This exciting and dynamic boat has been called a fireball for the high speeds it delivers in such a compact package. It’s the Jersey Speed Skiff, a New Jersey-built boat steeped in the state’s history. The stuff of myth and legend, it’s also an active speedboat class on the racing circuit. And to think that this 16-foot-long, 70-knot inboard runabout had such humble beginnings more than a century ago.
The design came out of the Jersey coast in the early 1900s. The clinker-built, sailing/rowing Jersey skiff had a flat bottom so it could be launched and hauled off the beach. The high sides and wine-glass-style transom helped it run through the surf. (Two earlier versions, the Sea Bright skiff and the Southern Shore, differed in some design details.)
The first powered Jersey Speed Skiff was most likely built in Oceanport in 1922 by Harold “Pappy” Seaman, according to historian Ned Lloyd. It was a 16-footer with a flat, skeg-less bottom and an inboard engine, built as a pleasure boat for Red Bank boater J.P. Bowers. It didn’t take long for the skiff’s speed and size to attract the attention of a different crowd.
They were the rum runners. Prohibition was in force, and off the Jersey coast, as many as 60 ships were plying international waters, passing off liquor to small boats, which ran the goods to shore. The Jersey Speed Skiff, with its powerful engine, proved both fast and maneuverable.
Today, those qualities make the Jersey Speed Skiff a popular design on the race circuit organized by the American Powerboat Association. Rules require a driver and a rider/lookout (a vestige from the days of Prohibition) with harnesses and a roll cage. Power comes from an inboard engine (283 to 305 cubic inches), which delivers speeds between 65 and 73 knots. New Jersey’s Thunder on the Shrewsbury celebration draws boats from around the country.
This article was originally published in the August 2021 issue.