Skiff Republic Interview: Hal Chittum

Hal Chittum

Hal Chittum at the 2012 Miami Boat Show. John Kipp photo

Skiff Republic:  Hal Chittum graduated from college then went to be a guide in the Florida Keys, where he learned the ropes from Jimmy Albright and other legendary guides.  He guided there for 15 years before starting his own Florida saltwater fishing tackle chain, H. T. Chittum and Company.  Then he and some partners founded Hell’s Bay Boatworks in 1997.  They sold Hell’s Bay and Hal begin working on his own skiff design in 2002.  The result is one of the most technically researched and carefully produced skiffs that have ever been built.

Welcome, Hal.

Hal Chittum:    Thanks, Marshall.  Good to talk to you.

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SR:   Tell us how you got interested in skiff building in the first place.

Chittum:   It actually started when I got out of college.  I came to the Keys.  Of course I had been coming to the Keys as a kid for most of my life until I got out of college.  I tried to get a job down in the Keys, which was very difficult back then, so I ended up back in Miami working for Bob Hewes, who at the time was really about the only skiff builder out there with a production boat.

I got hired by Bob to be a sales manager at his store on the Miami River.  I worked there for a couple years and got to know a lot of the fisherman down there, a lot of the guys who were coming back and forth with their Hewes boats to have their boats worked on and change the motors out there.  That’s how I really got interested in the skiffs to start with.  I already was interested in fishing for a long time.  Meeting all those guides that I heard about my whole life was kind of a fun thing, and that really got me started into the skiffs.

SR:   I didn’t realize that you had known Bob and were involved at that stage of the design.  He was actually going through a lot of different concepts and moving away from wood into glass-only skiffs and that sort of thing.  Was that what got you interested at that point or was guiding the thing that actually made you interested in boat design.

Chittum:  I wanted to become a guide but that was not as easy as it is these days.  The Keys guides did not want new people coming down there by any means.  That was a bit of a difficult thing to get into.  It was a help to get to know some of the guides when I worked for Bob Hewes.  That helped a little bit as far as making my way down in guiding in the early ‘70s.  I’d always been interested in flats fishing because I’d been coming to the Keys since I was a pretty young kid, with my family.  I loved everything about it and was fascinated by the skiff guiding.  Bob Hewes and meeting all these guides was a big help to me in getting started, but I always had been interested in the skiffs.

SR:   When you first started thinking about skiff designs–and we’re always talking about skiff designs as an “evolution”–you were conceptualizing those skiffs for Hell’s Bay and then for your own company.  You were doing a lot of testing, right, or were the first skiffs at Hell’s Bay, “we think we can improve a few things here and there so let’s get started”?

Chittum:  I guided for a little over 15 years.  I think I had 16 different skiffs during that time period.  My Hewes was my first boat and I had that for my first year or two for guiding but I was never satisfied.  You know from all your many years of experience, back then those boats were not really ideally set up for what we were trying to do: trying to fish shallow water, bonefish and chase tarpon in the wind. The boats were heavy and had a lot of other problems that were a little hard to overcome.  They were noisy and heavy and just not exactly what we needed.

I kept changing boats when I was guiding.  I’d get a boat and launch the thing.  I’d go, “Wow.  This is not what I want after all.”  I’d be back on to the next one.  I went through a lot of different boats when I was guiding.  Then after I stopped guiding and I opened up my retail stores in the Keys in South Florida, the whole time I was thinking about, “at some point I would love to start from scratch and build a boat that was purpose-built.”

All the boats we’d had before that, as you well know, were not designed as a flats boat.  Bob Hewes took a boat called a “Wildcat,” which was a 16-foot ski boat, and he put the bait wells in the back.  That became the Hewes Bonefisher, but it never started out to be a flats boat.  It was a ski boat and it had inherent problems that we all lived with all this time.  It was noisy, wet and heavy.

I was always fascinated by trying to improve these boats.  A lot of guys like Steve Huff made a lot of inroads to try to do things like that.  He would find a hull, build it himself and try to improve what we’re all looking for, but none of them really worked.  When I was thinking about Hell’s Bay, I said, “Let’s design the hull to start with to solve some of the issues we’ve had.”  Some of the big issues of course were the noise, the slapping of the hull that would really scare fish badly.  Turn around and sometimes 100 yards away, on a calm day, where there is a little slap and tarpon are laid up and are sleeping–you know how they’re bothered by the noise.


Hal Chittum and Lee Baker

Hal Chittum (right) and Captain Lee Baker riding in an early prototype. John Kipp photo

SR:    Back then you could actually get away with some of the noise.

Chittum:   Yes, you could.  They’re not nearly as sophisticated as they are now.  They still knew there was a problem.  The weights of the boats were so bad and the draft of the boats as well.  We were always constantly dragging, trying to get in on tailing bonefish or red fish.  There were issues I was trying to solve with existing hull design.

