Smith Brothers Prams

I took this article from Duckworks Magazine, Im thinking of restoring a Smith Brothers Pram and set it up for fly fishing. There is something especially charming about a wooden boat.

The epicenter of San Francisco Pelican activity in the Pacific Northwest is a small white house on Samish Island, not far from Mount Vernon, Washington. For forty years, Fred and Don Smith were the premier builders of the Bill Short-designed 12-foot wooden lug-rigged dinghy. Don died a few years ago and Fred, who’s about to turn 80, sold the original jig to a boatbuilder named Owen Huffaker, but he’s still the local historian, construction expert and all-around guru to San Francisco PelicanViking Fleet III, based primarily in Puget Sound and Oregon.

The Smith brothers lived in Mount Vernon and spent their summers on Samish Island. Sometimes, young Fred would ride his bicycle the 15 miles from Mount Vernon just to lie on the beach and daydream about the boats that he would own someday.

The boys moved to Samish Island full-time in 1945. Don joined the Merchant Marine and Fred oystered for a few years and then got a job at a filbert farm. He built his house in 1949 and supported a family on a salary of $1.00 an hour. They fished and clammed, grew their own produce and bartered for the rest. Fred admits that “sometimes the money got a little tight.”

Although they had always lived around water, neither of the brothers had ever built a boat. In 1960, they decided that it would be nice to have a shallow-draft boat that could be beached on the mud flats out behind Fred’s house, so they built a 24-foot plywood catamaran in their spare time. In the process, they discovered that, according to Fred, “We were bad designers and good builders.” The catamaran was fine, but it was hard to get to during high tide, so they moved it out to a buoy and set about building themselves an 8-foot pram with plans that they bought for 50 cents from U.S. Plywood. When the neighbors came around asking the boys to build more prams, the Smith brothers found themselves in the boatbuilding business. They could easily turn out two boats a day, but they soon ran out of neighbors to buy them, so they contracted with sporting goods stores in the area to sell the boats for them. The prams were available in 8, 12 and 14-foot lengths and they were perfect drift boats for fly fisherman and duck hunters. The boats were so popular that the brothers quit their day jobs and began building boats full-time. “Besides,” Fred says, “It paid better than the filbert farm.” Smith’s Boat Shop was in business.

In 1963, Fred read an article in Rudder magazine about a guy down in California who was building small wooden sailboats with a sampan bow and a lot of freeboard. He paid $35 for a set of Bill Short’s plans and the Smith brothers built their first Pelican, hull #41, in two weeks. Fred says of the stubby little boat: “The Pelican is sort of an ugly duckling. But it’s like our own child. You got to love it.”

Although they had done very little sailing and no racing at all, Fred and Don loaded the Pelican onto a trailer and entered the 1964 West Coast Pelican Championships on San Francisco Bay. They finished in first place, sold the boat and went home to build more Pelicans. To prove that the first win wasn’t a fluke, they entered again the next year and proceeded to win by over three minutes. They won the championship three years in a row and retired the George Ingram Pelican Association Perpetual Trophy. “It was a pretty good way to sell boats,” Fred says. The Smiths added a kickup rudder and a heavier tiller to the basic Pelican design, making it more suited to Puget Sound’s shallow launch and recovery sites.

A year later, Bill Short offered the Smith brothers the Pacific Northwest franchise to build and sell Pelican sailboats; their territory eventually expanded to include California, making them one of only five Pelican boatbuilders in the United States. It took a week for Don and Fred to build a Pelican; Don was left-handed and Fred was right-handed, which meant that they could work in perfect synchronization. Fred still has his original copy of Bill Short’s plans and a logbook containing information about every one of the 580 Pelicans that have passed through the Smith Boat Shop.

The Smiths never spend a cent on advertising. “It’s all been word of mouth,” says Fred. “Even the boat shows didn’t sell our boats. If you don’t believe in your own product, you won’t stay in business.”

Fred and Don built their first El Toro sailboat in 1965. “We needed more work,” says Fred, so when a sailing friend suggested the 8-foot pram, the boys added the El Toro to their inventory. Designed in 1940 as a training sailboat and yacht tender, the little boat was simpler to build than the Pelican, so the Smiths could easily trailer 10-14 boats a month to California, where the El Toro was popular for clubs and youth programs. At one point, the brothers were the largest El Toro producers in the country. “We stopped counting after the first thousand,” explains Fred. They supplied El Toros to the Olympia and Everett Parks Departments and the Seattle Parks Department for use on Green Lake. The Oak Harbor Yacht Club still relies on El Toros for their youth sailing program. For a number of years, Don was the regional representative for the El Toro Association and a keen racer. He used to bring a six-boat trailer and a gang of kids from Samish Island to the Green Lake El Toro races so that they could learn first-hand about sailing and sportsmanlike behavior.

