Craftsmen in Texas Revive the Art of Boatbuilding

The Gulf Coast has a long history of artisanal boatbuilding that stretches back to when it was first settled. Marrying Native American designs with European influences and tools birthed entire classes of boats uniquely suited to regional waterways all along the coast. With the arrival of fiberglass and the consolidation of boatbuilding into large corporate enterprises, many traditions and generational knowledge were on the verge of being lost. However, there is a recent resurgence of artisanal builders with legacies and techniques being rediscovered that result in gorgeous, fully functional nearshore and inshore boats ideal for these coastlines.

In southern Louisiana, French colonists quickly learned that their deep-hulled European vessels were not navigable in the naturally shallow bayous, so they adopted the designs of the Indians’ flat-bottomed, 16-foot boats that were carved and burned out of single cypress logs. As these pirogue (pee-rouge) developed and became the standard for trappers and fishermen, eventually cypress planks were used to significantly drop weight and further the boats’ maneuverability in shallow marshes.

Today, Cajun craftsmen like Tony Latiolais of Henderson, Louisiana, in the Atchafalaya Basin utilize “sinker” cypress logs reclaimed from the bottom of bayous and logged swamps. Other builders like Keith Felder of Denham Springs, Louisiana, are constructing them out of marine-grade plywood and finishing with cypress. Stacked on board powerboats, these boats are prized possessions that allow duck hunting enthusiasts to enter shallow ponds and sloughs off the deeper bayous. They are now being revisited by anglers who tackle the incredibly productive fishing grounds of the Louisiana marsh and are ideal for cruisers looking to explore shallower, protected bayous.

Boatbuilding is an evolutionary process and Texan craftsmen are joining traditional wooden boats with modern styles to create hybrid designs that serve the creeks and near-shore waters of their state. Craftsman David Escobedo of Escobedo Boatworks is doing this on the outskirts of San Antonio in the one-horse town of Buda, Texas. His boat Sea Dart is a 16-foot lapstrake-type build that combines the look of a canoe and a kayak ideal for lake or creek fishing, as well as hunting redfish along the coast.

Arrowhead Custom Boats in Austin, Texas, is another wooden boatbuilder helmed by David Nichols, who has long embraced the art and traditions of classic construction. His boats range from traditional canoes to ideal fly-fishing platforms.

Part of the resurgence of these wooden shallow-draft boats and classic Gulf Coast boats like the Lafitte Skiff were initiated by the determination of organizations such as the Center for Traditional Louisiana Boatbuilding and wooden boat festivals such as the hugely popular celebration in Madisonville, Louisiana. Small maritime museums like the one in Port Aransas, Texas, are also determined to re-introduce these skills and knowledge. Many of these organizations conduct traditional boatbuilding classes and are reviving these old processes and designs, which are creating a new legacy of hobbyists and entrepreneurs who are constructing beautiful heirloom paddleboats.

By Harlan Leslie, Southern Boating August 2014