“The Simmons”

“That’s a good-looking boat!”

We hear that quite a lot these days. The next question is, “Did you build it? I wish I could answer yes, but I can’t — and that always leads to a story like this:

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The December 1 issue of Messing About In Boats arrived in the mail just before Thanksgiving!

I had long coveted the Simmons Sea Skiff and had even bought a set of plans to build my own, but the enormity of thatproject put it on the back burner, indefinitely. So when I saw this ad, I knew that it was a good value. The boat was in Havre-de-Grace, Maryland … phone calls and e-mails with the seller followed.

That Wednesday found Cynthia and I in the car, driving to Maryland, having made our apologies for breaking long-standing Thanksgiving dinner plans!

The pre-purchase test ride, Susquehanna River, MD

Morning test run on the Susquehanna, Thanksgiving 2006

Upon arrival, we met Peter, the owner, at the boat ramp and launched her for a quick test ride on the Susquehanna River (temperature in the 40s and breezy – ugh).

And shortly thereafter, we were southbound to Florida!

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Last look before the dodger comes off!

Sunday morning, I was removing that hard dodger with a Sawzall (whoever built it was very thorough with the 5200 adhesive!), and Sunday afternoon we were out running around Sarasota Bay.

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"The Simmons," as we call her, freshly painted in the driveway in Sarasota FL

We are never out boating without someone admiring her and asking questions, and I’ve had many great conversations with new friends. No matter how modern, hi-tech, and streamlined everything becomes, there seems to remain a real hunger for that old-time, classic look.

She is a modern replica (built by Nelson Silva of Sea Skiffs, Inc. in 1991) of the original Simmons Sea Skiff 20 – built by Mr. Simmons from the 50s to the 70s in Myrtle Grove, NC (more history on the Simmons Sea Skiff is at the bottom of the page). 

The length overall is actually 19’6” – Simmons called it a “20” because that was the length of the plywood sheets he used to make the hull planks. She is fitted with a 1999 50 hp Yamaha 4-stroke outboard, and is good for about 27 knots with 2 adults, wide-open. Easy cruising speed is about 18-20 knots, turning 4000 RPM and getting 5-6 miles per gallon. Not too bad compared to a lot of 19-footers we see with 150 hp and up! Her light weight means we don’t need a special tow vehicle, and can pull her with my Accord V6 sedan.

She evolved from the Banks dory, and her form developed from her function: to be a good all-around boat for the sounds, inlets, and coastal waters of the Carolinas. Her moderate vee hull handles a chop nicely, but flattens out toward the stern so she gets by without too much horsepower. The full, upsweptbow rides up and over waves (and even breakers). The bottom near the stern has a bit of downward hook (“throw-down,” as the late Robb White would say) to help her plane quickly. And that transom! Tipped out as it is, it tends to ride up and over waves rather than be swamped. And since you can’t hang an outboard on a transom at that angle, the motor well was needed.

Simmons boats had all kinds of different interiors, most with the helm to starboard, the steering wheel mounted on a small pod attached to the gunwale, and thwarts all the way across for seating. Mine happens to be set up as a center console. It takes up a lot of space but I love the ability to drive standing or sitting. I dream up lots of different layouts and admire those on other Simmons, but I have yet to see one I like enough to make me want to change the current setup.

We are delighted with the boat, and use it to tool around Sarasota with our friends, show waterfront properties, and take photographs of real estate listings. We’ve trailered her all over between Tampa Bay and Boca Grande, and she is by far the best small boat we’ve ever owned.

Lots has been written about Simmons Sea Skiffs on the web and in print. A few of the articles I’m aware of are in Small Boat Journal (date unknown) and Wildlife in North Carolina, June 1987, both by Dave Carnell, and Chesapeake Bay Magazine, September 2005, by John Page WiIlliams. There was also an article on Nelson Silva’s boats in National Fisherman, September 1991. If you know of others, please e-mail me at preston@boatsandwaterfront.com.

A (very brief) History of the Simmons Sea Skiff

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Sometime in late 1940s, T.N. Simmons of Myrtle Grove, North Carolina (near Wilmington) built the first Simmons Sea Skiff in his backyard wood shop, and through the ‘50s and ‘60s he and his son (and sometimes an assistant or two) built more than a thousand of them for buyers who were willing to wait up to a year to take delivery! At the peak of production, about a boat per week rolled out of the shop, but each one typically was custom-finished to the needs of that particular boat’s buyer. Business was booming,but Simmons rebuffed suggestions to mass-produce his boats, saying that it was no fun to build the same boat over and over again.

Why was the Sea Skiff such a success? First, it was an excellent performer in the unique coastal Carolina conditions: the short, steep chop of the exposed shallow sounds … the tidal rips and breakers of the ocean inlets … and the open ocean itself. It was said that the Simmons Sea Skiffs proved that you could safely go offshore in an outboard boat, and that the boat could take it long after the passengers had had enough! It also delivered good speed with the smaller outboards of the day.

It was also affordable. Simmons built efficiently, and he sold his boats direct to the customer, so there was no dealer markup and little advertising. The 18-footer’s price kept pace through the years with the price of the optimum-sized outboard needed to power it (25 hp) – about $725 even as late as 1972. It was said that Simmons brought ocean sport fishing within the reach of the working person’s paycheck.

The Simmons Sea Skiff was also good-looking … classic lines, almost pretty, but always workmanlike-looking. No wonder they were such a hit!

The younger Simmons’ drowning in a boating accident in 1972 caused the elder to close shop and give up on boatbuilding for good, and no more Simmons Seas Skiffs were built. Mr. Simmons confined his woodworking to building furniture, mostly for his family, and passed on in 1985.sea-skiffs-inc-spec-sheet

In the late ‘80s, Nelson Silva and Seas Skiffs Inc., with the permission of the Simmons family, began building Simmons replicas in nearby Wilmington. Unlike Simmons’ boats, which were assembled entirely of wood and relied on superb joinery instead of glues, Silva started with a foam-filled fiberglass hull/floor assembly, and built the lapstrake hull from there up, using wood and modern adhesives. But when Silva died around 1994, the Sea Skiff went out of production once again.

Simmons did not use plans for his boats – they were built using patterns and jigs he developed over the years to speed up construction. However, Dave Carnell got Simmons’ blessing to take the lines off of existing boats and create building plans for each of the three hull models (18, 20, and 22-foot). Those drawings were then donated to the Cape Fear Museum, and copies can be purchased to this day for a reasonable price. Thanks to Mr. Carnell, the Simmons Sea Skiff lives on, and countless replicas have been built over the years by amateurs and professionals alike. A few boat shops still build turn-key replicas, using some variation of the wood-epoxy composite construction. Just search the web for “Simmons Sea Skiff” and you’ll find them.

Simmons owners are an enthusiastic bunch, and maintain an active owners’ club located on the Web at www.simmonsseaskiff.com. And every year, the Cape Fear Museum hosts an annual expo for Simmons owners, who bring their boats from far and wide to be together and compare notes. To order a set of plans from the Cape Fear Museum, call them at (910) 798-4350.

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