Skiff Republic: We’re talking today with East Cape Skiffs co-owner Kevin Fenn, who is going to talk to us about all aspects of skiffs and their company which was started in 2004– even though Kevin and his partner, Marc Page, who went to high school together, had been thinking about it since 1998. Today they’re producing really interesting cutting-edge skiffs. Welcome, Kevin.
Kevin Fenn: Thank you, Marshall. First and foremost, I’ve got to give you props. I like what you’re doing with Skiff Republic. We’ve been a big fan of it ever since you launched it. We’ve been following it and just excited to be a part of it. Again, thank you.
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SR: Tell us about how East Cape got started. You and Marc [Page, co-owner], as you mentioned to me before, went to high school together?
Fenn: Yeah, Marc and I went to high school together. Prior to us starting East Cape, Marc was running his family business and I was an independent contract rep in the fly-fishing and marine industry and also a guide over in Tampa and started designing boats. Marc and I teamed up and tried to come up with a little hybrid boat that mimicked a canoe/skiff. That was the starting point for the Gladesmen as well as Everglades Canoe Company–we later changed the name to East Cape. Anyways, that’s pretty much how we started it up.
SR: You didn’t really intend to get into the skiff business back when you first started thinking about it?
Fenn: No. Actually, it’s pretty funny. The Gladesmen was going to be the biggest boat we were going to build at the time and we wanted to build canoes and kayaks. I’ve always been fascinated with paddlecraft. Those who’ve known me for a long time or followed us know that I still, today, have a deep passion for the smaller vessels. It was either doing that or starting off with a huge project, which was wanting to build a bay boat.
I’ve always been fascinated with some of the West Coast-style bay boats that are out there, such as the Gause, the Scheaffer, the Dorado, but going right into a boat-building phase from being a rep and a guide phase wasn’t something I was ready to do. Marc and I decided, “Let’s start off small.” But after we built the Gladesmen–my partner Marc is a big boy, he’s 6”3” or something–he’s, “Man, we’ve got to get something bigger than this.” We decided to go bigger instead of go smaller.
SR: Before we get off the subject of canoes, I believe you first called yourselves the East Cape Canoe Company, is that right?
Fenn: Yeah. To this day, we are still Everglades Canoe Company. We’re actually DBA East Cape. Years ago when we came out with our first ad, it was Everglades Canoe Company, which showed this profile of the Gladesmen. We ended up getting a cease-and-desist letter from another boat company that was called Everglades out in Edgewater. They said that it was market confusion. We worked out a deal with their attorneys and our attorneys, and basically, we can bank under the name Everglades but we had to promote and change the name.
We physically turned around, looked at a map of South Florida and the Everglades. At the time, everybody was starting to call us ECC for Everglades Canoe Company. We looked and we found East Cape there at the glades. Then we said, “Okay. ECC, East Cape Canoes. So East Cape Canoes.” The new ad said “same company, same owners, new name.” Even today I still see us mentioned in forums and some of our early customers use ECC but we are true and true Everglades Canoe Company.
SR: What was it about the canoe that inspired you and wanted to build boats? Was there some history there? Were you a student of canoe building in South Florida?
Fenn: When I was a sales rep covering the Southeast US, I worked for companies that are still around today that I think very highly of, like Kevin Shaw, the owner of Stiffy Push Poles. As a contract rep, he was always the guy who would take care of me, and I give him credit where credit’s due. He was a great guy to work with. I worked with a company that I helped start up as well as Stiffy. That’s actually where I got my start, with Alu-Marine and the Flyline Tamer.
I remember as a kid going all around to the fly shops and stuff talking about the Clear Bucket, the Beachcomber and the vinyl that replaced it. I did all the trade shows and stuff. And then there was Monic fly lines, Kelps fly rods, BT reels, and I worked with Tribalance Kayak. It was a kayak that was short-lived but had outriggers. It was one of the first kayaks that started to gear towards fishing. Then I later jumped ship and went to Ocean Kayak, helped them to design a boat and a model called the Prowler, and the Caper.
