Some people don’t believe in love at first sight, but Brad Woodworth isn’t one of them.
About 15 years ago, Woodworth, 52, would take time off from his job as a graphic designer, pack a picnic lunch, and grab his wife and three kids for a ride on the New Meadows River aboard his second-hand Boston Whaler Outrage.
The 18-footer had plenty of oomph with its 150-hp Johnson, and the family enjoyed using it in the waters near Woodworth’s home in West Bath, Maine.
But all that changed when he saw a Pulsifer Hampton at the Maine Boatbuilders Show in Portland. The 22-foot traditional open boat sat proudly on a trailer, its glistening white hull and naturally finished decks drawing admirers. “I remember walking up to it, touching it, and saying, ‘Wow!’ I just fell in love with the boat,” Woodworth says.
About a month later he took a test ride. He immediately noticed a big difference in how the boat performed compared to the Whaler, with its much faster planing hull. They were two completely different animals. The diesel-powered Pulsifer Hampton was built from wood, not fiberglass, and the hull design was derived from the traditional Casco Bay Hampton, a workboat first built in 1902 by Charlie Gomes for lobster fishermen.
“It was like night and day,” says Woodworth of the semi-displacement hull. “The Pulsifer Hampton was quiet, and it tracked beautifully.”
Chalk up a sale for Dick Pulsifer, owner of Richard S. Pulsifer, Boat Builder, in Brunswick, Maine. He saw the virtues of the Casco Bay Hampton, and in 1973 he built his first one. Gomes was aiming for an all-business workhorse capable of standing up to Mother Nature in a bad mood while being tough and durable enough to last many seasons with minimal upkeep. Pulsifer has remained true to the design, but he’s added some touches of his own.
Pulsifer is carrying on the tradition of building boats designed for utility and function, which has made them popular for recreational use. And he isn’t alone. Throughout much of New England and elsewhere along the coast, a handful of builders are turning out boats once solely owned by fishermen plying their trade in the bays and near-shore waters from Long Island, N.Y., to Maine. These aren’t mass-produced boats; they’re often the product of painstaking care.
Some are flat-bottomed planing hulls with low freeboard for use in the shallows and on bays and tidal rivers. Others are designed with more vee forward and then flatten aft for stability and easy powering. Those with semidisplacement hulls shoulder aside the seas in more open waters with less horsepower, less pounding and a drier ride. Most designs include a center console. All boats of this type are designed for load-carrying capacity and stability, characteristics important for commercial and recreational users.
The Lumber Yard Skiff is a good example of a flat-bottom design for use on inshore waters. Walter Baron, owner of Old Wharf Dory Company in Wellfleet, Mass., says his 16- and 20-foot boats are a modern interpretation of a traditional work skiff designed for quick and simple builds that deliver rugged construction that can take a beating.
“No one was building traditional work skiffs around here,” Baron says. “I saw a niche for a low-cost boat like this. It’s so simple, not much can go wrong with it.”
Baron has been a boatbuilder for more than three decades, and all kinds of boats have come out of his shop — rowboats, powerboats and sailboats. He built his first Lumber Yard Skiff in 1993 using basic construction materials from a nearby lumberyard. That’s how the boat got its name. Plans for the skiff have sold all over the world to both commercial and recreational customers, Baron says.
Like Baron, Richard Nichols, owner of Nichols Boat Builder in Phippsburg, Maine, saw a void in the marketplace for small workboats. He’d grown up fishing from West Point Skiffs in the 1950s and nursed fond memories of the boat, a design drawn by Amos Alton around the time Gomes was building the Casco Bay Hampton. Over the decades, Amos — then his son, Alton — built hundreds of West Point Skiffs in the tiny Casco Bay village of West Point, but production stopped when Alton died in 1995.
“For some reason no one was building them, so I decided to restart the tradition in 2004,” Nichols says. “It can haul a lot, and it’s an all-around excellent lobster boat. These characteristics make it an excellent choice for a recreational boat as well, and that’s a big reason why they’re so popular. They’re also pretty.”
The designs don’t require lots of muscle from the power plant, which translates into a lower purchase price and lower costs for fuel over the lifetime of the boat. Both attributes are practical and trace back to workboat roots, placing more emphasis on economy of operation than on speed. The boats are often lumped together as skiffs, but some builders object to that catch-all designation, saying it doesn’t do the boats justice.
Regardless of what you call them, these workboat-derived small craft are popular among those who like the salty looks, seakeeping ability and fuel efficiency of a traditional design. Averaging 12 to 26 feet, the traditional workboat skiffs are a practical, all-around alternative to more specialized bay or flats boats for fishing or simply messing about with the family for the day. Here’s a look at eight noteworthy models:
Eastern 18 Classic
Milton, N.H.-based Eastern Boats produces a range of models from 18 to 27 feet. It began production in 1981 with its 18-foot Classic, and the boat is still going strong. The Royal Lowell design has plenty of freeboard for an added feeling of safety in the cockpit, and the round chine, full-keel fiberglass hull is rugged and seaworthy. The company uses Nida-Core construction for the deck and transom to give high-load areas extra strength.
The boat’s standard features include a stainless-steel destroyer wheel at the sport console with Teleflex rotary steering, a self-bailing inner liner and V-berth seating. The 28-gallon fuel tank and fuel filter/water separator assure good range and reliability for the recommended 90-hp outboard. The company offers many options, including a swing-back storage seat, 94-quart cooler seat with brackets and cushion, bow dodger, and flush-mounted stainless-steel rod holders. www.easternboats.com
Tom Hill is well known among amateur wooden-boat builders who have used his plans to build a variety of small craft, including canoes, dories and skiffs. Hill, author of “Ultralight Boatbuilding” from International Marine, designed the flat-bottom Long Point skiff for use on Massachusetts’ Cape Cod Bay, in the shallows and coastal waters.
