RIGGING UP HISTORY: Vessel once native to the area will set sail again

A Florida skipjack that would have taken about six months to build in the late-19th century will finally set sail on the Matanzas River, capping a three-year project to create a replica of the historic vessel.


The launch, set for Thursday at the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum, will provide an opportunity for onlookers to catch a glimpse of what was once a popular working boat out on the water again as it makes its way from Salt Run to Matanzas Bay. The ceremony will begin at 5:30 p.m. at the boat ramp, and shortly after a large jib will fly forward from the top of the mast to the end of the bowsprit before the 20-foot handcrafted wooden boat begins her maiden voyage.

The event is the culmination of years of planning and work by Heritage Boatworks, which revives the traditions of wooden boatbuilding common in Northeast Florida more than 100 years ago. The work is overseen by the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program and carried out by a team of volunteers. Projects involve extensive research into carpentry techniques of the time, as well as the native materials used.

The Florida skipjack is made entirely of Florida red cypress except for its gussets and pivoted center board, which reinforce the frame and are crafted from Florida live oak.

The vessel was designed by St. Augustine resident Richard Sexauer with help from half a dozen volunteers, including Sam Turner, an archaeologist who serves as the director of Heritage Boatworks. One of the sources Turner consulted was a 20-page document from 1936 filled with field notes on everything from the kind of fasteners used to secure ribs and joinery, to how to properly bend cypress into plank pieces to form the hull of the craft.

The latter was one of the challenges the crew encountered in the project.

“Planking a boat is not as easy as it looks,” Turner said, adding that some of the cypress planks splintered earlier on in the process.

Work on the skipjack was made possible through grant funding from the St. Augustine Lighthouse and other sources, as well as revenue Heritage Boatworks takes in through its raffling off of other boats the group has constructed, like the 1760 Yawl it currently has on display on the museum grounds.

In the first three years after forming in 2007, Heritage Boatworks completed six boats. The group has also been contracted to make repairs to existing vessels, including most recently a War of 1812 replica Privateer Lynx.

According to Turner, the Florida skipjack was an important part of St. Augustine history, used primarily as a commercial fishing boat on the waterways around the area. After its run Thursday, the group plans to set up a permanent display of the skipjack at the lighthouse and also take it out on a weekly basis. An official name will be bestowed on the vessel at its launching this week.

Turner hopes that boat enthusiasts as well as local history buffs will come out for the event.

“It’s the official act of commencing the working life of a boat — it’s a christening,” Turner said. “We want everyone out in St. Augustine to see it on the bay, because it’s bringing back a part of St. Augustine’s past.”

If you go

What: Launch of the replica Florida skipjack

When: 5:30 p.m. Thursday, July 13

Where: St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum, 81 Lighthouse Ave.

For information: Call 829-0745; the event is free and open to the public.