In the spring of 1970, the Marine Historical Society, now the Mystic Seaport Museum, sent out a flyer inviting recreational rowing enthusiasts to a “Small Craft Conference–Rowing Workshop” sponsored by the Small Craft Laboratory, which had been started by then Associate Curator John Gardner. Topics would be pulling boat design, reviving recreational rowing, and comparing participating boats. The flyer also suggested that participants submit a design for the “perfect boat.”
Capt. Pete Culler took an interest in the design challenge. A yacht captain, boatbuilder and designer, he had designed and supervised building the schooner INTEGRITY for his friend and sometimes employer, Waldo Howland, owner of Concordia Company. Pete and Waldo discussed the idea and Pete sketched a simple 13-1/2′ flat-bottomed skiff, similar to a 15-1/2-footer he had built in 1968. Waldo liked the result, and mimeographed a pamphlet about it which was distributed at the workshop. In it he wrote that the new skiff was “a learner’s boat for rowing and sailing, and for fun and satisfaction. Suitable for instruction and general use in summer camps, in youth training programs and at home. Rowing is fun if the boat is the right model. Big enough to be useful, long and fine lined enough to row easily. With sufficient length, she will be stable. There are many uses for a good skiff besides rowing alone. Pulling up on a beach for swimming & picnics. Go fishing or clamming. Carry passengers or cargo. Imagination and a bit of water is all you need.”
Designed to be built by amateurs, the skiff received an enthusiastic reception and, after the workshop, Culler drew up plans for what has become a classic, the Good Little Skiff.
I bought my 13′ Good Little Skiff, SMILE, in 1977 from Fred Kemp when he and I were working at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. I rowed and sailed her on Chesapeake creeks, then took it with me to Mystic Seaport where she was my commuter boat for more than a decade, then to Maine. The bottom is her second, as the galvanized fastenings into the chines used by Fred throughout the boat (except for the copper-riveted planking) had started to weep after 40 years. Lately she’s been in storage, and in honor of the 50th year of the Small Craft Workshop, I recommissioned her.
Traditionally built, the Good Little Skiff is perhaps 50 to 60 lbs heavier than a similar craft built today in plywood. It has more flare than most and a little powderhorn in the sheer, something Pete, unlike most designers, could get away with. Its raked transom and stern rocker make it extraordinarily unsuitable for outboards, probably no accident.
The flare is nice. Besides making the skiff distinctively handsome, it provides the width to swing an 8’ oar. Since there is a continuous riser following the sheer, the flare gives you a place to sit or squat against when sailing; if you want to shift forward or aft of the center seat, one can perch on the flare and riser as kind of a narrow bench.
Pete didn’t give the skiff much freeboard. For rowing on the open Penobscot Bay, my friends, Sam and Susan Manning, raised the sheer on theirs several inches by adding another narrow strake. After work with a batten, they tapered the strake into the stem as if it were a rubrail, and added a piece to the outboard edge of the transom to match the height of the new sheerstrake. Amidships, the new sheerstrake pretty much hit the height of the oarlock blocks needed with the original sheer because of the low freeboard.
Traditional construction provides some maintenance challenges. There are a lot of different angles, planes, and nooks to sand and paint when it’s that time. That said, a good, sound interior paint job lasts many seasons, with maybe some attention to the chines where water can pool and the seat tops, worn by sun and use.
Culler left many construction details to the builder, so I expect that no two Good Little Skiffs are the same. Following the Chesapeake tradition in which he was schooled, he called for a tight-seamed cross-planked cedar bottom. It needs to swell tight before use, as the planks shrink when dry and the seams let light through—I use “boat blankets” and a hose. You can trailer the Good Little Skiff with a traditional bottom, but you’ll have to manage the swelling. Better is to use 1/2″ marine plywood in a continuous sheet instead of cross planking.
