Artisinal Boatbuilding on the Gulf

Published: August 2014 – Southern Boating
© 2014 Troy Gilbert

The Gulf Coast has a long history of artisanal boatbuilding that stretches back to when this coast was first settled. Canoe-e1316204148208Borrowing native Indian designs and marrying them with European influences and tools, entire classes of boats uniquely suited to regional waterways and their resource utilization developed all along the coast. With the arrival of fiberglass and the consolidation of boatbuilding into large corporate enterprises, many traditions and generational knowledge were on the verge of being lost. However, today there is a resurgence of these artisanal builders with legacies and techniques being rediscovered and it’s resulting in gorgeous and fully functional nearshore and inshore boats that are ideal for these coastlines.

In southern Louisiana, the French colonists quickly learned that their deep hulled European vessels were not very functional with the natural shallow nature of the bayous and they adopted the designs of the Indians for flat-bottomed 16′ boats which were carved and burned out of single cypress logs. As the pirogue (pee-rogue) developed and became the standard for trappers and fishermen, eventually cypress planks were used, which significantly dropped the weight of these boats and furthered their maneuverability in shallow marshes.

Cajun craftsmen like Tony Latiolais of Henderson, LA in the Atchafalaya Basin today utilize “sinker” cypress logs reclaimed from the bottom of bayous and logged swamps. Other builders like Keith Felder of Denham Springs, LA are constructing them out of marine grade plywood and finishing with cypress. Stacked onboard powerboats, these are prized possessions for duck hunting enthusiasts to enter shallow ponds and sloughs off the deeper bayous and are now being revisited by anglers tackling the incredibly productive fishing grounds of the Louisiana marsh. They are also ideal for cruisers looking to explore shallower and protected bayous.

Boatbuilding is an evolutionary process and Texan craftsmen are reaching back to traditional wooden boats and joining them to modern styles to create hybrid designs that serve the creeks and nearshore waters of their state. Mark Escobedo is doing this on the outskirts of San Antonio in the one-horse town of Buda, Texas. Building the Sea Dart, a type of creek boat that is ideal for lake or creek fishing, as well as hunting redfish along the coast, the Sea Dart is a 16′ lapstrake type-build that combines the look of a canoe and a kayak.

Arrowhead Custom Boats in Austin, TX is another wooden boatbuilder helmed by David Nichols who has long embraced the art and traditions of classic construction. His boats include traditional canoes to ideal fly fishing platforms.

Part of the resurgence of interest in these wooden shallow draft boats and classic Gulf Coast boats like the Lafitte Skiff were initiated by the determination of organizations such as the Center for Traditional Louisiana Boatbuilding and wooden boat festivals like the hugely popular celebration in Madisonville, LA. Small maritime museums like the one in Port Aransas, Texas are also determined to re-introduce these skills and knowledge. Many of these organizations conduct traditional boatbuilding classes and are reviving these old processes and designs, and creating a new legacy of hobbyists and entrepreneurs that are constructing beautiful heirloom paddleboats.

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