“When Fiberglass Trees Grow”

“When fiberglass trees grow, I’ll build a fiberglass flats boat.”

That quote is attributed to Willy Roberts by his granddaughter Jean Wiggins.  Roberts was probably the first man to build skiffs specifically for flats fishing, launching them on a small beach on Tavernier Key in Islamorada in the late 1950s and 60s.   He built them out of wood, originally, and was more than hesitant to consider fiberglass.  But by the late 1960s, boat building had almost completely converted to fiberglass hulls, and even Roberts made the switch.

Roberts was born on White Street in Key West in 1914 and died in 1993, and his boats are fondly referred to by collectors and fans as “Willies.”

Thomas McGuane also offers this bit of history on the Roberts skiffs: “The earliest guides like Harry Snow, Sr. had what they called Go-Devils, which were these flat-bottom skiffs that were probably the best poling boat there ever was. But they were highly impractical in every other way—wet, rough, and sinkable. The first of the real dedicated skiff builders was Willy Roberts. I had a Willy Roberts skiff and he built wooden boats on Tavernier Key. He was a conch and a wonderful craftsman whose peculiarity was that he hated painting boats. You could get a substantial discount on one of his boats if he didn’t have to paint it. His family origins were in the Abacos. They had been loyalists during the American Revolution and fled the Carolinas. He came from a long line of boat builders. Most of the guides in the ’60s had Willy Roberts boats.”

  • Bill Bishop

    Allan Jackson sings, ” you cant beat the way an old wood boat rides”! I’m not sure that is on the money however you can’t reproduce the way a wood boat rides with fiberglass. Years ago I built a wooden flat bottom wood skiff that I still run today. It isn’t in the class of a Willy Roberts but every tarpon I catch in that skiff is worth two caught in my Hells Bay. It’s old school. This past tarpon season in the Glades we jumped over 40 tarpon in two days rowing that skiff in deeper water off the Little Shark River. We stayed there for a week on my Hatteras anchored off the mangrove shoreline and not once did I long for my technical skiff. Each year I bring the wood boat home and spend a couple of weeks refinishing and tweaking it for the next season. It is one of my greatest pleasures fishing and running that skiff.

    • Marshall Cutchin

      That’s a great observation, Bill, and I think a lot of us feel the same way.

  • http://www.hogislandboatworks.com John St. John

    Classic line. I was at the Northwest Sportsmen’s Show in Portland 6 or 7 years ago puffed up and shiny in front of my booth and a brand new roto-molded dory when I hooked a guy who looked like he would shoot a snowy owl in the face coming down the aisles with the line “Hi there, have you ever seen a roto-molded high density polyethylene dory”? He says “what’? I say “It’s a plastic drift boat”. He says “damn son, if God wanted boats to be made out of plastic he wouldn’t have made trees out of wood”, and he spun on his heels looking for something more familiar.

    • Marshall Cutchin

      A classic indeed. Thanks, John.

  • Robert Anderson

    I have an old Willy Roberts from 1976. It was restored prior to my purchase, but a lot of it is still original. I fish it pretty hard and she holds her own. I’m a little jealous of the newer skiffs with livewells, poling platforms, trolling motors, and powerpoles, but I’ve never gotten as much satisfaction from just driving a boat than I get from the Willy.

    • Marshall Cutchin

      I’d love to ride in that boat sometime, Robert. Thanks for the story.