History of the Simmons Sea Skiff
Written by Michael Hubbard
Tom Simmons, commonly known as T.N. or Sims, was born on Myrtle Grove Sound, North Carolina, in 1908. Following in his father's footsteps, he took up woodworking and began his employment as a carpenter at a local chemical plant. When the Wilmington Shipyard geared up for production of Liberty ships during World War II, Simmons applied for a job as a patternmaker. During the interview, he was asked if he was a professional patternmaker. Simmons replied, "If it's made of wood, I can make what you want." He got the job. When the war came to an end, he returned to his home and small shop on Myrtle Grove Sound, hoping to make a living by building furniture and cabinets.
As a sideline to furniture making, Simmons also built a few small lake boats for Piedmont anglers. This, coupled with his reputation as a master woodworker, led a local commercial fisherman by the name of Norman Piner to Simmons' cabinet shop in 1946. Piner asked him to build a boat that could be launched off the beach to fish for mullet with a seine. When Simmons asked what kind of boat he wanted, Piner replied, "I know what I want, but I don't know how to explain it." Piner took Simmons into the marsh near Wrightsville Beach where there sat a half-submerged, derelict New England dory. Piner told Sims that he wanted the forward part of the hull just like the dory, but he wanted it to go straight back from amidships aft to make room for 300 yards of net. Piner also wanted a high transom so waves wouldn't break over it. Simmons agreed to the job.
According to Piner, he boat turned out to be just what he needed. He recalls that the able pulling boat "just danced on the water like a leaf or a feather." While other seine boats would swamp in the surf when the fishermen returned to the beach to haul in their nets, the Simmons boat never did.
The boats caught on, and during the late '40's and early '50's they evolved into the Simmons Sea skiff of today. A primary change from the original rowing design was the addition of a motorwell. Simmons' inspiration for the motorwell to house the outboard came from several sources, but paramount was the fact that standard outboards of the day had a 15" leg. With such a motor mounted on the transom, there was a great risk of waves breaking over the stern when running the local inlets. Bringing the motor inboard allowed Simmons to retain the original high, raked transom, which created a huge amount of reserve buoyancy and made being overwhelmed by a following sea far less likely. As a bonus, the motorwell allowed fishermen to run nets and lines directly over the transom and made shear-pin replacement and other underway maintenance chores less hazardous.
Simmons later introduced a modified v-shaped bottom and eliminated the rocker aft. The modified bottom shape eased pounding Ð unless the boat was driven too hard for sea conditions. The straighter run reduced drag at speed. As more powerful outboard motors became available, he built the boats longer and wider.
The first Simmons boats were built of juniper (Atlantic cedar) on mahogany framing, but in the mid-1950's Simmons switched his planking material to Douglas-fir plywood, due to the increasing scarcity of boat-quality juniper and because he considered the plywood stronger. Later still, Simmons began planking the bottoms and decks with Douglas-fir MDO plywood for increased abrasion resistance. Transoms and motorwells were always built of solid mahogany. framing and longitudinal members were fastened with screws and bolts, and planking was held together by closely spaced bronze ring nails. Simmons relied on a dead fit between joints to keep water out and used no caulking compounds or glue. Another product that Simmons never put into use was fiberglass. He once joked, "Enough people don't like fiberglass to keep me in business."
Simmons produced the boats in lengths of 14' to 25', but his most popular model was the 20-footer. Available in a low or high-sided version (with either three or four planks above the "garboard"), the 20' high-sided boat was 19'4" long and had a beam of approximately 7'11". Weight was in the vicinity of 650 lbs, and a 50 to 70-hp outboard would push it along in excess of 30 mph. Simmons was dead set against overpowering his boats. One old-timer told me that Simmons refused to sell him a boat because he wanted to use a larger motor than the builder recommended.
The Sea Skiff's reputation for seaworthiness, along with their low price (in 1966, a low-sided 20-footer with no extras sold for $570), put ocean fishing within reach of the average person's income, and in the early 1950's business took off. T.N. Simmons Jr. joined his father in the boatshop in 1953. As orders piled up, Simmons hired other employees. The business reached its maximum size in 1966 with four employees, and although the small crew produced an average of one boat per week, demand outstripped the supply: Customers often had to wait more than a year for a new boat. The skiffs were so well respected that the Jacksonville, Savannah, and Wilmington districts of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were all using them. The U.S. Coast Guard even asked Simmons to bid on a large order, but he declined, saying that he didn't want to run a "factory."
For nearly two decades Simmons and his son built boats as fast as they could. Although they didn't keep exact records of how many were built, the best estimate seems to be somewhere in the neighborhood of a thousand. In 1972, the Simmons boatshop closed abruptly after T.N. Jr. drowned in a boating accident. His dispirited father completed the remaining orders, then quit building boats altogether.
Although the Simmons shop has been closed for three decades, his boats are still a fairly common sight in the Carolinas. Their owners are die-hard fans, and for them nothing can match the performance and handling characteristics of a Simmons Sea Skiff.
Tom Simmons poses next to a 22ft Sea Skiff c1971.