The names and types of certain boats often carry a mystique not found in more common vessels. Designed for utility and beauty, skiffs, were built by the Verity’s and Seaman’s in the South Shore areas of Seaford, Long Island. Other boat builders in the shore towns of New York and New Jersey incorporated similar elements that made these boats legendary.
The skiffs origin is somewhat clouded. The name “skiff” is mentioned in John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” in 1670 (“night foundered skiff”) and the Poet Shelly drowned while sailing one in 1815. They are similar to rowing boats used on the Thames and other rivers in England 400 years ago. Skiffs are mentioned in American literature in such great books as Moby Dick by Herman Melville and The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway.
It is quite possible that historic memory played a part in the skiffs development as both Long Island and New Jersey until the early 20th century was dominated by descendants of English and Dutch colonists who gravitated to the bays and wetlands for its easy shell/fin fishing and market gunning of waterfowl for both meat and decorative feathers. There was so much market gunning for these sea birds from 1870 on, that several types became extinct and the flocks took a century to recover!
In New Jersey, skiffs such as the Sea Bright Skiff and South Jersey Beach Skiff were developed and date from the early 1800s. Charles Hankins was one of the more famous Jersey Skiff builders. These boats are similar to the lifesaving boats used at beaches and Coastal Life Saving Stations for many years. New Jersey became the place to race your skiff in places such as Point Pleasant and Red Bank.
All skiffs are designed to navigate in shallows, beach easily, to be sleek and yet stable enough to cut through stormy chop. But ease in operation by a single operator and the ability to both sail or row was paramount. Early South Shore boats like the gaff rigged catboat, so popular for generations, were built by masters like Gil Smith of Patchogue. These boats were very wide in beam, were not rowable in the strict sense of the word and had a more complex two line sail system for the sheet and boom. Wide beams made catboats very stable but that sacrificed speed and maneuvering.
Skiffs began to appear in the marshes and bays in the early 1870s. Demand for shell and fin fish from a growing post Civil War New York gave rise to this improved multi purpose boat. The Seaford Skiff was crafted by the Verity brothers in Seaford along and by other family boat builders such as the Seamans and Ketchams. Its bottom was designed to rest flat when beached. It had to be a single sailor friendly and be able to accommodate one passenger. This was useful when working as a fishing or hunting guide.
Market gunners also valued them as they were a quiet boat due to their unique smooth hull which made it easy to sneak up on prey. In a few short generations the water fowl populations were nearly decimated due to the demand for more fowl to eat and feathers to adorn women’s fashionable hats.
The Seaford, Verity and Jersey Skiffs were generally built in size ranges from 12 to 15 ½ ft in length and at most 4 ½ ft wide in the beam. While sailing you sat on the floor boards. When rowing, there was a removable seat and oar locks. Skiffs sat low in the water and the rudder operated by a lengthy tiller. Skiffs had one large sail of approximately 66 square ft. The mast, boom and sail could be disassembled by one person quickly and easily stowed out of the way on this small vessel so rowing mode could be quickly enabled.
The cockpit had a high combing surrounding it to keep sailors relatively dry. Oar locks for rowing were fashioned to be very high so the oars would not be encumbered by the combing. In the center was the centerboard trunk allowing easy access to raise or lower the centerboard when sailing in skinny waters or beaching the vessel. The rounded raked transom allowed waves to easily flow under the skiff when sailing or rowing in a snotty following sea. Two occupants could be “somewhat comfortable” with their gear in the cockpit.
There are different boats called “Skiffs’’ that differ from the description of the traditional vessels above. There are flat bottom row boats called skiffs that many fishing marinas rented out years ago to boatless fisherman. They were small with no sails and you either rowed or brought your own “kicker”. Rumor has it that the famous Al Grover built boats had their hulls fashioned from the dynamics of the Seaford and Verity hulls.
The skiff has not been thrown on the scrap heap of marine history. They enjoy an honored spot on the bays to this day and I can tell you
one thing for certain, when you see a true skiff sailing or being rowed on the bays, you know it immediately by its beautiful profile, its efficient “less is more” design, and the smile on the faces of the Captains who sail this “small” bit of history.
You can view a variety skiff at:
The Long Island Maritime Museum - Sayville NY
Mystic Seaport Museum-Mystic CT
C.2017 Mark C. Nuccio All rights reserved
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