some fuel tanks and did some resprays.
What was the first boat you called a “Cootacraft”?
In 2003, I designed the Little Ram based on the lines of a Haines Hunter 133. We modified the bottom by taking one lifting strake out and making a true vee out of it. We changed the top deck and it became a little ripper. The rest is history.
The name, “Cootacraft”, speaks for itself, yeah?
Cootacraft is a reference to Mallacoota, the location of our factory in Victoria. It’s two minutes to the lake or offshore for testing. I also love going deer hunting and spearfishing, and there’s plenty of both close by.
Who’s your partner in crime?
My partner, Melanie, and I started more than 15 years ago with $25k, building boats under the pergola. We just wanted to make our boats the highest quality we could.
This factory is immaculate. In fact, it shames many of the production boat builders. How do you manage it?
My background is spray painting and panel beating. When you prepare a car you don’t want any dust in the top finish, so we protect everything by putting plastic on the floor for every boat and use a lot of cardboard to catch the fibres. When customers come in, that first impression stays in their head.
Describe your construction technique.
Our build hasn’t changed much in the past 12 years. We use the same resins, cloths and foam, filled to MSV specification. It’s more like the old-school Yanks. We don’t use any wood. The transom and stringers are built of Thermo-lite composite material and lots of cloth. All the boats are handmade with very little chopper gun use. Everything is pre-cut on the table.
What’s the best thing about being a boat builder?
The customers all become friends, spend money in ’Coota and become part of the Cootacraft legacy.
And the worst thing?
I can’t stand trimming and grinding. I don’t like running behind on builds due to humidity, temperatures or slow delivery from suppliers. If the customer is not happy, I’m not happy. At the end of day, though, once they receive their boat, it’s all forgotten.
Is this interview with The Captain a highlight or a lowlight?
I’ve never done a fuckin’ interview in my life.
We’ll take that as a highlight. We hear you’re expanding?
Yes, now we have another shop in Melbourne run by the Puopolo brothers, David and Steven. They’re top little guys with the same background as us — panel-beaters and spray painters — who take pride in their work. They’re also keen spearos and fishos. They’re building the Little Ram, Coldfront and Gun Shot, and next year we’ll duplicate the Bad Boy mould. We can’t keep up, so they’re building 10 high-quality hulls a year for us.
What did you think of The Captain’s six-metre shootout?
We figured that. How’s the Coldfront going these days?
We changed the bottom hull so it runs really well now. We removed part of the lifting strakes and now it’s one of the most honest boats I’ve driven. It’s a little bit slower, but a lot softer and easier to drive. An 80-year-old can drive this hull.
We may test that theory on Granny one day. Did you change the Coldfront below the waterline because Joel Ryan and Julian Coyne ended up in the bilge and almost binned it? (Captain’s note: they drove Wayne Bernhardt’s 300HP-powered Coldfront with no seat, no grabrail and digital throttles — and came seriously unstuck.)
No, I redesigned it to satisfy myself.
Joel and The Captain’s crew will still take credit for the updates. Where do you source these sexy boat designs? They just seem to get better and better.
I have a close relationship with Bob Saccenti from Miami. He’s former part-owner of Apache Boats and cohort of Don Aronow. He also has two world championships in offshore powerboat racing to his name. We talk once a week and he gives me advice on building and hulls.
Can you make the cabin entrance a little bit larger for us big boys?
No, lose some weight.
Fair enough. I notice parts of a wave-breaker are mounted on the wall. It has the name Pearl Moon 2. What’s the story there?
Ah, that’s a good one. A local ab diver had 600kg to 650kg of abalone on board one day. He wanted to have a quick look behind a bommie, but didn’t realise there was a bit of a roll on behind him. The wave crashed onto his engines and filled his whole top deck. By the time he put the bilges on, it was all over.
Was there a warranty claim?
No. We put in a new wave-breaker, fitted new engines and wiring, and off he went ab diving three weeks later. There was nothing wrong with the hull at all.
Any engine preference?
Yamaha for reliability and Mercury for speed. The only person I trust for fitting the Mercury racing engines to my boats is Simon Isherwood from Race Marine. We fit everything else.
Cool. Let’s talk about the Gabo Express. Is it called that because it travels to Gabo Island at warp speed?
Yep. I hold the record between Mallacoota and Gabo Island of seven or eight minutes, travelling at 104 to 112km/h in two to three-foot chop with no rooster tail behind me. It’d be a bloody fast bass-fishing boat. Nothing could keep up with it, inshore or offshore. You put it in the water and the little terrorist comes out!
Where did you borrow the lines?
From a 21ft (6.4m) Apache Scout I got from Bob Saccenti about eight years ago. It’s a great running hull, one of the best ever made. It was originally a Shadow Challenger and then it was sold to Superboats. Its been copied by a dozen other companies in the Miami area in the US.
How’s the Bad Boy travelling?
