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The Wakulla County Model Bow Skiff

Robb White

This story was published by the Traditional Small Craft Association (www.TSCA.net) a worthy little group whose newsletter is called "The Ash Breeze."

You know, it is pitiful how much lore is lost without a second thought. One of the most lost of all lore is the history and design of the little skiffs of the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Howard I. Chappelle of the Smithsonian named and published the lines of a boat for every inlet from Greenland to the Chesapeake but he sort of ran out of steam from there on down and around. I am just as bad. I think I am personally responsible for the loss of the lore of the Wakulla County model-bow skiff.

Almost everybody had a model bow skiff down around Wakulla County in the Florida Big Bend back in the first half of the twentieth century and no telling how long before that. It was kind of like how everybody had an axe. I could never find out who built the first one or when but they were just about the standard skiff for commercial fishermen for a mighty long time. Wakulla County has, I believe, the most convoluted and hard to navigate shoreline in the United States. You don't have to take my word for it, just get on the internet and fetch up with www.terraserver.com and call up an aerial photograph and see for yourself (A good name to enter is "St Marks, FL"). There might be some places down along the Everglades almost as bad, but you can spend a whole day messing around down around Panacea or St. Marks and not cover half a mile as the crow flies. Though the water is mostly very shallow and the bottom rocky and covered with oyster bars, there are deep holes sort of like limesinks all over the place and plenty of fish, crabs and oysters and it is still possible for a hard working person to make a scratch-by living with nothing but a little skiff.

The coast of Wakulla County is no place for a big-deal motorboat. Though it is the closest salt water to the monstrous Tallahassee (where national elections are decided) all the big-money Bayliners stay right in the middle of the channel and never have any idea of what the coastline is like. In ten minutes, a canoe can get so far from any sign of civilization that (except for jet airplane contrails and the ubiquitous trash from all the damned fools who, despite sanctimonious protestations of all kinds, don't know right from wrong) it is possible to convince yourself that you are the first person to ever see the place since the wild people were eradicated..... but you aren't. People rowed, poled, sailed and paddled model bow skiffs around in those creeks and bayous for at least seventy five years after the dugouts all got eaten up by the gribbles.

When I was a boy and a young man, I did it, too. My grandfather loved the place and every fall, when the crops were in, he rented a house at what they call "Wakulla Beach" (find that, if you can) and a skiff came with the house. We poled the little boat all through the creeks and caught crabs and fish, gigged flounders and tonged oysters. Though I let the last model bow skiff I knew where was get eaten up before I got up the gumption to go down there and bog around in the mud to photograph it and take off the lines, I remember the boats pretty well. They were all just about as long as what you could build with sixteen foot lumber. They were built hard chined in the southern tradition. With that, I must digress. Most small southern boats are hard chined. Bent frames don't last down here. There is an old erroneous saying that states that southern oak is not good for building boats. Southerners invented that saying and it got mis-quoted as it moved north. The saying is actually "oak is not good for building boats." Not even Maine pasture-grown white oak. Live oak is the only exception. Anyway, a model bow skiff was built of heavy, old-growth, cypress. Like most southern chine-style boats, the sides were very thick and there was no chine log. The planking was just nailed onto the thick edge of the side of the boat. A lot of southern skiffs were deadrise style both fore and aft, but a model bow skiff was flat bottomed except for the bow which had the steep deadrise of the bigger boats called "Florida Skipjacks" like in the picture on page 248 in W.C. Fleetwood's book, "Tidecraft." Unlike the Florida skipjack, the bottoms of the little skiffs were crossplanked and the junction where the steep planking of the bow met the sides changed from having the sides beveled to having the ends of the planking cut at an angle to butt the square edge of the side. That kept the bevel of the side from becoming too acute and hard to caulk. You could see the little notch in the side of a model bow skiff about two thirds of the way forward where that change occurred. I always thought it was the neatest little trick. The bow planking was put on extra thick and then carved to form a hollow forefoot (model bow) and I thought that was another neat trick. Model bow skiffs were very low sided and the thwarts were just nailed across the gunwales and, in the stern, there was a platform extending about six feet forward from the transom. You could sleep on that if you got caught short by the tide and had to spend the night in the marsh (not all that unpleasant in the wintertime if you had some good covers) but the other two functions of that stern deck were to strike a gill net from and to walk on to pole the boat... or throw a casting net. A model bow skiff was a deadly implement in a narrow creek full of mullet when poled backwards by one person with another person (there have always been plenty of women in the fishing business around here) standing on the stern with a big cast net.