At a little less than 16 feet, the boat has high sides and a tall bow for added seaworthiness. Its 1-1/2-inch-thick bottom prevents oil canning in chop, and its weight enhances stability. Hill recommends a 15-hp Honda (long shaft), and he cautions against overpowering the boat. The 15-hp outboard drives the skiff along comfortably at 20 knots in the right water.
The topsides are constructed of glued lapstrake plywood, and the garboards (lower planks) are quite wide, facilitating the building process. Plans from Thomas J. Hill Design Build, Burlington, Vt., sell for $75. Hill estimates that a quality built and equipped skiff will cost roughly $13,000. www.thomasjhillboatdesigns.com
Lumber Yard Skiff
Designed for shallow, protected waters, the flat-bottom Lumber Yard Skiff is available from Walter Baron, owner of Old Wharf Dory Company in Wellfleet, Mass., as either a bare hull or a turnkey boat. He also sells plans for $50. These 12-, 16-, and 20-foot plywood boats (based on the Brockway skiffs) are simple, rugged and easy to build. The 16-footer requires just three sheets of 8-foot meranti plywood, and Baron says he can finish a bare hull in about 40 hours.
A tricked out 16-footer would come equipped with flotation, a short foredeck, side decks, interior coaming, a center console, cedar floorboards, and a fiberglass-sheathed exterior hull. The skiff would run about $9,000 without the recommended 25- to 30-hp outboard. www.oldwharf.com
Like the West Point Skiff, the diesel-powered Pulsifer Hampton is built using traditional strip planking construction with native white pine, oak and cedar custom-sawn and dried at the shop. Dick Pulsifer, owner of Richard S. Pulsifer, Boat Builder in Brunswick, Maine, chooses bronze, Monel and stainless-steel fasteners to assemble the 22-foot hull, and a 29-hp Yanmar 3YM30 to spin the big, four-bladed wheel. At a cruising speed of 8 to 10 knots, the engine burns about a half-gallon of fuel per hour.
The boat is built to take on open waters, within reason. The 42-inch-high freeboard forward and sharp entry to cut through waves help keep the helmsman at the center console dry, and the deep keel running aft to a depth of 2-1/2 feet enhances stability and tracking.
The boat won’t plane, Pulsifer says, but it’s quiet when under way. “There are many lovely little boats that are beautiful in protected waters that you wouldn’t take offshore. They’re not sea boats, but these are,” he says. www.pulsiferhampton.com
Seaway Boats started back in the 1970s with a traditional lobster boat, appropriate for a company from Maine. Over the years, it has expanded its product line to boats up to 29 feet, including three versions of the Seaway Skiff, the 13, 16 and the 20. These fiberglass boats are built with high sides and ample beam for load-carrying capacity, and they are available as a bare skiff or fitted out with a variety of optional features.
The Seaway 20 has a fine entry and flattens aft for better stability and handling, whereas the 16 is flat-bottomed and more at home in protected waters. Options for the Seaway 20 include storage seats, center console steering, casting platforms and leaning posts. www.seawayboats.com
Southport Handy Billy 21
The Handy Billy 21’s roots date to the early part of the last century, when designer William Hand dreamed up vee-bottom skiffs for use in the stiff seas of Massachusetts’ Buzzards Bay. Hand wanted a boat with a tall, easy entry and moderate beam narrowing at the transom to provide seaworthiness and efficient handling at low and medium speeds. Designer Harry Bryan took the best from Hand and incorporated it into the center console Handy Billy 21 in 1998. Southport Island Marine in Southport, Maine, began building it in fiberglass in 2007.
“It’s a sensible design — handsome, quiet and remarkably fast with only a 30-hp outboard. The boat bucks the trend of overpowered boats,” says Southport’s Douglas Goldhirsch.
The Tohatsu 4-stroke is situated in a compartment aft with a foam-cored top to deaden engine noise. The builder uses vinylester resin in laying up the foam-cored hull, and vacuum bagging assures quality. www.southportislandmarine.com
West Pointer 18
Six River Marine in North Yarmouth, Maine, builds the West Pointer 18, not to be confused with the West Point Skiff. The hull design is typical of the Down East-style workboats built a century ago and also is available in a 22-foot version. Standard features include non-skid decks, center console, wiring for running lights and the bilge pump, and PVC rub and spray rails. Options include helm and console seating, integral fuel tank and dodger, among others. The boats are custom-built to order and have a high level of finish to maximize aesthetics and reduce routine maintenance.
The builder uses the cold-molded process, keeping weight down without compromising on strength. Layers of cedar veneer are formed over the mold and epoxied, then vacuum bagged. When complete, the West Pointer’s hull is a rigid, one-piece wood structure. The skiff will easily plane when equipped with the recommended 50-hp outboard. www.sixrivermarine.com
West Point Skiff
Nichols Boat Builder in Phippsburg, Maine, is a one-man shop run by builder Richard Nichols, who uses traditional strip planking construction with custom-sawn native white pine and oak for his 16-, 18-, and 20-foot West Point Skiffs. Details matter to Nichols, so it can take about three months to complete an 18-footer. The bronze fasteners and steam-bent, quarter-sawn oak frames are hallmarks of traditional wooden-boat building. The optional bronze steering wheel for the Teleflex steering system is a salty touch.
The 18- and 20-footers are most popular. All models have a vee-entry and bottoms that flatten aft, providing stability and allowing for modest power. “This boat will get you home,” Nichols says. www.westpointskiff.com
ELLIS 20 OPEN FISHERMAN
This article originally appeared in the September 2008 issue.