I had that love affair with the whole paddlecraft side of it and read a book that inspired me. It was called Gladesmen. It was written by Laura Ogden [ed.: and Glen Simmons] and it’s published by the Pineapple Press and the University of Florida, which does a lot of book publishing about old Florida. In the book, it talks about a gentleman that mapped out the Everglades. He grew up in the twenties and forties before there were airboats, before the Everglades was a national park. And so I got inspired, did a lot of research, and drove down and met the gentleman before his passing in the early nineties.
I asked him if I could take his plans that he had mentioned in his book and asked him if I could “stretch it here, make it longer or higher there.” He was honored that I’d sought him out and wanted to meet with him and ask for permission.
I’ll never forget it: he met me with a crocodile hat on that he made. His house was two doors down past Roberts when you’re headed to Flamingo and he met me at the fence. He said, “Come on in, Kevin. I’ve got the artificial air on.” I just thought that was cool because he lived in a different era than us and did a lot of trapping and stuff.
In my mind, he was one of the pioneers of the Everglades and the skiff industry because he was building wooden skiffs and they were called Glade skiffs. Ultimately, Marc and I had a couple of names picked out for this model that we built, which is now called the Gladesmen. The name ‘Gladesmen’ was a tribute to him. I also wanted to call it Cracker Canoe, but we thought that was racist so we scratched that. We were going to call it Glades Skiff, but we didn’t think that name was generalized enough. Then later, obviously, another company coined that name
But that’s kind of the start of it: Glen Simmons and my love affair with the paddlecraft and going up into Fox Lake and West Lake and Mud Lake and Bear Lake, all the little no-motor zones and stuff in the Everglades is what started it for us. Which is why we came out with the Everglades Canoe Company, and the model the Gladesmen.
We did build a canoe model that we still have to this day called the Chickee, named after the camp spots in the Everglades, and it’s a poling canoe that has an entry like a sea kayak. To this day, nobody has done a canoe with a sharp entry like that. It sits in our warehouse and maybe one day we’ll build a couple, but the cost and time involved in the building it is just not beneficial. We actually do have canoes, in case anybody ever wanted to know.
SR: I want to read a little section of what Laura Ogden wrote about Glen Simmons in an online article. She said, “The bow is pointed, allowing the skilled poler to ease the boat through dense sawgrass thickets with relatively little effort. The stern is square and effects a slight uplift, which allows it to be pushed backward when the poler finds himself mired in a tight spot. The poler usually stands toward the middle of the boat or on a polling platform and pushes the boat through the glades while scanning the horizon for game and alligator holes.”
A lot of these skiffs really were part of, as you say, an earlier era when everything was handmade, and these guys were using it for hunting and really they were all-purpose, do-everything, get-around boats, right?
Fenn: Oh, yeah. That was the thing. Those boats in my mind were the starting point, because Glen talked about–he was going blind at the time when I sat with him–but you could still see that he felt like he was deep “in the groves” as you said. He would glide for miles and miles across the sawgrass and he would cross the Everglades. He would go from Caloosahatchee to Flamingo in two and a half days’ time and had camp spots along the way.
He would tell me about the design and why he gave it a low freeboard in the back, a high freeboard in the front. It was also tapered: it was wide in the front and I believe it was 26, 30 inches wide in the front, and then tapered down to like 17, 18 inches wide and 16 inches high on the front and the side, and 12 inches high in the side and the back. It worked for him. He put two or three alligators in it. The average depth, he told me, was about a foot of water but a lot of it was grass. Even though you can load the thing down, the grass would hold up the boat and you could still skim across.
He did that until he got hired to help these engineers map the Everglades. And then little did he know and that he was working for them but ultimately they would take it away from him and make it a national park. Then he couldn’t hunt alligators and stuff anymore. He also talks about fan motors–which obviously was the creation of airboats. He was obviously upset with the fan motor–to think they could go places that he couldn’t and get there a lot faster, and they were noisy and that’s not just something that, I guess, his generation was used to.
He was an original Florida Cracker and living out there at the swamp and starting to see civilization creeping its way through, then the man in the government coming in and saying “You can’t hunt here anymore.” He’s been doing it his whole life and his family. I don’t think that was fair for him, but in my mind, he was one of the few pioneers. I know that there’s a lot of pioneers involved in the Everglades in the fishing side of it, but when it comes down to actually mapping out the Everglades, living in the Everglades, and making it a lifestyle and a home, I don’t think anybody can top Glen Simmons. He was the man.
