Photo: Florida Maritime Museum archives
By John Beale
Most days on the Cortez waterfront you can hear the diesel engine of the fishing boats coming in with a fresh catch just before they make the turn into one of the fish houses. That hasn’t always been the case. A little over a hundred years ago sail and oar powered the fishing boats in Cortez. The typical design came down from North Carolina with the community’s early settlers. This fishing boat was called a spritsail skiff. Long narrow hulls with purposeful working sails ran up and down Sarasota and Tampa Bay in search of whatever was in season. The spritsail skiff was adapted to this sort of work, being able to sail in inches of water, empty or loaded, propelled by sail or poling oar. With most of the bay so shallow it’s easier to use the oar to push along the bottom than try and row.
The spritsail skiff has many features that make it well suited for this environment. The shape glides easily through the water. Today we would call it a dead rise hull meaning there is some V to the bottom for the length of the boat that helps it cut through small waves. The tucked up stern, or back of the hull, allows the boat to be heavily loaded without the stern dragging in the water, which would slow it down. While we don’t often think of speed being important for a commercial fishing boat, it was just as important as sea worthiness or cost. The fastest boats could get back to the fish houses first and often get the best prices for their catch. This was also a time before boats carried ice so the fish had to be brought to the fish house before they began to spoil. No small feat on an August afternoon in Florida.
Another unusual thing about the spritsail skiff is what gives it its name. The spritsail, also spelled sprit sail and sprits’l, is a roughly rectangular sail. The top rear corner angles up and a pole called a sprit holds it up and out. There are several advantages to this for a working sailboat. A piece of rope running from the lower rear corner to the forward top corner allows the sail to be pulled up out of the way. This is done in seconds to make room for setting or retrieving nets and is just as quickly let back out for sailing to the next location. There is also no boom, the pole on the bottom of most sails that often lives up to its name when colliding with an unwary sailor.
The spritsail skiffs were built with native timber. Long leaf yellow pine would likely have made up the mast. It grows tall and straight and takes little more than cutting off bark and branches to have a working mast. Planking was probably cypress. It’s heavy but almost as rot and bug resistant as pressure treated lumber. Frames would have been cut from live oak or other hardwoods. Often they were grown timbers, meaning they would be cut out of a curved branch whose shape matched the piece of the boat it would become. The grain running around the bend made for an incredibly strong frame. Cotton canvas for the sails and hemp rope for the rigging would’ve finished out the boat. Probably with the whole hull held together with galvanized nails and covered with a few coats of white lead paint.
While the spritsail skiffs had a nostalgic charm to them, today’s fishing boats share many of the same qualities. They were purpose built for the trade and the region, and they needed to be strong, sea worthy and not break the bank. Most importantly the boats allowed the fishermen to go out and harvest from the Gulf and the Bays. This allowed them to support their families and provide food for the community.