Wakulla County Model Bow Skiff

This is Tim Weaver's drawing of a photo that appeared with this story on the TSCA website.

When outboard motors came along in the thirties, the old boats were modified to accommodate them by kneeing a board to the port side of the bow. The best motors for that purpose were the old style which turned 360°. That way, the boats ran forward and didn't pound in the chop of the bay while heading to the creek and then the engine could just be swiveled around to head in the other direction to throw the net. Crab (both stone and blue) traps were worked by one person who ran the boat up to put the float on the starboard side where she caught it with the hook and trotted aft, hopping the thwart, to pull the trap onto the platform while he kicked the emptied and baited trap from the last haul off into the water. A good hand, didn't even cut his motor off while he did this. After the traps were swapped, an old heavy model bow skiff would run straight to the next trap while the man tended to his crabs and bait. Model bow skiffs were used to tong oysters, too. The low sides made it as easy as possible (which, ain't nothing easy about tonging oysters) and the boat was loaded from the bow back. Sometimes, the boat would be so loaded that it would swamp in the shallow water trying to get back to the hill and then the poor man would have to unload the boat, bail and load it back up. I am going to tell you something. It takes a hell of a man (be he male or female) to tong a skiff full of oysters and pole it home. It takes all kinds of people to make the world go round, don't it? There are people who won't buy a car unless it has electric windows and I know a woman who has never been more than fifty feet from a thermostat in her life.

When I was a young man, I worked on a tugboat whose captain had hard-scrabbled, fatherless, through the depression working a model bow skiff. He did it all, oysters, crabs, fish. Not only did he fish with a net, he commercially fished speckled trout (squeteague) and redfish (red drum) with a hook and line. In the summertime, he and his mother and little sisters gathered wild rice up in the fresh water runs. He said that they would just pull the grass down in the boat and thresh out the rice with sticks and paddles into the bottom of the boat. It took a whole day to get about a load and then, while he poled the boat home, the women would sack up all that rice. He told me that they wouldn't miss a single grain... raked them out of the cracks with a knife. Then, the next day, they had to shuck it and that was the hardest job of all. Wild rice was too expensive for them to eat so they sold that for a little money to buy seed for the garden and shells for the gun.

Which, I hope the statute of limitations has run out on this sort of thing but those people down there killed a world of ducks in the wintertime and most of them were shot out of model bow skiffs. Almost all of Wakulla County is the "St. Marks Wildlife Refuge" which was set up back in the early part of the last century for a good reason. That country was duck and goose country for real. The people worked the skiff for ducks the same way they did for throwing the net.... backwards up the creek. "When we came around the bend where the bait was," captain Junior told me, "We'd kill so many ducks that the feathers banked up on the edge of the marsh grass like snow." The feds had a hard time convincing those hard scrabble folks not to shoot those ducks that were worth a dime apiece at the same restaurants in Tallahassee which had bought the rice. Not only were the locals sort of naturally recalcitrant, but they were hard to catch back in all that shallow water. You know, an enforcement officer who spent a lot of time doing his paperwork was hard put to outpole or outrun a man who tonged a ton and a half of oysters six days a week.

So, I always hoped that I would find an old skiff in somebody's back yard. They would never rot out but they were so heavy that people never hauled them and the gribbles ate them from the bottom up. I watched it happen and never raised a sorry hand to save one. I am embarrassed. If you want to see what one looked like, there is a picture on the wall of the Spring Creek Restaurant down on this coast I have been talking about. I advise you to take your little skiff when you go to take a look. Spring Creek is about as close to as you can get to Primordea in a car. I advise you eat there. Order the fried mullet but don't order ducks and rice.... unless you know somebody.

Further reading:
"Tidecraft," William C. Fleetwood, Jr.
WGB Marine Press, P.O. 178, Tybee Island, Georgia, 31328

 

Robb White, boatbuilder and writer, Thomasville, Georgia

ROBB WHITE & SONS INC.
Designers and Builders of Custom Small Boats Since 1961
P.O. Box 561, Thomasville, GA 31799
Copyright 2004 - 2006 byRobb White.  All rights reserved.