When I thought about Hell’s Bay and that company and what we wanted to try to do with that company, I said, “Let’s design a boat from scratch.  Let’s shape a hull from scratch that can be quiet.”  That was our most important thing.  We wanted the boat to be quiet.

I called an old friend of mine named Chris Morejohn who lived in and out of the Keys for many years.  He was a sailor and lived in the Bahamas a lot of the time.  He would come back to the Keys and build boats for people for a year or two and make enough money to go back to the Bahamas for a while.  I tracked Chris down and he agreed to do the prototyping on the boat.  We spent a lot of time working on the first Whipray.

Eventually, after about a year, we built the mold, built a prototype boat.  It did solve a lot of problems.  Plus we were going to take it up a big step in technology by using vacuum-bagging and coring, which is a technique to make the boat lighter and stronger.  Lightness is so important for a lot of reasons.  The fact that you can put a smaller engine on and carry a lot less weight with the engine and fuel is a huge advance, plus it makes the thing so much easier to pole.  It reduces your draft and a lot of very good things.

The Whipray was the first in a start of the really high-tech skiffs.  It was the first vacuum-bag cored boat commercially built as a flats boat.  It was a big advance.  We did the Whipray first and then we came out with another boat that was a wider, bigger boat that guides wanted to support more weight with bigger motors and would go a little faster.  We ended up with nine different designs at Hell’s Bay that covered the spectrum.

We really did go a long way towards solving a lot of the issues we’d had.  We made the boats quiet.  They weren’t the driest thing in the world but we were willing to sacrifice that to make the boats quiet.  Of course they were light.  The light weight made the draft so much better.  You were down there at the time so you saw it happen—the boats took off and dominated.  We built a lot of boats.  The last year I was there we built over 200 boats.

A lot of guides are using them.  It allows you to get back into the shallow waters much, much easier and access places that were hard to reach before with the heavier boats.  We put smaller engines on and burned less fuel.  We carried less fuel.  There were a whole lot of pluses.  Hell’s Bay was really a huge success that grew very quickly.

Chittum Skiffs Islamorada 18

The latest Islamorada 18 model at the 2012 Miami Boat Show. John Kipp photo

By the time I’d had Hell’s Bay in the early 2000s, I actually wanted to build larger sportfishing boats because I realized the same thing applied there.  The thinking there is still somewhat archaic with large sport fishing boats because they’re very, very heavy.  They require big, big, giant engines.  The same thing with the skiff: they’re not very maneuverable.  They don’t back up as well.  They don’t spin as well on the fish.  They’re just not maneuverable fishing machines.

I decided to sell Hell’s Bay because in addition to flats boats, I wanted to build larger sportfishing boats.  I realized fuel is getting more and more expensive. If I could cut the weight of a sportfishing boat in half, or more than in half like we did with skiffs, that could be a big improvement.  That’s actually what we’re working on right now.  We’re getting ready to start a fairly large boat in a mid-60[-foot] range.

SR:  When you say “sportfishing boats,” you’re referring to light tackle open boats?

Chittum:    Actually, I’m going to do a large center console, one large center console, but I’m going to do sportfishing boats between say 43 [feet] and the high 80s.

SR:   Wow.

Chittum:  I don’t want to mention any names but if you take some of the big production boats—we’ve had three designs already done, completely ready to go to tooling and we’ve done weight studies on all these boats—they are 61-footer and will weigh maybe 53,000 or 54,000 pounds, completely equipped, minus fluids.  A competing boat might weigh more than twice that.  You can imagine what that does as far as performance and fuel burn.

There are so many good things that I think the time is right for that kind of boat to hit the market right now.  We’re getting ready to do that right now.  It worked with Hell’s Bay.  The advantages are so many that we decided to do it with large sportfishing boats.

SR:  Obviously when you left Hell’s Bay, you thought you could actually continue to make improvements in hull design, right, when you began thinking about what became the Islamorada 18?

Chittum:    That’s correct.  At Hell’s Bay you learn so many things.  Every time you do a boat you go, “I wish I’d done this.  I wish I could have done that.  I wish I could solve this problem.”  Over all those years I had the boat we’re building now in mind.  I wasn’t sure we could pull it off, but I was trying to solve all those little issues and the bugs and thing that were wrong with the Hell’s Bay boats.  Even though they were a big advance, we still had a lot of issues that I wanted to cure problems–for instance, the slapping we could hear with the round entry in the front, the way it was shaped.  It didn’t slap anymore, but we couldn’t figure out how to get rid of the pressure waves, which I’m sure you had horror stories with like everybody else.  We just didn’t know enough about design and what was causing it to let us attack that problem.  That was one of the things we wanted to solve in this new company.

We found out exactly what we were up against and we found out some ways to really deal with the problem, which was essentially shaping the entry of the whole front of the boat and doing some trick things that allow the pressure waves to not go away but be diverted towards the back.  It doesn’t press out to the sides or the front of the boat.  It goes out there a long way.

