Dave Witherall's Tolman Skiff - Standard

My Tolman build story:

Years ago, I built a summer cabin on an island across the Bay from Homer, Alaska. My primary uses for a boat are to haul people and gear from Homer and back, and to go halibut fishing in the Bay. I previously owned two boats for this purpose: a new 20’ aluminum Bayrunner center console and an older 22’ fiberglass Seasport with a fully enclosed cabin. Both boats had some things I liked and some things that I didn’t.

For the Bayrunner, the pros were that it was light in weight, got good gas mileage, got right up on step and zipped along with an easy-to-maintain 2 smoke 70 hp outboard, and it was beachable for loading and unloading people and building materials. The cons were exposure to the rain, the thin aluminum couldn’t handle the stress I put on it (the keel bowed, the shelf ripped in many places due to stress, and all the rib welds came undone) and was very difficult to repair or modify, and the deck drained at the edges washing with it bait and fish parts that rotted under there (talk about smell and flies!). Not to mention that the constantly clogged or shorting bilge pump drove me nuts.

I upgraded to the Seasport when my wife and I had kids (for increased safety and to get out of the rain). It was a comfortable boat and could hold a lot of people and gear, but it was very heavy to trailer all the way to Homer from Anchorage, it got poor gas mileage, the I/O was very expensive to maintain, and most importantly, the boat couldn’t be beached to efficiently load and unload all the people, heavy coolers, and building supplies. We never used it for overnight trips, and the cuddy was used mostly for storage or a place for the little ones to nap when the adults fished. I sold the boat in 2009, and took the opportunity to build one to suit my specific needs.

I had wanted to build a Tolman skiff since the early 90s after seeing how well these boats performed. After I sold the Seasport, I finally had the time and money to build one. [I had previously built a couple of stitch and glue kayaks and two simple plywood rowboats.] I chose a widebody over a jumbo, primarily because it would be easier for beach loading and putting on a running line in front of the cabin. Based on a recommendation of Rich Seagraves, who built a beautiful standard center console (see photos on fishyfish), I purchased a kit from Neal Schlee at Skiffkits here in Anchorage. With the kit (which consists of the main wood hull parts), I saved many hours of construction time and felt better about using precision cut parts. As an added benefit, I also got very useful advice and tips from Neal every time I stopped by his shop to pick up more epoxy or cabosil.

So I started the build in my garage in the fall of 2009, working an hour most nights after the kids were in bed. This worked out well because any epoxy I put on at night would be cured when I got out there again. The boat parts all came together rather straightforward, although I tended to second guess myself every step of the way. The fishyfish forum was invaluable to get information not spelled out in the book, and provided an opportunity to incorporate design ideas from other Tolman builders. Like others, I put on an extra layer of fiberglass on the bottom, glassed the shelf/side joint, and put on a wooden keel base under the UHMW. By early December, I called over some friends and we flipped the hull. Everyone was amazed how light it was – we could have easily done it with only 3 of us. After flipping, I taped the chine, transom, and stringers with biaxial tape and built the bow floatation tank and gear locker to Renns specs. Then I started to work from my own plans, and put on wider (6”) shelves, installed two poly belly tanks between the stringers, a fully sealed and self draining deck, a splashwell of my own design, a wheelhouse and hand rails on the aft deck (purchased from great lakes skipper).

I liked the concept of Renn’s Kachemak Bay walk-through cabin design, but as Renn noted, it’s too big for a widebody. So, I decided to put on a small ‘regular’ wheelhouse, but without the cuddy, so we can access the foredeck through a 21” wide, 45” high doorway that would normally go to a cuddy cabin. The cables connecting the battery boxes (seats in front of the wheelhouse bulkhead) run over this doorway, and the wiring is accessed by a hatch plate on the other side of the steering console. With a 4’ deck in front, and a 6’ deck at the stern, there is plenty of deck room for fishing on this boat. And with a full deck, there are no bulkheads to trip over and water drains right through to the scupper tubes at the stern. I have built the boat such that I can easily add a cuddy cabin a later time should my needs change, at which point it would look more like a ‘normal’ Tolman cabin.

I got together a few guys to help me roll the boat out of the garage and onto the trailer. We just slipped a few pipes under the cradle and just rolled it out and cranked it up on the trailer. Then it was just a matter of getting the engine mounted, and installing the controls, and getting the windows in. I did all the wiring of the boat following the great diagrams posted on the fishyfish site. I really had to get a lot of details done quickly before launch day arrived in May 2010. The Wynne windows arrived just in time, and with the help of a friend went in easily, and once the silicone dried, I gave them a final tightening the day before the launch.

My friends Mark and Rich joined me for the first launch in Homer in mid-May, and we met Renn Tolman and his girlfriend at the ramp. Everything went smoothly and the boat floated right off the trailer. Renn loved the boat, and was genuinely interested and impressed with the different approach I took to the wheelhouse and splashwell, twin underdeck tanks, and other details. I think he needs new glasses because he said I had a 1 foot finish! I guess I just see the flaws. We toasted with YJ, of course, and he graciously signed my book. He spent about a half hour looking it over and talking boat building with me and Rich. After that we headed out of the harbor for halibut fishing. With the break-in requirements for the new Suzuki 90, we had to puttputt most of the way, but it was 'fish on!' right from the start. The boat and engine performed flawlessly, exceeding my expectations in every way. What a memorable day. So now, I just need to work on all the finish details, with my first project building a little door for the cuddy passageway to keep out the wind.

Good building and fishing to all. See you on the water!

May 2010