This skiff, like most very small boats, is really sensitive to fore-and-aft trim. Pete drew in just one thwart, so when rowing with a passenger, the bow will aim skyward. It is a simple fix: add a removable seat forward of the rowing station; the seat just rests on the riser. Mine stows under the sternsheets when not needed. There is more freeboard forward so the second set of oarlocks can be mounted on the sheer without blocks to elevate them.
Culler assumed, I think, that the boat would be sailed by two, since the tiller can’t be reached from the amidships seat. For solo sailing I added a tiller extension that is about as long as the tiller. It is just right. With my weight on the center thwart the skiff is in good fore-and-aft trim, and sitting sideways lets me slide athwartships or move to the rail to respond to heeling.
I’ve reengineered the sternsheets to have a movable section in the center, which makes painting under the seat—something recommended by Pete—a less painful process. As it happens, you can lower that section down to rest on the stowed bow seat and use the space to hold your boat bag. The bow seat becomes a shelf to keep lunches and sweaters out of the bilge, a handy feature for a boat not equipped with floorboards.
As designed, the skiff has no stretcher to brace your feet against when rowing. I used to use the end of the short keelson to which the skeg was bolted. In the recommission, I tried a plank set on edge on the chines and braced it against the frames and, after some tapering and other tuning, it proved perfect.
I’d forgotten how much fun the Good Little Skiff is—as long as the water is suitable. You can move around in the skiff without it feeling uncomfortably unstable, something that can be a little more difficult in some of today’s lightweight and often twitchy craft. What it does well is proceed under oar and sail at an easy 3- to 4-knot pace, which is doing well for a boat with a hull speed of about 4-1/3 knots. It doesn’t like a chop. Rowing in a chop where the bow slaps into the waves is miserable. And the skiff is ill-suited to open-water whitecaps.
Pete gave the skiff an ample loose-footed spritsail of 70 square feet. Rigged with a brail to bundle it up, it is simple to set and douse. It moves the boat well in light summer breezes, but when you start seeing whitecaps, if you are solo, you will need a reef. Like most spritsails, it is easier to reef when the rig is struck.
Sailing to windward against a 1- to 2-knot tidal current, my tacks take me straight across my river and back a lot but don’t make much progress. It is simple to brail up the sail, pluck the mast out of the step, and lay it down over the bow. Taking to the oars, I can make steady headway uptide.
One of the things I don’t think Pete realized is how well balanced the Good Little Skiff is. As long as there is not a sea running, you can straddle the center seat and sail it without bothering with a rudder: lean forward and to leeward and the boat turns upwind, flatten it out and lean aft to turn downwind. You can keep it straight running with a bit of windward heel. It’s so easy that I mostly don’t bother to bring along a rudder when sailing, and just take along my old sculling oar, setting it into the transom’s notch for a little help turning.
And the Good Little Skiff sculls beautifully. Light dinghies and skiffs can be sculled, but they don’t have the weight and fore-and-aft resistance to keep them from being wagged by a seriously wielded sculling oar. There is plenty of stability to stand and lean into the oar. My old oar has a 4′ blade and a 10′ shaft which, like duck hunter’s oars, has some curve in it. As you scull, the oar blade digs deeper.
The Good Little Skiff does skiff stuff: poking along the river shore on a leisurely afternoon sail in a nice 10-knot breeze, checking out craft in a harbor, idling the tide downriver on a calm morning under oars to explore tidal shallows, lunching on a tide-revealed sandbar, then catching the afternoon breeze and turned tide to ride home. Pete’s Good Little Skiff is hard to beat. As Howland put it in his pamphlet about Culler’s boat: “A good skiff is a fine boat and for many uses no one has ever figured out anything better or ever will.”
Ben Fuller, first curator of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, and past curator of the Mystic Seaport Museum and the Penobscot Marine Museum, has been messing about in small boats for a very long time. He is owned by a dozen or more boats ranging from an International Canoe to a faering.
Good Little Skiff Particulars
Bottom beam/2′ 10.5″
Sail area/70 sq ft
Optional sail area/83 sq ft
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