The immortal aluminum skiff

A great many cruising sailors swear by their rigid-hulled inflatable dinghies. The cream-of-the-crop is, apparently, a 10 to 14 foot Hypalon-tubed, fibreglass-bottomed thing with a two-stroke Yamaha on the back. Some folks start with something smaller and less rigid, but the small RIBs eventually dominate.

Up in Northern Ontario, though, such a vessel would be unthinkable. Almost every lake has rocks and deadheads that would tear an inflatable apart. The docks are rough, the winters are harsh, the repair facilities are non-existent. There's lumber to carry, fish to land and young skippers to teach.

Here, the humble, immortal aluminum skiff is king.

Princecraft, Lund, Springbok- these are names to reckon with up North. The boats, fabricated by the thousands out of heavy aluminum sheeting, are the sort of simple, nondescript things you simply wouldn't notice anywhere else. The average age of the fleet is well over 30 years. I dare you to show me a fleet of intact inflatables one-third of that age!

Stack of small metal skiffs on a beach in front of a forest

Maintenance on these boats is pretty simple. When they're not in use, they get dragged up on shore and flipped over. And... well, really, that's just about it. I've never seen one being cleaned or painted.

On rare occasions, rivets will loosen up and start to leak. The proper way to fix this is for two people to hammer them tight, using a heavy maul or sledge on one side and a hammer on the other, which will buy the boat another ten or fifteen years. Not everyone knows this, though, and sealant goops are cheap.

Upside-down aluminum skiff with sealant-coated rivet heads

Sheet aluminum skiffs are pretty darned close to indestructible. A long-standing ritual of childhood around here is learning how to start the cranky old two-strokes, learning how to steer, learning how to dock, and eventually earning permission to take the skiff out alone. There are inevitably a few collisions with docks and rocks along the way. The boats take it all in stride, decade after decade.

And while they may not look "yachty", little metal skiffs, like the ten-horse Springbok I learned to drive in, have an aura of elegant practicality that is somehow fitting for this beautiful, rugged region.

Aluminum skiff docked on a calm shore

33 years old and she's still looking fine. I wonder how many more children will have their first turn at the helm in her.



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