In 1972, the Oklahoma City Boat Club ordered a flock of 12 Pelicans, the largest single order the boys had ever filled. Don and Fred made two trips to Oklahoma, pulling a boat trailer loaded with bare hulls, hardware and completed boats. Wooden Boat magazine ran an article about Fred and Don and their Pelicans in 1978. Fred says they got so many orders that folks had to wait months for delivery. A rumor got around that the Smith Boat Shop couldn’t produce. Never one to mince words, Fred put out the word that there would be at least a year-long wait for boats, so a lot of people cancelled immediately. Problem solved.

An article in Sailing magazine describes the Orcas Island Pelican Project, in which a group of 9 high school kids built their own boats and sailed them 250 miles down the east side of Vancouver Island. The Smith brothers fabricated parts for the boats and spent two days instructing the kids on fiberglassing techniques.

San Francisco Pelican Viking Fleet III came into being when a group of Pelican owners began getting together to cruise the San Juan Islands on Sunday afternoons. Someone finally suggested that the sailors try racing their boats in Samish Bay. This backyard regatta eventually grew to include as many as 100 Pelicans and El Toros and over 280 skippers and crew. Days were spent rigging and racing and evenings were devoted to eating Fred’s barbecued salmon and telling boating tales. Don applied for a fleet number and Viking Fleet III was born.

Viking Fleet III cruises all summer and races in the winter and spring. The cruising season opens officially with a Mother’s Day Cruise to Pelican Beach, which is a free Department of Natural Resources campsite on the northeast side of Cypress Island, where the Smith boys camped as kids. Pelicaneers have been pulling their boats up on the sand and camping on this site for 35 years. In 1983, members of Viking Fleet III banded together with the DNR to built a picnic shelter. When Cypress Island was turned into a Marine Park complete with mooring buoys, picnic tables and toilet facilities, the DNR made its nickname official. Pelican Beach is one of Fred Smith’s most gratifying achievements. “I feel like I’ve left my mark on the earth,” he says proudly.

In August of every year, Fred leads a week-long cruise through the San Juans, ending at Turn Island, just outside of Friday Harbor. A highlight of the cruise is the Annual Pelican Single-Handed Turn Island Circumnavigation Race, complete with spectators walking the perimeter of the island, cheering and shouting advice to the racers. Fred holds the distinction of having come in first and third in the same race: “I finished so far ahead of the other boats that I went around again,” he says cheerfully. “Of course, I knew the currents.” He takes part in the Wednesday night Pelican regattas on Whidbey Island and still finishes at the head of the pack.

When Don died in 2003, Fred reorganized and reopened the shop under the same name. These days, Fred and his son-in-law Ron, who lives next door, build custom 8 and 10-foot prams. There’s no time frame – the boat gets done when Fred finishes it. As he says, “We’re retired and we’re as busy as we want to be.” The workshop, actually a large shed, is still heated by a woodstove. The small space is crammed with hand tools, bits of hardware and cans of varnish. It gives the impression that nothing has been moved since the boat shop opened in 1961. Fred’s salmon smoker stands by the back door and his little motorboat lies on the mud flats, waiting for high tide.

Fred Smith is a happy man. He told me that he’s had a good life, “not a rich life, but a good one”. He’s proud of the fact that every boat he ever built was paid for before it left his shop and he’s never in 40 years gotten a bad check. Customers become family – when they come to pick up their completed boats, they often stay the night at Fred’s house and enjoy one of his mammoth fresh seafood dinners and then return the favor whenever he’s in their neck of the woods. Fred enjoys nothing more than hosting a gathering of Pelicaneers in his backyard, which looks out over Padilla Bay toward Hatt’s Island. Folks often bring their boats with them and do a little sailing before supper.

He’s very pleased that the San Francisco Pelican is enjoying a resurgence in popularity. “I’d have felt like a failure if the Pelican died before I did,” he says. Thanks to the Smith brothers, that’s not ever likely to happen. ~ Jim Brown.

WOW… it’d been almost a year since I published this blog, but I ended up buying a 10′ Smith Brother’s Boat today and joined the fraternity of Chuck G., Jim T., and Thao T., I must admit; while wood is not the best material for a boat, it is the most romatic. Trust me… I’ve owned them all: plastic, aluminum, and fiberglass, but I must confess that I’ve always admired the wood boat from afar. Probably the most notable was Carlo N’s. boat in B.C., his father handmade that pram for him with a strip Cedar process and its a work of art. I think that fishing from most other devices is unjust to the trout.

Many will argue of the maintenance and the usability of wood, but nobody can deny the charm, allure and the beauty. This beast that I picked up today was in need of an extreme make over.  I was a bit ambitious at first, but when I counted the time that I would spend stripping the whole boat, re-epoxying or glassing the boat, and then re-varnish both the interior and exterior, I thought it’d be best to take it to Fred and have him heal her.

