“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.”