Hal Chittum and Vaughn Cochran

Hal Chittum talks skiffs with Vaughn Cochran. John Kipp photo

We did some tank testing with some pretty sophisticated people who do a lot of military work.  They could measure exactly what a hull is putting off as far as a pressure wave.  It’s a scientific, mathematic measurement.  The first prototype we built and sent them a four-and-a-half foot model, they said, “This is very bad, getting pressure waves all over, completely in all directions, and it’s going way, way out there.”  Luckily one of the guys was a fly fisherman for salmon so he understood what we were trying to do, and understood lateral lines and things like that.

We did a lot of testing of this thing and finally came up with a shape, with their input, that radically reduced how much pressure is coming off, especially in the directions you’re poling.  I told the guy, “It’s not just the bow that’s the problem; it’s out to the sides.  You have to move around fish so you’re putting out pressure waves not just in one direction that you’re worried about.  You’re worried about all different directions.”

We reshaped this thing a bunch of times and they mathematically could tell us with their sensors that we radically reduced these pressure waves.  They described this basically as it being like a miniature tidal wave.  I’m sure many times you’ve been poling up at a beach or some place with a coral edge, like north Key Largo or someplace like that, and it’s glassy calm.  You’re poling along.  You’re not making any noise.  All of a sudden you look on the shore line and there’s this giant, rocking wave at you.

SR:   Sure.

Chittum:   You didn’t see it until it got to the edge.  It’s there but it’s like the pressure wave is being pushed through.  The fish can sense it just like a tidal and it doesn’t show up until it gets to the shallow edge.  Then all of a sudden you see there’s a huge amount of action being pushed here by this boat.  You can see it going up and down the shoreline.  You can’t see it until it gets there but those fish can feel the thing.

We had to reshape that thing and that was one of the biggest difficulties in this new boat, how to reshape and divert the pressure waves.  We managed to do it and it’s been kind of fun seeing the reaction to A, the fish, but to B, the fisherman.  They have fought this their whole lives, when they’d get on top of fish and could get away with things that they couldn’t get away with things before, sneaking up on sleeping tarp or catching a permit or a bonefish with the leader still on the rod slip.

The funniest one was Tim Hoover, who I’m sure you know well.  Tim called me up one day.  He had just gotten one of our boats.  It was just before tarpon season.  He was just fishing with one very good client for the month of May.  He was oceanside in the lower Keys and he called me up and said, “We just had the weirdest thing happen.”

His client had been fishing with him since he was a kid.  The guy was very, very experienced tarpon fisherman.  He said, “We were in about six feet of water.  We’d jumped four or five fish already in the morning.  It was crystal clear.  We were out there in that beautiful sea fan bottom.”  He said, “It’s a beautiful day.  It’s blowing about 15.  Perfect visibility.”  He said, “The fish are eating really well.”  He said his client threw the school of fish at about 10 o’clock and the fish were just a little out of range.  He made a good cast but he didn’t have quite enough fly line out.

He had another school coming at about two o’clock and Tim said it was going to be too late to strip back in and throw these fish coming in a two o’clock.  He said, “Just strip the fly back in.  Let me shove in the direction of these fish and see how far they get before they blow up in the front of the boat.”  He said they’d been having such good luck having these fish bite very closely for the last couple of days.

He pulled the fly line out and just stood there on the bow and watched.  Tim gave the boat a couple of shoves in the direction of the fish, then pulled the pole out of the water so they wouldn’t blow off the pole.  Tim said it was the craziest thing he had ever seen.  He said this school was about 15 fish, steaming right at the bow.  They were very close to the surface.  He said just before they got to the bow, the lead fish sunk down a little bit.  He kept waiting for the fish to explode and go off in both directions.  He said he looked behind the boat and this whole string of fish, in about six or seven feet of water, swam underneath his boat and came out from underneath his trim tab unbothered.

His client looked at him and he said, “I’ve been doing this for about 45 years and I’ve never seen anything that weird before in my life.”  That was a neat thing.  These fish of course knew the boat was there, but all we can suppose that the fish don’t perceive the boat as a threat the way a normal boat is giving off those pressure waves.  They probably look at this thing and think it’s a giant mass of grass floating, which they’re used to all the time, and are happy to swim underneath that.  They just don’t perceive the boat as a threat.

The same thing has happened a lot of times with guys who are fishing now, and catching fish very, very close.  The fish are eating much closer to the boat, whereas before, when you get up to that 50 or 40 feet range, they may not split, but they’re bothered.  They know you’re there and they don’t eat very well.

That’s been probably one of the most important things about this boat.  We really diverted that pressure wave.  In a sense you’re much, much happier, when you know these fish are getting spookied in the last few years.  They’re getting tougher and tougher all the time.  That was one of the big design things we implemented in this boat.