SR: Wonderful story. What is it about the canoe, the shape itself? Why do you think so many features of the canoe have been borrowed and put into flat skiffs? I know that many of the early flat skiffs were really just created off of ski boat molds and designed around sort of a multifunction role, but the canoe in some ways made a comeback in smaller boats and some of its characteristics have been used even in boats with wider beams.
Fenn: I think the canoe entry, the chine below the waterline, it separates the water quietly. A canoe allows effortless gliding, I would say. I’m a big fan of double-end canoes because it separates the water and then brings it back. You don’t have a lot of the drag. When you pole a boat, you look back behind you on the poling platform and see the little swirly marks coming off the corner. That’s drag. A double-ended canoe is always going to be more efficient cutting through the water, whether you’re poling it or paddling it. That entry is quiet. It’s easy to slice the water. I would imagine that’s why a lot of the builders went that route.
SR: How has your building and design philosophy changed from what you originally decided to do with canoes? I know you’re building what is it, five different models?
Fenn: Yeah, we have five. We have the Gladesmen, the Caimen, the Vantage, the Fury and the Lostmen. When we started out Marc and I wanted to be high-end. As a sales rep I’ve seen a lot of things. I know the difference between wholesale and retail and I dealt with the OEM side, the builder side, and I believe that there’s a thing called “perceived value.” What that means to me is there’s nothing wrong with making a profit. It’s not a dirty word. What I find funny is where you take a product and you mark it up so extraordinarily and you have that perceived value that it’s the best just because of the way it’s presented. That’s good marketing, but in my mind, it leaves room for other people to come in. And that’s where we came in.
I always wanted these higher-end skiffs when I was a rep, but I couldn’t afford one. When I started doodling, Marc and I, we talked about offering a high-end, cutting-edge design at a price that a guy could afford, a blue collar guy. We started off with resin infusion and the funny thing is we didn’t even know what we were talking about. I will tell you, we attended some composite shows and trade shows. One’s called IBEX, and at the time Marc and I were walking around and we didn’t know anything about vinylester resin. We didn’t know about polyester resin. We didn’t know about even infusion and vacuum bag versus hand-lay and stuff like that, but I did know that was the cutting edge at the time and it was just being mentioned in the marine side of it. It’s been in aerospace for a while.
We actually went to a distributor, told him what we were doing: we’re building a boat and we’re looking for some high-end construction. And we consulted with an individual that we later hired to work with us and show us how to do these things. Once we learned it, then we obviously had to open it up with new employees.
We’d rather hire obviously somebody with no experience that loves to fish and mold them into something than hire somebody that came from another boat company, because we had found out over time that it’s just hard to break their habits. And you don’t want to hear, “This is how we used to do it.” We want to do it the way East Cape does it. We feel like that’s a better way for us.
The construction with vacuum infusion was huge for us, and I do believe that there’s not many builders doing it. I think we are different that we’re the only builder that vacuum-infuses the whole boat including the stringer system. At the same time, you don’t have a secondary bond.
SR: Your cap is still built separately, right?
Fenn: Yeah, what we do is all of our parts have a flange, a big wide area around the molds. That allows us to use a couple of different methods if we wanted to, such as hand-lay, vacuum-bag or closed molding, which is the infusion process. We started doing the whole boat like that. The hard thing for us is we geared ourselves and set up our shop for infusion, which in our mind is a high-end, good quality control product, and we’re set up that way. We’re actually not set up to do lesser construction such as vacuum-bagging and hand-laying. We’re just not set up for that. All we know is vacuum infusion.
We leave the boat in the mold, and we actually put the liner in it, the bulkhead and everything. We build the entire boat in the mold. Then we pull the boat out of the mold and trim the flange, and then it goes on its way to assembly, which is where we gel coat the insides and gel coat it again or use Awlgrip, and then start rigging out the boat. The last thing is usually the deck. We rig probably 80% of the boat without the deck. Then the deck goes on, then the hatches, the poling platform, then lastly in goes the motor. We pick it up and then we put it on trailer and we usually take it to the lake two or three times before it goes to a customer.
