John Carswell retired to Jekyll Island, a 7-1/2-mile-long barrier island on the coast of Georgia. With gentle slopes of white sand on its Atlantic coast and creek-laced salt marshes on its western side, Jekyll is surrounded by shallow water. When John and his wife Dorothy relocated there, they brought a boat with them, a Princess built in 1932 by the Thompson Brothers Boat Manufacturing Company of Peshtigo, Wisconsin.
John had been rowing an aluminum johnboat for five years when he bought the aging Princess in 1985. It was far prettier than the johnboat even though the long-neglected cedar-on-oak hull had been sheathed outside with fiberglass, which was peeling away from the strip planking, taking the green paint with it. The interior varnish was cloudy and the oak frames were black along the punky keelson. John rowed GREEN HERON, as he named the boat, for five years on the lakes of central Florida and later, after a move to Washington, D.C., another 10 years on the Potomac River and its tributary, Piscataway Creek. John estimates he rowed GREEN HERON between 3,000 and 4,000 miles.
The boat was already hogged and leaking when he brought it to Jekyll Island and, in the five years he rowed her there, the hull deteriorated to the point where it required bailing four times for every mile traveled. After 80 years of service, GREEN HERON was beyond saving. In 2012, John armed himself with a saw but he couldn’t bring himself to put his old friend in the dumpster; it’s still under the eaves at the back of his house.
John wasn’t about to give up on rowing. For decades it had provided the conditioning he needed for a troublesome lower back. He decided that he would build his next boat. He had a shop and tools, but beyond working for a while framing houses, he had no real woodworking experience: “I just fixed old things,” he says, “I did not build new things. I was most definitely unprepared; I didn’t know how to sharpen a chisel.” And though he had fixed at least a dozen old boats, he was at a loss as to where a new one begins. He bought books, among them Building Classic Small Craft by John Gardner and started reading WoodenBoat. The study in itself was in some ways as therapeutic as rowing: “After a couple of years of retirement, my brain needed adventure as much as my body needed a rowboat.”
He was drawn to the Whitehall type, imagining it as easily driven under oars as GREEN HERON, and likewise easily equipped with a sliding seat, but larger, capable of taking his son fishing. His recalled that his son suggested he should consider having a motor “because eventually I would get too old to row home.”
Browsing through back issues of WoodenBoat, John was intrigued by Robb White’s 2006 article, “Rescue Minor: A shallow-draft motorboat.” White lived in south Georgia and, like John, needed a boat well suited to those shoal waters that extend south from Jekyll Island and into northern Florida. Photographs in the article show his 20′ adaptation of the original William Atkin design speeding along just a boat length from a sandbar in water so thin that the bottom is clearly visible. Another photo shows the boat with its box keel resting flat on the intertidal flats, with one blade of its propeller just visible above the sand, the other blades hidden by a hollow in the hull.
Atkin had designed the Rescue Minor for plywood construction and a hard-chined hull; White strip-built his version with complex curves instead, and incorporated a distinctive tumblehome stern. The plywood version would have been much easier to build, but John was taken by White’s curvaceous interpretation: “I did not worry much about the fact that Robb White had built dozens of boats and I had built zero.”
Rather than working from plans—they were available for the Atkin design, but not for the White—John started with a half model he carved, not with waterline lifts but with a horizontal stack of bread-slice sections.
SKIMMER has two transoms: an inner one that gives the hull its watertight integrity, and an outer one built as a grating that drops down like a landing craft’s bow ramp. John used to slip over the side of GREEN HERON to go swimming on the Potomac, then clamber back aboard over the transom. That was 30 years ago; John opted to build SKIMMER with this easier way to get back aboard. Like GREEN HERON, SKIMMER was outfitted with a sliding seat—rolling, actually, on 4″ wheels—and oarlocks and 10′ ash oars salvaged from GREEN HERON.
John rowed SKIMMER for two years while he saved money for her inboard motor. When the time came, he bought a marinized Kubota 13-1/2 hp diesel and installed it under an engine cover that also serves as the driver’s seat. The instrument panel is neatly tucked away in the keel, and the starboard side of the engine box is equipped with a removable whipstaff for steering.
John usually launches SKIMMER in the Jekyll River on the west side of the island and motors upwind or up current for a few miles and then rows back with the elements in his favor. SKIMMER isn’t fast; John can row about 2 miles per hour at 12 strokes per minute, but he’s out for exercise and the pleasures of the inland waters and the marsh. And while White’s Rescue Minor could do 22 knots, SKIMMER, heavier and with less power, will do just 10 knots, but as with his rowing, John is in no rush to get anywhere.
John did very well for a first boat, especially for building one from scratch, and SKIMMER naturally draws compliments like “beautiful” and “a work of art.” But John isn’t inclined to let even the well-deserved praise go to his head: “It’s nice to hear, but I think it is mostly the varnish they see. It takes some education to appreciate the beauty of wooden boats, at least it did for me. The pleasure is in the fair curves, the scarf joints, the handles on the swim platform, that stout ipe post.” Building his first boat was neither easy nor quick. “I paid for my ignorance with a lot of hours,” John recalls. “I’ll have to live a long time to row SKIMMER for as many hours as I spent building it, but that’s okay.”
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