It was a tough one to get.  You do one thing and it causes a lot of other issues.  You solve one problem and you create two or three new ones.  That was what happened in the design of this boat.  That’s why it took so long.

SR:   It sounds like a monumental undertaking, not to mention a very expensive undertaking, to try to build a skiff that way.  I think a lot of other people would say, “We’re going to live with this compromise because we can’t afford to do anything else.”  Did you go into it thinking, “I’m going to build a line of skiffs that is going to do really well in the marketplace” or were you more interested in the scientific or the fishing strategy part of it?

Chittum:  I wanted a boat for myself and I had a lot of friends who wanted boats, and picky, picky people like John Kipp, who has had a lot of Hell’s Bays and has had every kind of boat in the world.  He’s very discriminating.  We talked about this for a long time.  We said, “If we could just fix this and fix that, and this causes a problem.”  We sat down and we said, “Here is the list of things that we’re fighting right now.  We solved some of the things at Hell’s Bay but there is a long list of things that still bother us and bother the fish.  Let’s see if we can’t solve all these things.

Islamorada 18 Console

Fit and finish on Hal Chittum skiffs are legendary. John Kipp photo

That was our mindset.  We said, “Let’s design something and see if we can’t solve all of the problems before we pull the trigger and start building these things.”  That’s why it took us about three years to do it.

It was kind of funny.  I hired a naval architect to do the hull.  This guy is a very good naval architect and he’s a good fisherman but he was still somewhat baffled at all the things we were asking him to try to solve.  We gave him basically the length of the boat we wanted and we said we were going to use the most technically advanced building techniques and materials to get this boat as light and strong as possible.  Going in, when we drew this boat up on paper, we knew exactly what the weight was going to be.  We had our laminate schedule determined by a naval engineer.  We knew what the draft was going to be.

These things are black and white.  Those are calculations you can do in advance when you know how you’re going to build a boat.  You know exactly how much it’s going to weigh, exactly what the draft is going to be, how fast it’s going to go.  We knew all these things going in, but the one thing we couldn’t figure out was how to solve all the issues.  How do we make the frame very quiet, get rid of the pressure wave, and at the same time be dry?

Every one of those things fights the other thing.  Trying to make a boat quiet stops you from having that hard chine going forward, which ships the water out the side, instead of letting it come up the side and blow back in your face.  Those two things fight each other.

Trying to get rid of this pressure wave was a really huge issue.  We had to reshape the entire bow.  What we did was we designed the boat shape-wise as closely as we could get with the correct bottom, but we knew it was just a starting place.  We built an entire mold, the whole mold.  We built an epoxy hull out of the mold and just put plywood decks on the thing to get the weight exactly where we knew a finished boat would be and start running this thing and testing.

It was funny.  We launched the boat the first time at the launch ramp.  The naval architect was with us.  The boat looked good in the water.  We launched the thing, tied it up for a second and looked at it floating.  The architect said, “You know what?  I think we got this thing maybe the first time, right out of the box.”  My partner George and I looked at each other.  I said, “You know what, Johnny?  When we’re through with this thing, you won’t even recognize what we’re looking at now.”

SR:  (Laughs)

Chittum:   He didn’t believe it but he believed it about six months later.  It was funny.  We spent several years running the boat and bringing it back, saying, “Here are the problems.  Let’s go back in.”  We would think about what we could do to solve the problem design-wise, de-rig it and flip the boat over upside down, make the changes, re-rig it, go back and run it again and see where we stood.  We did this over and over and over.  It was very aggravating and very frustrating.  It was kind of fun but after about six or seven months….

I remember one day we came back in.  We’d just gotten through running the boat.  The architect was with us.  He was sitting at his computer.  My partner, George Sawley, and I were sitting in his office.  He goes, “You know what?  I have no more ideas.”  George and I looked at each other and we said, “You know what?  We have a lot of crazy ideas but they’re not going to be anything they taught you in naval architect school.”

We started doing some fairly radical things.  When you see this boat, you can see there are some pretty crazy things going on.  That lower chine in the front that’s about three feet long, that’s a first.  What we found out is there are a whole lot of things we are trying to accomplish that most people in the world of boat design don’t care about, but they’re sure important to the people doing the type of fishing we’re doing.

We ended up with a combination of things that finally came together after a couple of years, where it really worked extremely well.  It was very quiet.  The pressure wave was not eliminated but it was diverted so it wasn’t a problem anymore.  We have some incredibly radical spray rails that stop the water from coming back in your face.  It was a trick but it all came together in the end.

SR:   What role did your material choices play in the skiff design?  You guys are using carbon fiber.  You’re using just about top-end materials, the highest tech materials that are available.  Was it “design first, materials second,” or were you committing from day one to say, “We have to be using these ultra-light, ultra-strong materials, and then designing around the advantages of those materials”?