Again, the way we’re modeled is we don’t build inventory and we don’t do a dealer network. We build to-order factory direct because it streamlines our margin and keeps the costs low. We don’t believe in sponsoring; we’ve never believed in that. Marc and I actually stopped doing business cards and brochures a couple of years ago because ultimately you pay for that, the consumer. You pay for the guy you see on TV that talks about how great your boat is. You pay for guides and stuff. Marshall, you’re a captain, you know what I’m talking about. We don’t do the memo bills. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just we weren’t geared up for that. We’re too small of a business for that.
SR: You’ve got a really energetic internal marketing team and maybe I’m overestimating, maybe it’s all you, Kevin but…
Fenn: Hell, I’d be nowhere without the crew and my partner. I’m like the front man, but internally, we have a good team that’s been with us for a long time. We have Graham [Morton]. A lot of people don’t realize it but Graham and Marc are partners in Waterline Media, and Waterline Media does all of our web site, does hosting, design and stuff. Graham was my roommate, and we all knew each other for a long time. Adam [Bertrand] was our first employee. He’s our plant manager. He’s been with us since day one. He is a blessing.
I’m the anchor, Marc’s the chain. He keeps me from sinking and vice versa because my weakness is his strength. I think having two owners that work together and know what their duties are and sync it is the success of us, and this is not an “I” company. We said that since day one. It’s always been a “We” company because I wouldn’t be where I am without him and vice versa. The cool thing that we’ve been saying lately, Marshall, is “We are the oldest factory direct builder left under original ownership and still one of the youngest builders out there.” What that means to the consumer is we’re going to be around a while.
We’ve been through a hell of a lot. With the marine industry as a whole and the fishing industry when the market collapsed and businesses were tanking left and right, including boat companies, we found a way to keep our doors open. I remember having a talk with the guys and we said, “Listen, guys. We will dig deep, work harder, but we can all maintain a job and keep our doors open.” Everybody kicked in. We have guys who’ve been with us for a long time. The average guy has been with us for over three years. I have guys who have been with us for five and six. It says a lot about us and who we are but again, it’s a “We” company. It’s not an “I” and there’s a lot of stuff that goes on behind the scenes that got us where we are.
SR: Do you think there was a turning point in the history of the company where you and Marc said, “Hey, we made it but we need to do this or we need to change this or…”
Fenn: Oh yeah, absolutely. Again, we joke a lot, and I’ve always said that the atmosphere and the style that Marc and I have is we’ve always been like “soul searchers.” What that means is you don’t walk around and look like you’re in a sponsorship or look like you stepped out of a fishing catalog. We wear sandals, board shorts, surf shirts. He grew up on the beach, and I grew up here in Orlando but I always had that desire to grow up on the water. That attitude, I think, plays a lot into it and you can’t have success without failures and man, we’ve had plenty. Any builder that says they’ve never had issues, they’re lying and I’d run from them.
With that said, I think the success for the Lostmen, which was our second boat after the Gladesmen, was a turning point for us, because every model we build has a purpose, but it has to be different from the last model we present. We feel that instead of having 10 models that do almost the same thing, let’s have four or five that are completely different in size and horsepower and width and length and duty and task, because I don’t want two models that we build competing with each other. More power to the other guys that have 10, 12, 13 models. But these are going to be our last skiff models.
All of our skiffs are over 17 feet and we believe length is key, not only in draft and ride but in glide: they don’t crab.
We believe that cockpit space is wasted space. With the next boat we built it was, “Okay, let’s show the guys what we can build.” Marc designed the deck of the Lostmen, which ultimately set the kind of standard for our company. It is, “Let’s build a boat that’ll go stupid skinny, is quiet but very stable.”
We took the Gladesmen, which has the canoe style tumblehome–where the middle of the side of the boat is wider than the top and bottom, that rounded part. We took the Lostmen or the Gladesmen, cut it in half, widened it, and obviously filled it in and gave it a flat bottom. It has no deadrise, but it has three skegs on it, two in the back and keeping one in the front, which at that time nobody was doing. It gave stupid stability and again, it was really, really skinny, just like you’d find in a Jon boat or some of the older fiberglass boats such as Carolina Skiffs or the Polaris that were out there at that time.
This is where it changed. We looked at all the pictures online, because we do a lot of research. We looked at everybody’s models and at what everybody was doing–I think if you don’t you have blinders on and you’re going to get pounced. We spent a lot of time looking at what people were posting in fishing reports. But we noticed one thing: everybody always had stuff in their cockpit. There was no storage.
