by Jim Sutton, 2011, Jacksonville.com
Hal Chittum sits beside an old desk in a stark office at the corner of a plain white building on the San Sebastian River. He talks about his life and his boats. They’re pretty much the same thing.
Through a window behind him, you can see workers rigging a new boat, grinding and drilling. He wipes the dust of several weird composites from the desk as he speaks, patting off the residue of what he calls the most technical flats boat in the world onto his pants leg.
Chittum’s known as the mad scientist of flats boat design. He probably likes it.
He is a partner in a new boat-building business, Chittum Skiffs. It was a long time coming.
Chittum went to college, got a degree and headed to the Florida Keys to become a flats guide. It’s a career path of abject envy for mortal men. He became one of the best around, under the tutelage of the famous Keys guide Jimmy Albright. That historic gathering of flats guides included some of the best there ever were, with names like Stu Apte, Woody Sexton, Cal Cochran and Harry Snow Jr.
Chittum guided for about 15 years. Along the way, he founded the famous South Florida saltwater fishing tackle chain, H T Chittum & Co.
Because he spent so much time on flats boats, their shortcomings bugged him. That led him to gather some partners and found Hells Bay Boatworks in 1997.
“Up until then,” he said, “Nobody really sat down and built one [a flats boat] from scratch. Most were ski boats with poling platforms.”
He decided “Let’s design a hull that’s quiet and light” – the two holy grails of flats fishing. The 16-foot Whipray was the product of that endeavor. It may not have been a whole new ballgame, but it did cause lots of flats boats builders to rethink their game plans and retool.
He sold his interest in Hell’s Bay in 2002. He had an idea for a new kind of boat. He figured that it would make obsolete everything Hell’s Bay was building – if he could make it work.
The new boat started in Titusville. A million dollars and three years later, the Islamorada 18 is in production, 16 have been delivered so far. During that time, Chittum said more than 90 hull designs were made and tossed out.
“We’d fix one thing, and that would screw up three others,” Chittum said.
One of the problems had already been solved with the Hell’s Bay boats – hull slap. That occurs when waves hit the boat hull. The sound is multiplied in water and spooks fish. The majority of flats guides fly fish. That means they need to get close to pods of tarpon or bonefish schools for real success.
There was something Chittum and other guides sensed but couldn’t nail down. Even on dead-calm days with no slap, something else was bothering the fish. It wouldn’t necessarily spook them outright but, Chittum said, “They’d just go down – get wary. They knew you were there.”
What he suspected from years of poling the flats and talking with the best fishing minds both on the water and in the design rooms was that boats tipped off the fish in a more subtle way. His guess was a sort of pressure wave pushed ahead of the boat simply by its displacement of water.
With only hypothesis in his pocket, Chittum send a hull model to a special testing tank facility in Europe. The facility could duplicate any water conditions, bottom contour, depth, wave height and more. What he wanted to find out there was “What is it? How do you measure it? And how do you get rid of it?” The pressure wave theory was proven there and measured. Eliminating it was another hurdle.
With trial and error, the design team worked on diverting and eliminating the pressure wave. They finally tried carving the hull slightly concave just behind the point of the bow, and the pressure wave problem was diminished.
It was a big breakthrough for the company, but it caused problems of its own.
“Then the thing rode wet,” Chittum said.
The team went back to the drawing board, and after more prototypes and failures, a radical spray rail was developed. They couldn’t eliminate the hydraulics of the spray without first reshaping it. And it was basically this one-two punch that solved the problem, although chines, strakes and deadrise angles were shuffled like cards along the way.
In addition to design breakthroughs, Chittum Skiffs is also using some innovative construction techniques with brand new materials employed in military stealth construction and international sailboat racing.
He and Dana Greenwood – described by Chittum as “the brains around here” – were careful that certain areas of the facility not show up in the background of the photos taken for this story.
From conception to construction, none of the work on the Islamorada 18 was cheap. The base price for the boat, well-rigged and fitted with a 60-horsepower 4-stroke engine, is $63,000. They have run the boat with a 115-horsepower E-Tec outboard at 54 knots and will put a 150-horse on another boat that will be delivered soon.
But a big imagination and checkbook are really the only limits to what the boat can be. One is just finished and shipping out to Australia this week. It has nearly every high-end toy you could fit in or on it, including a hand-held military spotlight that could burn a hole in the ozone layer, throwing out 3,000 lumens and costing over $8,000. That boat’s price tag, Chittum says, is “heading north of $120,000.”
The company has both a 21-foot and a 25-foot bay boat on the drawing board.
Someone once said that when you aim for perfection, you discover it’s a moving target. Chittum would have to agree after fighting with physics for so long. “From the beginning we said, ‘let’s fix every problem.’ That’s why it took three years.”
Chittum said the boat’s everything he ever wanted it to be. We’ll see how long that lasts.