Chittum:  You’re so right on that.  It had to be decided upfront before we did anything.  We had to say, “We want the lightest possible boat we can build.  We said, “We want an 18-feet boat because it’s going to span the waves better.”  A 16-feet boat will not run nearly as well as an 18-feet boat.

We said we were going to start with an 18-feet boat.  This is a little simplified but essentially if you say, “I’m going to build an 18-feet boat,” the width of that boat is going to be determined by what that boat weighs, if that makes any sense.  A heavier boat must be wider to support the weight of that boat.  A heavier boat has to be wider.  A bigger engine on a heavy boat makes it wider yet.  More fuel to support that wide, heavy boat with a bigger engine is more width yet.

If it’s done properly, the width is determined by how much that boat is going to weigh.  We knew we needed to make the most sophisticated materials, which are basically borrowed from aerospace from the most part, and some very high-end boat building, like America’s Cup and Volvo Cup racing boats.  Those things are really on the cutting edge.  Our naval engineer has done many, many America’s Cup boats and Volvo Cup A-boats.  He’s done the largest composite boat ever built in the world, a little over 500 feet long.

We went to the best people in the world and we said, “Here’s what we’re trying to accomplish.  Tell us how far we need to go with technology to accomplish what we’re going to do.”  We went pretty far, about as far as you can go.  There’s not much else we can do to make these boats any wider and stronger.  We’re pretty much at the bitter end there.

The cool thing is we had to use not just carbon fiber, which is a wonderful material in the right place, and of course Kevlar, which has actually been around a very long time.  It’s a great material but Kevlar, strangely enough, doesn’t save any weight.  Technically Kevlar adds a fraction of weight because Kevlar, under compression, when you vacuum bag, does not crush down as much and it holds more resin than other materials do.

Kevlar is a great material in the very bottom of a boat but has a limited application.  We used Kevlar in the right places, a lot of carbon in selected places.  The biggest advance is we’re using an aerospace-type of epoxy.  No other skiffs have ever been built with epoxy because it’s more difficult to use, it’s much more expensive, and it’s an entirely different procedure than using the other two resins, polyester and vinyl ester resins.  At Hell’s Bay we used vinylester resins.

The thing about epoxy is it’s the toughest material you can find as a binder in composite design.  I’m sure you’ve been around boats all your life and you’ve seen boats and they’re typically all built the same way: a layer of some kind of structural material, whether it’s carbon fiber, Kevlar, or woven e-glass.  Between each of those layers, when you put the material in the boat, you have a layer of chopped-strand mat.  That chopped-strand mat is what binds those two materials together when you’re laying up your hull, your deck, or any part of your boat.

Between every layer of structural woven or stitched materials you have a layer of chopped-strand mat.  Chopped-strand mat is not there for strength; it’s there to glue the entire thing together.  Unfortunately, chopped-strand mat is very heavy.  It absorbs a huge amount of whatever type or resin you’re using.  That adds a huge amount of weight to the boat.  About 35% of the boat weight is going to be chopped-strand mat with resin.

SR:   No kidding?

Chittum:  Yes.  It’s a huge weight gain with no real benefit except when you use vinylester and polyester resin, you have to use it to bond all the materials together.  Typically in your normal boat building at Hell’s Bay we did the same thing.  You come back in with your first layer of chopped-strand mat after the gelcoat spray.

You put a layer of chopped-strand mat and roll it out by hand, then come in with your structural woven material, then another layer of chopped-strand mat, another woven material, then another layer of chopped-strand mat.  That’s bonded to the core.  You have two layers of Kevlar on the bottom of the boat and three layers of mat because the mat glues to the outside of the gelcoat and it glues the inside of your core when you bottom the core down.

All these boats everywhere have huge amounts of weight just because of needing that chopped-strand mat to glue all the layers together.  The wonderful thing about epoxy is you eliminate the mat completely.  There is no mat in our boat whatsoever so we’ve already taken out a massive amount of weight to start with.  The strengths are much, much better because the epoxy bonds so well.  It’s all around a much more superior product, which is why if you look at all the America’s Cup boats they’re made exactly the same way as we’re doing this.  It’s the same exact materials, same epoxies.  Airplanes use the same thing. High-speed race boats are all done exactly the same way.

By eliminating all the chopped-strand mat and using epoxy we have a gigantic savings already.  The benefits are not just because it’s lighter and stronger, but because it’s lighter and stronger.  For instance on our 18-feet boat we typically will put a 70-horsepower 4-stroke on it, which weighs just over 250 pounds.  With two people in the boat and fuel and you’re ready to fishing, we’re 33 to 34 miles per hour with a 70.

With typical boat construction you’d probably put a 90 on them and not even go nearly that fast.  These engines get between seven-and-a-half and 10 miles per gallon.  Now you carry way less fuel even though we have a 31-gallon tank.  Most people never put more than 15 or 16 gallons in, because you’re still probably at a 120 mile range at the worst with a 4-stroke on there.

