With current economic trends to downsize and “do more with less”, cautious souls might be inclined to hunker down and wait ‘till things improve a bit before exploring new ventures. Not Hal Chittum, world-renowned guide and founder of Hells Bay Boats. Nope, Hal does a 360° from conventional wisdom and starts a new boat business with an ultra, high-end skiff – the Islamorada 18 — that, according to Chittum, raises the bar for flats skiff manufacturing technology and on-water performance.
From the surface, the Islamorada 18 looks like a typical flats skiff: length 18’, beam 80”, and 12 degrees of deadrise at the transom. It’s when we looked under the surface that we began to realize something is drastically different about this boat.
For example, the dry weight of the complete hull is around 400-pounds. This isn’t an empty shell weight, this is every laminated component bonded to the hull. This includes the hull, deck, top cap, hatch covers and console. To obtain these numbers required a radical change in the typical process of building a skiff. Hal and George Sawley looked to racing sailboats and offshore powerboats for the technology to build their skiff.
To take the skiff from concept to mold Hal hired a team of naval architects from Vectorworks Marine. With their experience designing everything from luxury yachts to sophisticated Special Forces crafts, a flats skiff should be a no brainier. Yet with their design prowess, 5 axis mills and experience with advanced composites, Hal put them on task for months of trial and improvement. Every linear foot of the hull was sliced and modeled in the computer, greatly streamlining the plug/prototype/tooling process.
Most skiffs start life in the mold as a layer of gel coat, then layers of glass and core materials with vinylester or polyester resin wetting out the sandwich. Modeling their build from racing Unlike traditional pleasure boats that frequently use a variation of a vinylester/polyester mat/woven construction, the Islamorada 18’s layup schedule reads like a Who’s Who of high-tech composites: E-Glass, S-Glass, Kevlar, Carbon Fiber, Core Cell, S-Core, Airex, Nomex, pre-preg epoxy laminates that are vacuum-bagged to reduce excess resin before the hull spends the day in a low-temp oven to ensure an even cure.
Why use aerospace grade epoxy resin? According to George, a quality epoxy resin is stronger than vinylester by a factor of almost 5 to 1. The result is a much stronger skiff using less resin, resulting in a lighter stronger product. Epoxy is also nearly impervious to moisture absorption, an added plus for boats. However, working with epoxy resins requires highly skilled technicians thus costs much more. An added side benefit epoxy resins have lower VOC output than vinylesters, making it a greener build.
The boat is then sanded, faired, and shot with DuPont Imron for a memorable finish. The entire build process takes up to three times longer to complete. According to George, “Only about 10 builders in the US work with these materials and most of them build sailboats”.
After paint, the skiff is moved to rigging and finishing. One interesting feature added during rigging is the fuel cell, a 30 gallon rubberized ballistic grade nylon fuel container with an open core foam insert to completely eliminate fuel from sloshing around. Easy to install and service, this fuel cell is lighter than a comparable aluminum gas tank.
With all the work, technology and pedigree, does it live up to all the hype? I got two separate opportunities to test the skiff. Both times were impressive. Ride quality is surprising superb, especially in a chop. Extraordinarily deep spray rails keep the occupants dry. More amazing is how such a light boat rides when the conditions go foul. Conventional wisdom says that heavier boats ride better. I have espoused this wisdom from time to time. A ride on this skiff requires rethought of said traditional wisdom. The combination of hull design and lightweight allows the boat to slice from crest to crest in a chop. What makes the skiff ride so well? I got a polite smile and “no comment” from George.
Performance with a Yamaha 60hp 4-stroke was good. Top end was recorded a few tenths of a MPH under 41. Recent testing with the new Honda 60HP 4-stroke recorded 43.5 MPH. Both tests were with two persons and 15 gallons of fuel. One unique test I performed was a time to plane at 3400 RPM. To do this test I trimmed the motor all the way down but retracted the trim tabs all the way up. From a dead stop to plane took less than six seconds with the motor never exceeding 3400 RPM.
The overall layout of the skiff is good. The center console with cooler was very comfortable for either standing or sitting operation. A nice plus is the toe kick area built into the console. LED lighting is standard along with quality helm controls. Mil-Spec aircraft switches, which are waterproof, sealed in epoxy with sealed breakers and rubber boots finish off the console. Storage space is open and usable. Six forward and two aft rod tubes per side allow for up to 16 rods total. Lastly, access the all pumps, electrical and other maintenance items is open and well thought out.
Running to the fishing grounds is one thing. Stalking them is another. Once I settled into my office on the poling platform, it was time to really put the skiff to the test. The skiff with a light load, two anglers and 15 gallons of fuel draws 8”, a respectable amount for a skiff with 12 degrees of dead rise. The boat poles and tracks very well for an 18’ skiff. Turning the skiff, it rotates as close to center as any quality skiff. Hull slap is virtually non-existent. Even on the stern, which is one of the Achilles heels of many skiffs, Hal designed the skiff with a slight roundness to the transom to reduce the square on slap.
If stalking fish with fly rod in hand is not on the agenda for the day the skiff supports the live bait enthusiast with a 30 gallon live well. Adjustable valves allow the water height to be set for everything from shrimp and crabs to pilchards. Or, in tournament mode, it will keep your catch alive and kicking for the weigh in.
Is this the absolute perfect skiff? Not exactly. A flaw I noticed was the water line beam is significantly less than the top deck beam. This causes a bit of a cantilever when standing on the extreme edge of the skiff. While it’s I would not characterize it as “tippy”. I would say the stability is not as pronounced as other 18’ skiffs. There were also some aspects of the build like switch layout I would change if the boat were mine, but these alterations are simply part of the customizing process for each client’s tastes.
Hal and George set out to raise the bar for what defines a quality poling skiff. Have they succeeded? The Islamorada 18 is a very capable quality skiff with quality components and innovative features and well thought out amenities. Fit and finish is on par with high-end yachts. From a build standpoint, they have certainly proven that there are possibilities untapped in the skiff market with epoxy resins.
The bar has been raised.