BACK IN THE SIXTIES, a designer at the Kennedy Space Center named Harley Gheen was looking for a better way to fish shallow water. The canoes of the day hadn’t advanced much from the old wooden dugout design and their round bottoms weren’t well suited for still water. (Try standing in a round-bottomed canoe and you’ll soon know why). Gheen, a trained draftsman, sketched out a new type of craft: it had the same general shape as a canoe but with built-in outriggers on the bottom of the hull, for stability, and a square stern for a motor. Soon enough he left his job at the Space Center and started selling his craft, which he called the “Gheenoe” (an amalgamation of the creator’s name and “canoe,” it is pronounced “Ghee-noo,” not “Jee-noo.”) He had inadvertently created what would eventually be known as the world’s first “microskiff.”
An ordinary skiff is a familiar type of boat: built to run and pole shallow, they typically feature both front and rear casting decks and are meant to be stood in by at least two anglers. Skiffs have a square stern for a motor and a sharp front to cut through light chop on the water. All flats boats are skiffs, from the humble Pangas (familiar to anyone who’s been to a Central American fishery) on up to the fancy American-made Hells Bays or Mavericks. “Bass boats” used by conventional anglers are also skiffs. Historically, most skiffs have been sixteen to eighteen feet long and up to six feet wide at the rear.
While a proper skiff is a fantastic craft to own for many reasons, it does have its disadvantages, the first of which is cost. The original Panga was designed by the Yamaha company based on an old Japanese fishing craft, and then distributed by the World Bank in the 1960s to poor regions worldwide. (“Panga” is the name of the type of catfish the boats were designed to help Third World subsistence fishermen catch with nets). It is understandably about the cheapest skiff one can find, but even a Panga can cost well over $10,000 new in North America.
Full size skiffs run very shallow, but still require at least six to eight inches of water in most cases. They are too heavy to portage and typically require motors of at least 25 to 40 horsepower, which are expensive. All of these factors combined to lead anglers to look for a compromise boat: something with the same characteristics of the proper flats skiff, but lighter, less expensive, and able to get into even skinnier water. Eventually someone realized that the Gheenoe perfectly fits that description.
A company called Custom Gheenoe specializes in rebuilding the standard model Gheenoe to create a more skiff-like boat. Instead of three bench seats which impede movement in the boat, Custom Gheenoe offers a range of models with raised front and rear decks and either an open floor or a center console—just like a flats boat. These craft have names like the “No Motor Zone” and are designed to go where regular flats boats cannot. A fully outfitted “NMZ” will run around $5,000 with trailer and engine and floats in less than three inches of water, loaded with two anglers.
Shade Tree Skiffs
While the Custom Gheenoe is a fantastic boat, it is still a factory-made craft, and $5,000 is nothing to shake a stick at. Many anglers around the nation’s coasts have started a secondary movement, buying and rebuilding their own boats. Two active online forums unite this community: CustomGheenoe.com (the website of the company), and also Microskiff.com. Microskiff.com’s founder Tom Dyll notes that “the quality of the work builders can do out of their garages is oftentimes astounding.” Having immersed myself in these two websites for several months, I came away envious, curious, and ultimately determined to rebuild my own boat.
A friend and fishing buddy named Andrew Wright provided me with my first opportunity; working with Craig’s List, he located what I believed at the time to be the most decrepit Gheenoe in the state of Georgia and snapped it up for a few hundred bucks with a trailer. A trained contractor, Andrew was confident where I was skeptical; “the beauty of fiberglass,” he reassured me, “is that you can fix anything.” After a few false starts, we successfully added marine-grade plywood decks, built buttresses to stiffen the sides of the boat, then glassed everything in and painted it like new. The result was a gorgeous and highly effective microskiff which enabled us to open up new fisheries, which we previously could not access.
Newly confident from assisting on Andrew’s boat, I decided to try it myself. Again working with Craig’s List, I purchased my own bombed-out old Gheenoe. On our first boat we had left the seats in place and worked around them. While this made the job easier and added stiffness, we were left with no under-seat storage. Some careful work with a reciprocating saw and Dremel tool allowed me to remove the bench seats and take the boat back down to a bare hull. Rebuilding a microskiff involves a lot of sanding, and I got my first taste right away.