You carry a lot less fuel weight but you’re pushing around, and pushing around your engine, not just your push pole.  The benefits are so tremendous that we had to go about as far as we could go technology-wise to get the boats light enough to still be driven at a speed we could live with and be happy with, with one or two anglers and a 70-horsepower motor.

It was a huge jump in technology and expense but the end benefits have sure been worth it.  Now you reduce the draft greatly.  Now you can go out there and pole oceanside in the Keys in six or seven feet of water and pole one school of fish.  It actually intercepts schools of fish on a push pole.  You couldn’t have done that before with most boats.  The weight was just too much to make it perform ably enough to chase the school of fish out there in six, seven, or eight feet of water.  The benefits just go on and on and on.

SR:  You’ve got the light boat.  You’ve got the length which adds to the ride.  You’ve reduced the beam because you’ve got a lighter boat.  What about polability?  One of the curious things I’ve experienced in riding a lot of skiffs is lightness doesn’t always equal good poling, and you would think that it would.  You would think that if a boat displaces less water that it would pole better, but that’s not always true, is it?

Chittum:   It really isn’t.  There really is a formula that you have to use and live by.  You’ve probably seen some boats people built years ago, trying to reduce the draft.  They made the boats super wide and the things pole terribly.  A boat needs to be built exactly to its weight, as far as the width goes.  There are a whole lot of things that enter into that.

SR:   There’s tracking, too.  You have to consider the trackability of the boat and the spin, if you can do that and not sacrifice the tracking.

Chittum:  Absolutely.  That was one of the things I learned at Hell’s Bay.  The wells we put on the back–like Bob Hewes had on the back of his first Bonefisher–the wells we put on the back were a big mistake.  I’m sure you fought it plenty of times but the wells act like a couple of heels back there.  You try to spin on a fish at the last second and the boat doesn’t do it.  You can’t spin the boat with the wells in the back.  You can shove them but maybe it takes you 75 feet and two or three shoves to actually make that boat completely spin around.  The boat is being controlled by the two sponsons on the back.  It doesn’t let you spin the boat.

The new boat we have now, it spins like a top.  The center of gravity is right through the center of the console.  When you put the push pole off in a corner and give it a brief shove, it’s going to pinwheel.  It will actually do a 360 with one nice, little shove, right in the same space.  It just pinwheels right from the center of that console and spins.

The other thing we found out which is pretty critical, which we knew at Hell’s Bay, was the sponsons on the back make an awful lot of noise when you’re staked up, anchored or held up.  You can just poke the pole in for a second.  If you have a chop behind you, there’s a lot of noise being made when it hits the back of that transom and those two wells.

It acts like a drum almost, so we made the back of this boat very round.  The only flat spot on our transom is where the engine sits.  It’s exactly big enough for the engine.  From there they bend forward with a pretty good amount of radius.  When the water hits them, it tends to go around and not slap and make a lot of noise.  It’s also used in spinning.  The thing turns like a top.

SR:    You’re doing a lot of things that other skiff builders aren’t because you are building a high-end product in part.  You’re using polyethylene fuel tanks.

Chittum:   Yes.

SR:   You’re using LCD lighting.  You’re using high-end electronics, waterproof switches.  You’re doing things like cambering the deck for water runoff.  How do you decide what’s necessary and what’s just a luxury, “I’d like to have that”?  Do you come up with these ideas and say, “I’ll just stick it on the boat and if it makes it better than we’re going to use it”?

Chittum:  We’re almost at that stage where we did do that.  I said, “If it makes it better, let’s use it.”  The truth is it’s more expensive but it’s not that much more expensive.  We thought the tradeoffs are worth it.  In other words, it’s expensive to get the weight down on the boat.  The lighter you make the boat, the more expensive materials and the time of construction.  Our time of construction more than doubled for Hell’s Bay, and that was very sophisticated back in its day.

It’s worth it because if you can eliminate the weight, then you can drop down one or two sizes in motors.  In the end it all made a lot of sense.  I have a lot of guides using the boats right now.  In the long run, for a guide, the boat will someday actually pay for itself just in fuel savings.  Most of these guides who are using these boats don’t average four gallons a day in fuel.  That’s a big difference over the big 115 we used to burn.

SR:   Yes.  No kidding.

A term that often confuses people I think when they’re talking about hull design and that sort of thing, in addition to terms like “rocker” and other technical terms, is the term “deadrise.”  Can you explain what “deadrise” means?  It’s used a lot in boat manufacturers’ advertisements but I’m sure most people don’t understand what it is or how it affects performance.

Chittum:   Sure.  The deadrise, or sometimes they’ll call it the V in a boat: if you pictured a 4×8 sheet of flat plywood, that is zero deadrise.  It’s completely flat.  If you cut that plywood down the middle, broke it in the middle and started tilting the two sides up, the more you come away and have a V in the bottom of that section there, that’s the more deadrise you have.  The more deadrise you have, the better the ride is.  It slices through a wave much better.  A flat pancake does not go across the wave nearly well as having the V that slices through it and pushes the water away.