Marc came up with the idea of making the deck bigger and putting in a cooler. The Lostmen has a 7’4” deck, and it has a built-in cooler and a huge hatch. The other thing is, as we did a repair of an older boat and we had to separate the whole new cap to get the gas tank out for the guy. We said “Why don’t we make the hatch big enough so our tank will come out? If ever you had to repair the boat, you can take the tank out right out the front hatch.”
Then it was: okay, we see side consoles on some of these skiffs but you can’t put a fly rod down on that side because you have to go forward, underneath and backwards. We decided to take our rod holders and attach them to the gunnel, get them off the floor and off the side of the boat. That way you can put fly rods on port and starboard. And we decided to glass the console to the gunnel as opposed to attaching it to the rear rod holder on the starboard side. That created more space and volume.
We added the live well and hatches and stuff. Then it was “Okay, you built a great boat, but it’ll beat you death. It will go stupid skinny, it’s really stable. It’s a great boat for places like Texas and back in the Everglades or native tides in Tampa or the lagoon, but if you want a Keys boat or a boat that you can cross with, they don’t have it.”
We went and researched, looked at other brands, other models. Again, we don’t keep blinders on. We want to look at what everybody likes and what makes each boat different, so we rode in a bunch of different boats. Then we came up with the Caimen. At that time Lost Man’s River was Lostmen, Gladesmen was for the Everglades, Caimen was for the little miniature crocodiles down the Everglades. We still had that whole Everglades to East Cape thing going on, which later we dropped.
For the Caimen, we designed it, had it cut off of a 5-axis milling machine and everything. We designed it to be a smaller skiff that could handle big water, and to this day it has the highest side in its class, the biggest spray rails–that’s where that massive, over-sized spray rail that we’re known for started, with that cup of the spray rail going down. That’s our little signature–and the way the entry was.
We’ve always been a big fan of sponsons, which are the notchback where the motor sits, because of our belief that a sponson boat will always draft shallower and plane quicker, which is what a lot of guys want: the hole shot. It also helps on the stability, and it helps on storage and stuff like that.
Then it was, “Okay, we still don’t have a bigger boat for the Keys or crossing big water and fishing beachside for tarpon. At that time, Marc was really getting into fly fishing for tarpon. Greg Dini who’s a well-known captain in Louisiana, was working with us. I went on a vacation. When I came back, Marc had a Caimen cut in half, widened, planked, ready to go with a plug, and I said, “What are you doing?” He goes, “We’re going to build a tarpon boat.” I said, “What!” He goes, “Yeah.” We didn’t get along for about a week. I was upset, but in the end, I sat back and I was thinking: “This is a good venture for us because building a bigger boat is going to give us a better opportunity at sales and get our name out there.”
The joke is that every time I go away somewhere there’s always a nice surprise when I get back. Now it’s like, “Let’s surprise Kevin with something.”
Then it was, “You guys build a great boat. I love the Lostmen, but why can’t you take the Caimen and make it wider, or why can’t you make the Vantage a little smaller?” Then we came out with our do-it-all boat which is, lastly now, the Fury. With the Vantage and the Fury we got away from the Everglades theme and just wanted to try and break out and didn’t want to mimic or copy some of the other boat companies out there that started naming their models after places. We wanted to start differentiating ourself because we’re not like anybody else. We’re East Cape.
When the Vantage came out it was the first boat to have hatches that opened straight back, the first boat in its class to be a hybrid. It’s a flat boat/skiff at 19 feet 2 inches with a 79-inch beam, but it takes horsepower from a 90 to 175. It’s a really versatile boat. If you put a 90 on it – like we have in the Bahamas now at our first lodge, the Black Fly– it drafts an honest seven and three-quarter inches with guys and gear, and it poles very, very nicely, but you can run across open water. Or if you’re a tournament guy, put a 175 on it you’re hitting mid-60s, tournament-loaded, and you’re able to do anything and draft in seven to 11 inches of water. Through a lot of R&D and sweat and time and a hell of a lot of money, we were able to make that happen too.
I don’t think you can have any success without failures, and going back to the reason why I said this, if you don’t capitalize on those mistakes, then you’re going to eventually go out of business.
