In the last half of the 20th century, the southern New England coast and shores of Long Island were peppered with sturdy and simple workboats known as Brockway Skiffs. Designed and built by Earl Brockway of Old Saybrook, Connecticut, these budget-friendly plywood-and-lumber skiffs were ubiquitous in the region and used by professional watermen and recreational fishermen alike. Flat-bottomed and slab-sided, they were generally built in 14′, 16′, or 18′ lengths, and could be built as either skiffs or scows.
The boats developed a reputation for being able to carry a load, and they spread around the country and as far as Southeast Asia after the U.S. State Department adopted the Brockway design to aid typhoon-ravaged fishing communities. Built with less-expensive lumberyard-quality wood, roofing tar as adhesive, and galvanized nails, Brockways didn’t usually survive more than two decades, but they were easily replaced. With Earl Brockway’s passing in 1996, the boats’ numbers in the the southern New England coast dwindled, but his skiff still retains a strong cachet with backyard boatbuilders and designers alike, including Walter Baron whose refined Lumber Yard Skiff design has strong ancestral ties to the Brockway.
Several years ago, I wanted to have a small, utilitarian, cheap outboard boat that was tied to New England tradition. I was on a strict budget but needed something stable and safe. A coworker showed me pictures of his Earl Brockway–built 14′ scow, and as I originally hail from the lower Connecticut River valley not far from Old Saybrook, the Brockway 14 was immediately a beguiling option. Timothy Visel, an educator and self-appointed Brockway historian, has developed plans for the Brockway 14 Skiff and posted them online. Visel took the lines off a conserved Brockway 14 in 2002. Much like the boat, the plans are straightforward and written with the novice boatbuilder in mind.
This type of boat construction allows the builder to get as fancy or simple as desired. The plywood can be A-C, marine fir, or marine plywood. Clear construction lumber is used for chines, frames, and gunwales. There is also a choice of adhesives and fastenings. I used meranti plywood, fir lumber, and a mix of PL Premium polyurethane construction adhesive for less critical joints and marine epoxy at the stem, chines, transom, and bottom joints. Sikaflex 291 would be another good choice in keeping with the spirit of a budget-built boat without compromising structural integrity. Depending on how long one wants the boat to survive, anything from galvanized nails to deck screws to stainless fastenings (as I chose) can be used. Traditional roofing tar can be employed to seal the joints, but superior modern glues, with only a marginal increase in cost, will improve the strength, watertightness, and life of the boat.
There are no difficult bevels or curves to be plotted during the construction. Straight lines are drawn directly onto two sheets of 1/2″ plywood for the sides, and the shape and rocker of the boat come naturally through the bending of the sides during construction. The start of the build is a fir 4×4 shaped into a stem with two dead-simple bevels. The two side panels, cut and joined with 1/2″-plywood butt straps, are attached to the stem and then bent around a single mold—made of 2×6s—that is temporarily placed amidships. The biggest struggle is attaching the sides of the boat to the 1-1/2″ thick transom, which is laminated from two 3/4″ plywood sheets. A Spanish windlass, explained in the plans, along with a second pair of hands perhaps, surmounts this obstacle.
Chine logs, made from 1×4 lumber, and floor timbers are installed next into the upside-down hull. The floor timbers butt and join the separate pieces of the bottom plywood, so no scarfing is necessary between bottom panels. A 2×4″ is specified as the floor timber, but I used some 4×4s I had on hand. Limber holes allow the water to drain the length of the boat. The 3/4″ plywood bottom is laid on the upside-down hull, fastened, glued, and trimmed. A keel for abrasion resistance is added along the centerline of the boat, usually made out of a 2×4 or 2×6, on the flat. I used an unfinished oak 2×4 and bonded it to the bottom with PL Premium and galvanized nails.
The boat is then turned over for fitting-out the interior. The 14′ version is light and well-mannered enough to be handled and turned over by one strong person with no special rigging necessary, while two people make this process supremely easy. Thwarts are then installed on 1×4 cleats, which tie the vessel together. Again, I used a mix of scrap 2×6s and okoume plywood that I had in my garage for the thwarts, but anything robust enough can be used, such as the stair tread that the plans recommend. The plans describe a center support post for each thwart, but I found the 2×6s to be plenty stiff and did not install posts. Flotation is strongly encouraged by Visel for safety. With the ample freeboard, there is room for high thwarts with stacks of foam underneath.