The downside is that the more V or deadrise you have in a boat, the more you’re going to draft, so it’s a compromise.  We ended up with 12 degrees of deadrise, which gives us a very, very good ride, but luckily the boats still draft very, very little because it’s 18 feet long.  It has enough displacement to carry the weight of the people, the equipment, and the boat weight itself.  It’s light enough with construction that it still floats shallow enough pretty much to reach any fish you want to reach in the Keys, whether you’re in Flamingo or Key West on a Bonefish or Redfish or Snook.  You’re going to be shallow enough to get to those fish almost all the time and still pole very well.

Hal Chittum and George Sawley

Hal Chittum (right) and Chittum Skiffs partner George Sawley talk over the hull design of an early Islamorada 18. John Kipp photo

One other thing I should mention is one of the most critical things about having a boat pole well–and you know this better than anybody–is if the bottom of the boat is not level, it’s not going to pole well.  If the boat is squatting on the back, it’s essentially putting the brakes on.  Every time you shove the boat there is no glide.  If the stern is down and the bow is up, you’re shoving that thing through a water column, your pushing into a whole column.  If the bottom of the boat is level, then you’re shoving through it and gliding.

If the boat can’t be balanced so the boat is fairly level or almost dead water in the water, it’s never going to pole well.  That’s the problem with a heavy boat.  If you have a heavy boat with a big engine, you’re always going to have that stern be very, very low.  A: it makes a harder pole; B: it affects your draft.  The shallowest draft is going to be when that boat is perfectly level.

SR:   Yes.  I think we all evolve through that stage where we learn that lesson about heavy engines and what they do to what I always call it, the boat’s attitude, the front and back level of the boat.

Chittum:   Exactly.  Typically it makes them noisier too.  When you have that bow up in the air, you’re going to probably have more slap going on.

SR:    What skiff features do you think that most people who are out there are looking to buy a skiff don’t pay enough attention to, or what do you think they should be thinking about more when they’re thinking about buying a skiff?

Chittum:  The way we look at is building a skiff, buying a skiff, and using a skiff is like baking a pie.  If there are 12 ingredients that go in that pie, if you leave one of them out, it’s probably not going to be a very good pie.  If you leave two or three of them out it’s probably going to be a horrible pie.  You can’t compromise anywhere.

That’s what we did on this boat.  We didn’t compromise anywhere.  We had to have it light weight.  We had to have the whole design so it was very quiet.  Get rid of the pressure wave, and then our spray rails, which are part of the patent on this boat.  It’s nice if you can have all those things and still stay dry and comfortable when you have to go through some pretty nasty stuff, or go home when it kicks up in the afternoon.

I hate to compromise on anything.  I want to have the best I can possibly have, which is why it took so long to get this boat to the stage where is right now.  If I had to pick a number of things, I’d say you have to have a quiet boat.  You have to have a boat that floats level in the water.  One way or another you have to figure out how to balance that boat so it sits level in the water to reduce your draft to make it easier to pole.  I hate to give up any one of the qualities we’re looking for but those are the biggies for me.

SR:   What is the future of Chittum boats?  I think you mentioned you’re moving into the sportfishing market.  Do you think that’s where you’re going to be spending most of your time, or are you going to be perfecting the Islamorada, coming out with new skiff designs?  Anything else that we don’t know about yet?

Chittum:  Actually we have a whole book that we want to build down the road and there are a whole lot of things in it.  Half the fun in being in this business is coming up with new designs and improving on something.  When we started Hell’s Bay we said we don’t want to build something that’s as good as what’s out there; that makes no sense.

We did the same thing with this company.  We said we don’t want to build something as good as Hell’s Bay.  We want to build something way better than anything that’s out there, or why bother to do it?  It makes no sense at all to duplicate something.

We wanted to come up with a much better product, and that’s what we’re going to do with future design.  In fact, we just came out with the first one in production right now.   The first one will be out in about three weeks.  We have a two-degree deadrise version of the Islamorada 18.  Instead of 12 degrees we reduced it down to two degrees.  Basically what that does is it knocks off two and three quarter inches of draft, which doesn’t sound like a lot.

The Islamorada 18, when it is balanced correctly, with a guy on the bow and the guy in the stern poling, will draw between seven-and-a-quarter and seven-and-a-half inches.  That’s just where it touches.  That doesn’t mean you can’t pole through less water if the bottom is somewhat soft, but seven-and-a-half inches is incredibly shallow for a boat to not touch, as long as it is.  That’s really shallow.  This new boat is two degrees.  We’ve knocked off two-and-three-quarters inches of draft.