I never knew the idea of wood being alive, but it is. There is no other material that can be molded, shaped, and formed other than from our Lord’s own gift. Mahoghany. Mahoghany. I love you, Mahoghany.

Keep posted on the details of the restoration…

And, btw… Smith Brother’s Boats have not done ANY advertising as their sales have been completely via word of mouth. Fred mentioned to me that normally this time they have a standing backorder of boats and folks are on the waiting list. With the exception of Thao T’s. 8′ in the shop, it was void. My 10′ restoration will help, but they wouldn’t mind a few more orders.

Funny… how things come around. I tried to find a phone or website or something for Fred Smith, but came up with nothing, except for my blog post. I realized that I can help him out by posting his PHONE NUMBER here, so with his permission, here is the contact for Fred Smith. His son in law Ron helps him now with the builds, but all the history and charm of Don still lives with each one of these masterpieces. God bless him.

Fred Smith: 360-766-7667

Categories: Discussion | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “Smith Brothers Prams

  1. Chuck Gold

    Paul, I am so glad that Chol’s boat found a home where there will be love and caring, much like an orphaned child that was starved for attention. I have owned a Smith Brothers pram in either 8 foot or 10 foot lengths since 1969. My first one was purchased from a Sporting goods shop in Sedro Woolley. I saw it leaning against the outside of the building as I drove through town one day, so I stopped and inquired about it. The price was $200.00 and although I was on a tight budget, I convinced myself that I deserved it so the deal was made. I painted it Armoury Green and modified it slightly to accomodate a fly-fisherman, and that was the beginning of my relationship with the Smith name.
    In a short time my father bought one and then my brother Bill bought one so all the fly fishermen in the Gold family were fishing advertisements for the prams. I can not count how many customers I have sent their way, but they are certainly numerous and part of the “word of mouth” advertising that Fred talks about in the article.
    In 1988, when I moved back to the lower 48 after living in Alaska for 15 years, I headed directly for Samish Island and re-connected with Fred and Don, and had them custom build a pram for me with the fly fishing and rowing features that I had implented on my original boat. Most of the features available on Fred’s list today, are a result of modifications that I have made to my own prams over the years.
    Since then I have purchased an 8 footer and two 10 footers, having given the 1988 boat to my son who lives in the San Juan Islands and needed a skiff to get out to his bouy moored sail boat. I gave the 8 footer to a young man that worked at H&H sporting goods in Bellingham, still am fishing out of one of the 10 footers and am varnishing and outfitting one that I bought in 2006 as insurance against Fred going out of business that I had stored in my barn. It is going to be my luxury pram, only to be used at easy launch destinations where no scarring or scraping will be tolerated. I trust you will enjoy your new vessel as much as I have mine over these many years and that many fish will be brought to the gunnels of that fine craft. God Bless, Chuck

    • Chuck, as you mentioned, I am not in the Fraternity of the Smith Boat’s and will be proud to fish alongside you and the other stillwater fishers. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


  2. Ed Hardegree

    Hello. thanks. i bought an 8 footer las fall and will be restoring her this summer. We stay with friends on Camano Is. Pictures and how the boats were constructed, especially the topsides finish would be helpful. Thanks for any additional info. Via con frijolis from the MX/AZ border, Ed

  3. Ed Hardegree

    Hello. What a wonderful history and great incentive to keep their traditions alive. Cannot wait to get back to the NW and enjoy your weather, your water and wooden boats. Ed

  4. In the late 90s I purchased an El Toro that had a rotten mast, upon some inquiry I located the Smth Bros and traveled to Samish Island. What i saw was a very small and modest workshop–neat, clean and efficient. There were no sofisticated wood-working tools however the mast they sold me was a work of art! Taking it home and applying several coats of varnish I found ther was no way I could use that old boom with this beatiful mast–so–back to Smith Bros shop fo a new boom. I also was able to admire some of their Pelicans and a 10ft utility Pram they were producing. With 50yrs involved with boats I ‘ll have to admit that Wood is still a Glorious Boatbuilding material—it has the best Feel and Sense about it. Fred treated me well and I distinctly had the feeling he enjoyed his work!

  5. Richard Serr

    I vividly remember buying my first sailboat in 1968. My dad had home built an El Toro but it was heavy and didn’t meet the class measurement criteria. A budding racer, I had to have a Smith Brother’s boat. It quickly proved it’s worth as the fastest boat in our Port Angeles fleet. I happily raced that little boat all over western Washington until I grauduated from high school and moved on to other things. A few years ago I ran into one of my old high school teachers. I was delighted to learn that he had acquired my old boat, restored it, and that it was still in regular use after more than 40 years. An amazing tribute to Fred and Don’s work.

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