For Hog Island Boat Works founder John St. John, Jr., necessity is indeed the mother of invention. Growing up as an avid fly fisherman and boat enthusiast, St. John started tinkering with various types of small to moderate sized watercrafts back in the late 1970s.
“I’ve always been a boat guy,” said St. John. “I started out with a fiberglass kayak and then graduated into various rigs like skiffs, dories, rafts, you name it.”
Fast forward to 1999, a time when St. John received a phone call that would change his life … not to mention the art of making affordable and almost indestructible boats.
“The concept for our boats, which use rotational molding in their construction, started when I got a phone call from my brother who was working with Disney on a project in Baja at their Titanic exhibit,” said St. John.
“He told me that they had made a 16-foot craft for a water boat ride that was made out of this roto-molded material and he asked if I thought I could make a drift boat out of it.
“The longer I thought about it, the more I thought this material made sense for a building a durable boat.”
After growing up in Tennessee and Maryland – with plenty of time spent in Florida as well – St. John had found his way west and had guided for trout on streams in places like California and Wyoming.
Those experiences chasing rainbows, browns and cutthroats caused the light bulb to come on in St. John’s head about the need for a unique drift boat, one that could float in inches of water and yet still be tough and durable enough to take a beating while floating through rock-infested whitewater chutes.
“At the end of the day, all I wanted to do was to bring out the first drift boat that was roto-molded to the market,” said St. John. “Through some trial and error, that’s exactly what we did in 2003.”
What he did was build a drift boat that was virtually indestructible, one that doesn’t sink even if it has a hole punctured in it and a craft that meets a guide’s demanding needs in a most unusual way.
For several years, St. John, who now lives and builds his boats in Steamboat Springs, Colo., was content to build his LTD 16 roto-molded drift boat under the Hog Island Boat Works banner (www.hogislandboatworks.com).
But then his Eastern roots began to surface and he remembered a basic skiff design that he had crabbed out of in Maryland and fished for saltwater species down on the Florida Gulf coastline near Pine Island.
“Most of the boats in Florida and the Keys are expensive fiberglass skiffs,” said St. John. “They work great but you just cringe when you’re coming back in during the dark and you’re running these boats over sand, oyster bars and rocks.
“Trust me, it’s not a pleasant experience getting out and pushing one of these boats off a high spot that you’ve found on the ride back in as all light is gone.”
That got St. John to thinking again about using rotational molding to make a new boat at Hog Island, except this time one that will work on a skinny saltwater flat as well as in deep water with a moderate chop on an inland lake or along the coast.
“I had this idea for a modified skiff that combined some of the best features of the boats I grew up using – dories and semi-v bottoms in Maryland and flatbottom johnboats in Tennessee,” said St. John.
“I also wanted to build in some of the features of some garage-built single person poling skiffs I had found during my time in Florida. I was really intrigued by the idea of a lightweight 14- or 15-foot skiff that you could pole the skinny water with and put a 15-horse (motor) on the back.”
With all of that floating around in his head, St. John went about the business of designing a boat that would combine the best features of those crafts and result in a tough, lightweight roto-molded boat that would meet a variety of angler needs while still being very efficient and affordable.
A “Swiss Army Knife” kind of boat, if you will.
“All of it started to come together and I made the first drawings for the boat in 2006,” he said. “I built a wooden version by 2008 and tested it out a lot on lakes and back in Florida at Pine Island.”
Featuring a flatbottom at the back and a “very shallow v-front that gives the boat a chance to cut through a 1.5- to 2.5-foot chop,” the rig also checks in with a uniquely shaped sidewall that helps with water displacement and spray.
After some tinkering and modifications over the next couple of years, St. John finally had the modified skiff design that he wanted, one that could be poled on a skinny saltwater flat, rowed on a Western trout stream, or used with a jet motor on a rocky river in Alaska.
“We made some final computerized schematics and drew the shape of the boat that we have out right now and started making them a few years ago,” said St. John. “The first year, we made eight. Last year we made 36 and so far this year, we’ve made 65 of them.”
That includes one particular Hog Island SW 16 Skiff model that has brought a number of rave reviews after it was “tested” at the 2014 Orvis Guide Rendezvous gathering in Missoula, Mont.
Why the rave reviews? Because St. John dropped it down nearly 15 feet from an elevated fork lift onto a rock and gravel parking area just to prove how tough the rig really is.
“That boat was actually already sold, so I was pretty nervous,” laughed St. John.
He needn’t be; the boat fell, bounced a couple of times and settled down before a tough crowd of fly fishing guides and outfitters that had gathered to watch.
Editor’s note: Want to watch the boat drop? Check it out on the company’s video page: www.hogislandboatworks.com/videos.php.
“There was no problem with the boat,” said St. John. “Not even any real cosmetic scratches, just a couple of stains.
“That boat had been purchased by a wife who was buying it for her husband’s 50th birthday and that same rig is now living a happy life with him. He thinks the fact that he owns this boat that was dropped down from a forklift is really cool.”
What’s really cool about St. John’s SW 16 Skiff is that it has an easy price point. The rig in Orlando this week at ICAST/IFTD 2014 would sell for a bit more than $7,000 with the boat, motor, trailer, steering console and poling platform included.
With a triple layer polymer hull construction, the boat checks in with a total weight of 450 pounds. The skiff also has a total length of 16 feet, 4 inches, a 78-inch beam, and a 20-inch transom height. Finally, with multiple configuration possibilities available and a “plug-and-play” accessory system, the SW 16 Skiff features a top motor rating of 40 horsepower and a U.S. Coast Guard weight rating for five adults or 1,250 pounds.
“The response here at ICAST and IFTD has been very positive,” said St. John. “This rig has lots of different uses for a variety of anglers and we think that for a modest cost, anyone can have a nice little boat to use all over the country.”
With Hog Island boats scattered all over the Mountain West, the southeast’s various Gulf and Atlantic coastlines and on rivers up in Alaska, that would seem to be true.
It’s a rig that works in a number of different settings, even one in a dusty gravel parking lot in Montana.
And that’s a rig worth going Hog Island wild over.
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