I think that’s going to be a very valuable boat for the guys in Texas.  I built quite a few boats for the guys in Texas when I had Hell’s Bay.  They’re looking for shallow draft like everyone else, but they’re fishing red fish.  You probably fished out there.  They sometimes have a four, five, or six-model run through some pretty shallow stuff and have to shut down where they’re going to fish to be able to fish in very shallow water, and then be able to get back on plane.  You don’t have the luxury of most places in Florida where you can pole a few minutes and get to deep enough water to jump out.  They may have miles before they have water that’s more than seven or eight inches deep.

We have to build them a boat that’s going to run extremely shallow, pole extremely shallow, and get back on plane in very shallow water.  What we’ve done with this boat, because it is 18 feet long and because it only has two degrees of deadrise and is very, very light in weight, we can put a jack plate on it and not have to put a tunnel.

Tunnels are not a big plus.  The tunnel actually takes away displacement, which means you have more draft, and you remove all that for the tunnel.  That makes the boat float a little bit lower in the water and typically slow the boat.  It’s not the most efficient design.  It will let boats jump up in very shallow water.  This boat is so light, in the prototype testing we found we didn’t need a tunnel.  We can probably jump up on a hard sand bottom in about six-and-a-half inches of water without a tunnel and run in very, very shallow water.

We have the best of both worlds out there.  We’ll be able to get away without a tunnel, still jump up very, very shallow with a jack plate, and run extremely shallow.  This will probably be the shallowest boat that I’ve ever been on.  I’ve never built anything that’s this shallow when you’re poling.  It will really go where a fish you care about catching cannot swim.

It’s neat.  You can see a lot of application for the Bahamas, where sometimes you’re fishing a lot of smaller fish.  Maybe they claim they’re six-pounders but really they’re three- and four-pounders in most cases.  Those things, on those hard sand flats can sneak their way back through the tunnels and get back to places where you can’t follow with most boats.  This boat will let you go across the flats and get back into some fish and areas where there are fish that aren’t accessible to any kind of boat.  The draft is about three- and four-quarter inches with two people on the boat.   That’s scary shallow.  That would be fun though.

We have a number of boats that we’re working on.  Do you remember a boat we built at Hell’s Bay called the Glades Skiff?

SR:   Sure.

Chittum:   18-feet long, very narrow.  We built it really for a lot of the no-motor zones.  That’s going to be very strong in the future.  We’re pretty close to building this boat right now.  It will be really, really shallow.  It will be great to turn with a small motor on, 25- to 30-horse, or 40 if they want to.  It will be 17.5 feet long.  It will draw about two-and-a-half inches of water with two people on it.  It will let you access a lot of these no-motor zones or places in Flamingo where there will be more and more places where you’re not going to be allowed to run a motor.

You’ll be able to pull back in there and get to some of the places where you’re not allowed to have a motor on the boat, take the motor off completely, and access the places that don’t get pounded and beat heavily.  It’s going to be much more important in the future to get way back in the places that are hard to reach.  Some places you may have to pole for one or two miles to get where you want to fish.  This boat is going to let you do that.

It’s going to be polable and it’s also going to be rowed.  When you think about it, rowing is incredibly more efficient.  If you’re trying to pole through some really soft, gnarly bottom where your pole is sinking in two or three feet every time you shove, into a wind, it’s not the most efficient thing in the world.  We can row this boat and probably have about a three-and-a-half to one advantage over poling, speed-wise, and as far as making it easy to go.

SR:   So we’re talking oar locks and carbon oars?

Chittum:  Yes.  Say we want to go to the back end of Snake Bite and it is two miles back in there.  We can put the oars on there.   A guy can stand on the bow with a spinning rod, a plug rod, or a fly rod, while somebody rows the thing back in there at a probably three-and-a-half to one advantage over poling.  All of a sudden the guy says, “We’re into fish.  I see fish.”  You put the oars away, grab the push pole, jump up and start fishing.

It will allow you to access places that you really can’t do otherwise.  It is so much faster and easier to row, to get there and get out.  Maybe you get back there and fish for a couple hours and all of a sudden the wind turns the wrong direction.  You have to pole two miles on a soft bottom to get back to the place where you can start your engine.  A set of oars is going to do that for you a lot easier and faster than a push pole will.  It’s the best of both worlds.

It’s going to be one of the waves of the future.  There are going to be more and more places where you aren’t allowed to run your motor in shallow water, which is the way it should be.

SR:  Absolutely.

Hal, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today.  Every time I talk to you I learn something.  You have an incredible amount of knowledge and are producing a great product.  Congratulations on that.  I hope we have a chance to talk more in the future. 

Chittum:   Let’s go do it on a boat with some rods in our hands.

SR:   That’s the best of all worlds, isn’t it?

Chittum:  It is.  We’ll do that.

SR:   All right.  Thanks again, Hal.

Chittum:  Thanks, Marshall.


  1. http://Jay%20Townsend says

    Wow, great interview, fantastic info as well

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