Because I built my Brockway with meranti marine plywood and epoxy, painted it with enamel Rust-Oleum, and keep it on a trailer, I decided against fiberglassing the exterior of the boat. One could certainly ’glass the boat, but it is not necessary and adds time ,expense, and weight to the project. It took me four weeks to build the boat from start to finish, working around my job. I spent approximately $600 on new materials and used leftover lumber and materials from past projects for the rest, and bought a used 6-hp two-stroke outboard for another $600. I estimate the Brockway 14 weighs somewhere around 350 lbs, and two people can carry the newly finished boat from shop to trailer. It’ll tow with ease behind any car and launching and retrieving it at the boat ramp are a breeze, taking just minutes.
When I first launched the 14, I was worried that it was going to be too tender—the bow seemed to me far too narrow. To my great pleasure, when I pushed it off the beach and jumped in over the stem, the boat barely knelt to acknowledge my presence. For a 14-footer, it has been rock solid and dependable from the first moments on the water.
The Brockway 14 is a straight-up workboat without any recreational pedigree. It is designed to carry fishermen and fish and whatever else needs hauling. It was not designed for high-speed running. Underway at displacement speeds, the Brockway 14 plows ahead, leaving a displacement-style wake that I take care to mitigate in anchorages and sensitive shoreline zones. When the speed increases, its shortfalls are easy to pick out. The easily drawn, long, straight plywood sides translate into an entire hull that is rockered. There is no flat run aft, as many such skiffs now have after design refinements, such as Baron’s Lumber Yard Skiff. Because of this, motor trim and weight distribution are crucial to keep the bow down as speed increases. If there is any sea while underway at speed, the boat will want to point to the sky as it stands on the rockered stern, and the bottom will start slamming. I have placed my fuel tank under the forward thwart to add weight in the bow. A passenger on the forward thwart with the skipper directly behind the center thwart offers the best balance for quiet handling characteristics.
When solo, I steer from a standing position just aft of the center thwart, using a tiller extension and a “chicken post”—an upright 4×4 that I use to steady myself while underway. The chicken post is a modification I made and is not reflected in the Visel plans. I can get the skiff going quite well from this position and, in calm water, can steer by shifting my weight.
Operated at sedate speeds in rough water, the workboat heritage comes to the fore and the Brockway offers a stable ride, shouldering the waves to the side and plunging forward with confidence. Slow isn’t a bad way to travel. While at full throttle, and with a person on the forward thwart, my skiff can achieve about 10 knots and leave a relatively quiet wake, but it’s hard on the motor to operate at red-line for long periods of time, and I usually cruise at a sedate 6 knots or half-throttle on my 6-hp two-stroke. We make excellent time over distance in a straight line compared to rowing and sailing, with the added pleasure of enjoying the sights along the way that are often missed at higher speeds.
My wife and I spent three foggy days cruising some of the Maine Island Trail in our Brockway, TURKEY DINNER. With plenty of room for coolers and gear, the boat offered comfortable and economic cruising with all the extra amenities for beachside camping. We motored approximately 36 sea miles running at a leisurely 6 knots and consumed only 3.5 gallons of gas over the course of the trip. The skippers of lobsterboats waved as we passed, probably in recognition of the Brockway’s workboat sensibilities. The maximum rated horsepower for the boat is 25, but this would not necessarily lead to any speed benefits as the boat’s bottom was not designed to go high-speed running. I imagine a 9.9- or 12-hp motor would be an ideal intersection between speed and economy. The boat would ride relatively flat with a well-placed passenger up forward and would cruise at 10 knots without having to max out the throttle.
The Brockway 14 Skiff is not the prettiest boat I have owned nor the best performing, but it takes much hard handling and outdoor unprotected storage without complaint. Between the simple systems, steady feel, and absolute ease of use, I find it becoming my daily choice for fun, stress-less motorboating. The Brockway Skiff looks right at home in any shoreline waterway and is a practical option for an economical and approachable powerboat.
Christophe Matson lives in New Hampshire. At a very young age he disobeyed his father and rowed the neighbor’s Dyer Dhow across the Connecticut River to the strange new lands on the other side. Ever since he has been hooked on the idea that a small boat offers the most freedom. His previous Boat Profiles include the Atlantic 17 Dory and the TAAL SUP board.
Brockway Skiff Particulars
Maximum Power/15-hp outboard
Passenger capacity/500 lbs
Passenger with cargo capacity/620 lbs
The book How to Build the Brockway Skiff, by Timothy C. Visel, is available online from The Sound School, Regional Vocational Aquaculture Center, of New Haven Connecticut.
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