It’s popular with everybody. I can’t keep up with the orders, thanks to the bloody Captain! It’s very honest and easy to drive, very soft and stable with an eight-foot beam. All the weight is below the waterline. There’s only 200kg to 300kg from the waterline up.
Describe your customers…
They have their own business or they’re on the oilrigs or in the mines. Maybe they’re hardcore spearos. They could be commercial guys — or undercover fisheries. The latest Bad Boy customer laid down a $5000 deposit for the next model at the same time as he picked it up.
Mmm, cash. Any clues on what the next Cootacraft model might be? (The Captain is looking suspiciously at a sleek but voluminous hull in the corner.)
We’ve got an exciting 8.5m project currently being developed. It’s based on a former-drug-running boat — an Apache 28. The hull will come up four inches and the top deck will have the same lines as the Villain, including the same styled wave-breaker. It has the perfect numbers: 28ft (8.5m) long, an eight-foot (2.4m) beam and 24-degree deadrise. It’ll be called The Boss.
Very cool. Have you found any suspicious white powder in there?
Not yet. That’s my retirement.
Over the past few years, you’ve averaged one new hull design per year. What motivates you to develop new product at that rate?
I love designing new shapes, plugs, moulds and models. That’s my passion. The product speaks for itself — we just work towards making it softer and faster.
Awesome Mark, glad to finally meet you. How about a Little Ram in exchange for some ads in The Captain?
No. I pay cash.
Cash is good.
THE COOTACRAFT KNIFE SET
The latest Cootacraft design to slice up the seas is the Villain. It borrows its lines from a 23 Magnum, a hull originally built for Dr Bob Magoon — five times US Offshore Powerboat Champion. Don Aronow had a big hand in the design, as he did on the 233 Formula. Unlike the Formula however, the Villain measures 2.1m in the beam — 30cm narrower than a 233 Formula. Mmm, this should be fun.
Mark describes the Villain as “the dream boat for spearfishermen”. He’s got a healthy list of orders to prove it, too. A hull in the factory is being fitted for James, a spearfisherman from Cairns upgrading from a Gun Shot. It has a 550L tank with a range of 1000km. Interestingly, the fuel tank is made of fibreglass to enable maximum fuel capacity and keep the centre of gravity low. The vinyl-ester resin is impenetrable by petrol or ethanol. Mark describes the Villain hull as “the driest hull I’ve ever driven in my life”. He can’t pinpoint exactly why, but reckons it’s the running strakes deflecting water down as well as the reverse chines, combined with a light hull weight of only one tonne.
Mark launches the Villain and punches straight into a 25-knot sea with 1.5m of wind swell on top. It leaps out of the water, but the bow never misbehaves, driving through the length of the hull. Compared to other Cootacraft boats, the Villain rides flatter than the Gun Shot, pushes less water than a Bad Boy and is more forgiving than the Coldfront when working the angles. The sound is impressive when it lands, too — a gush of water more akin to a plane breaking the sound barrier, but no bellowing thud. I can see why Mark’s in love with his new creation.
The layup is timber-free and hand-laid with two Thermo-lite stringers and eight cross members and a heavy-duty transom to hold 300kg outboards. The keel is fitted with four layers of Kevlar for rubbing up against rocks and sand. There are huge side pockets for fins and guns. There’s no dive door, but that doesn’t stop Mark entering from the water, launching in a Spanish mackerel-type action onto the gunwales. Stability is OK — it’s no Bad Boy (easily the most stable of the Cootacraft fleet) but with a 2.1m beam and 24-degree deadrise, it was never going to be.
In the lee of Gabo Island, the 350HP Mercury Verado pushes the one tonne hull along at 117.5km/h. Fuel burn while travelling at 65km/h is about 38L (1.7km/1nm per litre). Mark seeks out one of his favourite bommies, then slides through the water in his Torelli wetsuit with Aimrite gun. The Captain, fully prepared in flowery boardies and training fins, looks more suited to morning laps at Coogee Beach, followed by a latte and smashed avocado with a leggy blonde. Nevertheless, he keeps up long enough to see Mark’s renowned marksmanship at work. With five shots he nails four fish through the head — a Tassie trumpeter, sweep, banded morwong and black drummer. He also picks up a handful of abalone. They’re famous in this region of Victoria and a major reason why boats like Cootacraft, Edencraft, Whitepointer and Bass Strait even exist.
Back at the factory, sharing a cold beer, Mark lets us in on a little secret. The 350HP Verado on the Villain originally sat on a Bad Boy — the first out of the factory, owned by Mitch Burge. “This thing caused me a few headaches,” Mark says, rubbing his forehead. “She let go on the lake under 5000RPM, so we had to buy Mitch another engine. There wasn’t another 350HP in the country. The only one we could get was the new Mercury 400R, so we ended up buying that for him. We inherited this one, rebuilt it and so far, so good.” The Captain salutes you for that one, Mark – as I’m sure Mitch does.