I wanted my boat to have a flat false floor as well as the raised decks from our earlier design. Building on tips from the two online microskiff communities, I first cut and added “stringers” in the bottom as supports. The decks and floors themselves were next. Because there are no right angles in a Gheenoe, one must pattern the bottom before adding any wood. By working with a coat hanger and a cardboard template, I shaped out the rough patterns I needed for the floor panels, the decks, and the front and rear supports, which I then cut out of marine plywood with a jigsaw. Rails and supports for the elevated decks were next; these I bonded to the wall of the boat with more Liquid Nails and clamps, then again waterproofed with epoxy. Once everything had cured, the decks and floors were screwed down for good.
This is an exciting stage for the boat-builder, because the boat looks more or less like a skiff, but with no fiberglass, it would last only a couple seasons before rotting out and falling apart. Fiberglass cloth is widely available at discount stores, but the epoxy to soak it out is best bought off the internet. Glassing a boat is just like making papier-mâché: first you soak the wood with epoxy, which is rolled on like paint. Then you press your pre-cut fiberglass cloth on to the wet wood, and finally you pour more epoxy over the top and roll it out to soak through the cloth. (While polyester resins can also be used to cure fiberglass, they does not form as strong or as lasting a bond as epoxy and also are not as waterproof). As you roll, you want to push air bubbles out. Corners and angles must be “filleted” with epoxy-soaked sawdust (because fiberglass doesn’t turn corners well) then glassed over. Finally, for a nice finish, use fiberglass tape to cover all the edges.
Once your fiberglass has cured, you essentially have a complete boat. The epoxy will protect the underlying wood from water, while the glass adds strength. All that is left is sanding to a paintable finish and then actually painting. There are a wide variety of marine paints available, but Interlux Brightside was the best we found: this paint cures like an epoxy and forms a hard, shiny secondary bond which is nearly bombproof.
A few words of caution: every piece of wood which goes in a boat must be waterproofed on all sides with epoxy, or water will penetrate and eventually rot the boat. Any wood in a boat should also either be solid (preferably hardwood) or marine-grade plywood, which are both less absorbent of water and therefore last longer. By law, you must account for “neutral buoyancy” in the event of a catastrophe: a boat full of water should float just under the surface per Coast Guard regulations. Builders must leave some pockets in the boat which can be filled with foam (Great Stuff expanding spray works well). This will keep your boat from going to the bottom if you catch the wrong wave. It is also a good idea to add some traction to your final paint. Interlux makes a product called Intergrip especially for this purpose: it simply adds texture to prevent slips and falls.
Going All In
As with most projects, the moment when everything comes together is the one you most remember. After some abortive efforts, I finally procured a serviceable engine and a carbon-fiber push pole (bracketed to the sides with PVC mounts, which I baked in my oven prior to shaping per Andrew’s creative instructions). Early one morning Andrew and I loaded up the boat and set out to catch some of our local carp on the surprisingly beautiful flats of a nearby lake. As we motored to our spot we reflected on what we had done right and what we would do differently. Any boat is a compromise, after all. With an eight horsepower motor my Gheenoe will push two anglers 17-20 miles per hour all day while sipping gas. It will pole comfortably in about five inches, letting us sneak up on carp (or redfish!) we could never approach on foot.
But it is a boat, and boats are constant learning experiences. As we motored away from the ramp, Andrew warned me about securing my outboard to the transom with a chain in case I hit a submerged log and knocked it loose. I laughed and said I would get to it. Sure enough, his warning proved prophetic: about two hours later, with a clank and a splash, my motor was on the bottom in shallow water. I was unhappy, but filled with confidence. After all, I was a boatbuilder now. I looked at Andrew and he looked straight back: “Dude,” he assured me, “we can fix anything.”
This article originally ran in the Fall 2012 issue of Fly Rod & Reel magazine. A companion post to this article with more detail on the Gheenoe rebuild can be found here: Rebuilding a Gheenoe