More on the Lafitte Skiff
The Lafitte skiff is found throughout South Louisiana waterways and in the adjoining states of Mississippi and Texas. In most cases, the semi-V design of the bow tapers to a flat stern. This stern almost always has a fantail. The lines of this boat start with a rather sharp bow angling out to rounded sides before straightening at the rear. Its stability, versatility and ruggedness make it popular. Some typical dimensions for the skiff are as follows: 28 feet long by 10 feet wide or 32 feet long by 13 feet wide.
Because it is a good working platform, the boat is most frequently used for trawling for shrimp in the coastal inland waters and for crabbing. These are relatively shallow waters in which a deep draft boat is not practical. The skiff is built for speed to rush the perishable shrimp and crabs to market. It can attain speeds up to 50 miles per hour depending on its power plant. This speed allows a shrimper to cover larger areas in his search for shrimp. If no shrimp are found in one bay, he can speed on to another one.
The rigging of the Lafitte skiff for shrimping is a trawl net ranging from 20 to 50 feet with two ropes each about 100 feet long and two trawl boards. The fantail serves dual purposes: as a work area and as a flat storage space for the boards. A small winch and derrick are sometimes installed in the back of the boat to handle the net and boards. A large rectangular box is fitted across the boat near the bow to sort out the shrimp, crabs, and other bycatch. This procedure is done while the next trawl is underway. It is always colorful to see a skiff with a flock of seagulls behind it because this is a sure sign that its occupants are separating the shrimp from the bycatch.
Another type of rigging used on Lafitte skiffs is the butterfly net. The net is attached to a rectangular shaped frame that holds the mouth of the net open.
Two nets are rigged, one on each side of the boat. The bottom part of the frame will have a skid of iron to protect the framework in case it hits bottom. In using this type of net, it is best to wait until the tide starts to flow out. The skiff is then headed against the tide; the nets are lowered, and slow steady progress is made at speeds of about 4 to 6 knots. Some boats are rigged with both the trawl net and the butterfly net, however only one type of net can be used at one time.
Another interesting feature of the Lafitte skiff is the simple but effective rigging of a rectangular tarpaulin over 3/4 of the length of the boat. This provides shelter from the hot Louisiana sun and makes a cool, airy working space when sorting the catch.
The cockpit area of smaller skiffs is mounted in the middle and is simple in design, housing a steering wheel on the dashboard with temperature gauge, tachometer and similar instruments. On larger boats a cabin is built with a windshield over the cockpit area. The bigger the boat the more elaborate the cabin. In some instances, the cabin can be taken off in the summer and put back on in the winter. The most popular design is, by far the open hull since it provides more open room.
Sportsmen also use the skiff for fishing inshore and offshore, because it is a very stable fishing platform. Its size usually prohibits towing, which limits its use to the average sportsman.
Through the auspices of the Center for Traditional Louisiana Boatbuilding, located on the campus of Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana, research regarding wooden boat building in South Louisiana is being conducted. Efforts were made to locate and interview wooden boat builders. One of the results of this search was the discovery of a well-known skiff builder in the little bayou town of Lafitte, Louisiana.
The boat builder was Mr. Emile Dufrene, who said he was the father of the Lafitte skiff. Mr. Dufrene did not claim to have originated the Lafitte skiff; as it was originally flat bottomed and narrow. His claim was that he originated the semi-V hulled skiff as it is today. Mr. Dufrene was a unique boatbuilder. He built hundreds of wooden boats with no blueprints or plans of any kind. The plans were all in his head. This in itself is a remarkable feat because no two boats are the same in size or features.
Mr. Dufrene boatshed is a long rectangular wood and tin roofed structure that opens at one end on Bayou Lafitte, making the launching of completed boats quick and easy. This boatshed has been in the same location for over 50 years and is showing signs of wear and tear. The main working area of the shed is down the middle. Both sides are cluttered with 50 years of wood remnants and miscellaneous tools. A pleasant smell from the different kinds of wood used in building the skiffs pervades the air in the shed.
Mr. Dufrene was an inspired and gifted craftsman in wooden boat building. Mild-mannered and soft-spoken with an air of authority regarding the subject of the Lafitte skiff was the best way to describe Emile Dufrene when he was talking about boats. He was the acknowledged leader in the building of Lafitte skiffs.
When constructing a Lafitte skiff, Mr. Dufrene started with a bow stem and keel. For the keel, Mr. Dufrene wanted a good stiff timber such as pine. If good pine is not available, he would use Douglas fir. He would then add what he called 5 or 6 model ribs, and then start the siding.
The planking for the siding were usually dressed boards of cypress. The cypress available today, according to Mr. Dufrene, is kiln-dried cypress and is not as good as naturally dried cypress. Some air-dried cypress can be found, but it takes up to a year or more to dry, he said.
Spanish cedar available from South America has been taking the place of cypress to a great extent Mr. Dufrene used it for the bow stem and sometimes as planking for the sides. He sometimes used marine plywood for the siding, depending on the desire of the customer. Whichever material is used is applied on the bottom and sides. The decking of the skiffs is made of exterior plywood because it is more waterproof. All seams are glued.
Stainless steel nails are used with plastic wood or fiberglass as putty over the heads. In thicker boards, wooden plugs are used over the nail heads.
Mr. Dufrene's skiffs were powered by either gasoline engines or diesel engines fitted with marine manifolds. A Chevrolet 454 cubic inch engine was frequently used, which powers the skiff adequately. All engines are boxed in or recessed in the floor. Diesel engines are more fuel efficient and more powerful when properly geared. A diesel engine also costs more. The gasoline engine produces 300 or more horsepower and speeds of up to 50 miles per hour. A gear reduction of 11/2 to 1 is recommended for the gasoline engine. This will prolong engine life and improve load-carrying abilities. Mr. Dufrene could make a Lafitte skiff that can be powered by an outboard motor. It is a simple matter of cutting out the fantail for mounting the outboard with no difference in the overall design.
The customary paint job of the Lafitte skiff is a white hull with blue or red trimmings. A unique touch on some of the boats is the addition of a design over the exhaust ports. This is possibly due to the French Mediterranean influence. About three times a year the skiff has to be picked up out of the water for copper painting of the bottom. This is to combat the shipworms that are prevalent in the warm waters of South Louisiana. A properly cared for Dufrene boat can last up to 40 years. In fact, Mr. Dufrene was quick to identify some older boats he built which are still in operation.
As long as there are fish, shrimp, and crabs in the waters of South Louisiana there will be fishermen who will use the Lafitte skiff. It is truly a wooden boat that is unique to South Louisiana waterways and a classic of southern watercrafts.