Ultimately, Marc and I have always made it known that we’re paranoid, and we want the customer happy. We’ve done everything from build new boats for guys to fix somebody’s boat that has had a warranty issue, and it gives them a little something extra. We have a 90% retention rate, which I think is pretty good in this market. The fact that a guy will come to you and buy two, three more boats with you says a lot about who you are. I’m not patting myself on the back, but I just think in this industry, in the eight and a half years that we’ve been around, I think we’ve contributed in some form to it.
SR: Where do you see the company heading in the next 10 years? Do you have grand plans for the future? Do you see your product line expanding? I believe you’re going to build a … I saw a rumor that you were building a boat specifically just for Texas fishing?
Fenn: Yeah. Again, we’re driving that wheel. I think Texas–and not just Texas … I’d like to bring that style of boat over here to the Southeast. There’s always been a clash between Florida boats and Texas boats if you’re into flats fishing and skiff fishing. We’re blending a boat between the two that works. Then we also have a bay boat in the works for next year. We want to be a complete boat company.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve said it earlier: I’m not passing on the small paddlecraft. I love small skiffs, but on the business side of it there’s room for us to introduce a bay boat. We’re not trying to set the world on fire. I think there’re a lot of good companies out there. We just want to be a choice.
I give a lot of respect to Yellowfin, what Wylie’s done. Other builders don’t mention names of companies but I do. I respect Scott Deal. I like what he’s done as a businessman as far as what he’s done with Pathfinder, but no way, shape or form do I feel like we’re competition, nor do we want to be. We build 70-something boats a year. I think they crank out anywhere from six to eight boats a week, even 10 or 11. They own five boat companies. I don’t think we’re a threat to anybody. I just want to be a choice.
Marc and I have some cool plans for the bay boat industry that havn’t been done yet, like we’re going to vacuum-infuse the whole boat. We’re going to make the boat affordable. We’re going to keep it custom, which is what we’re known for, and give some cool layouts and stuff that we’ve been working on for the last three years. And now we’re finally at a point where we can start working on it. Between the Texas boat and the bay boat, that’s what we have planned out.
SR: Last question and this is more of a fun question. What’s your idea of a perfect day of skiff fishing, you personally?
Fenn: Oh, man! A lot has changed in the years. I think a perfect day is when I actually leave my cell phone in the truck. I’ve become a workaholic. I need to spend more time in the office, but we spend a lot of time on the shop floor and doing the sales and marketing, the PR. We’re a small team here but multitasking.
But a good day to me would be fishing with Marc, taking some of the shop guys, shut the shop down, grabbing a boat, flip a coin, “Heads or tails, are we going south or are we going north?” and just go. Because back in the old days when we were just building Gladesmens and Lostmens, there was Graham and Adam, Marc and myself, we would work from 8:00 to 12:00. We’d catch the afternoon bite or we would go catch the morning bite. We were a lot smaller then.
Obviously, that’s changed. For me, it would be just go at it like we used to. I tell people you can always build a damn good boat, but we’re fishermen first. I hope that makes sense, Marshall.
SR: It does. Do you guys have a favorite fish around the shop, or do you argue like everybody else about which fish is more fun?
Fenn: We have favorites. For years, Marc was all into snook. His favorite fish now is tarpon, and he’s all about the eat. He’s not about the land. He’d rather throw at 15, 20 fish and watch the eating and do that gig. I don’t have the patience for that. I got ADD or something but I can’t sit there on the edge of a flat for two, three, four, five, six hours like I’ve seen him do. I’ve got to move around. But for me it would be fishing in one of our smaller boats, and using the Strada 1000, the Calcutta 50, a little six-weight like a Biscayne rod. The brothers make that little 7-foot Billy Baroo–I love that little rod, and matched with a six-weight or seven-weight, I’d rather be popping for snook. Nothing beats a snook–I love that fish.
For the rest of the guys, it’s everything, a mixed bag. They’re all about the redfish and stuff, the tarpon, even a bonita.
SR: I hope you guys get to do more of it. Kevin, thank you so much for your time today, for telling us about East Cape, what you’ve been doing and what you’re planning on doing. I hope we have a chance to follow up on something a little bit different later.
Fenn: I hope so. Again, thank you, man. I love what you’ve got going on, and we embrace it. Thank you for giving us the time.