Ron Downs & Fred Smith
If we’re going to have a discussion about building small wooden boats, we would be remiss to not at least mention the Smith Brothers of Samish Island, WA. Legends in the small boat business, they started building boats circa 1960. Since then, they have literally cranked out thousands of boats from their little shop. Although I haven’t been there, I’ve heard they cut a hole in the wall so that longer boards could be worked on the bench during the winter. A couple of the more popular boats they’ve produced over the years are the Pelican and the El Toro.
We’ve discussed the Pelican and its cousins above, but I wanted to add that the Smiths made so many Pelicans that they used to host an annual regatta here in the San Juan Islands. So many Pelicans would camp on a specific beach in the 70’s that it officially became a park and was named Pelican Beach.
Fred’s Pram mold
Now let’s discuss the Smith Brothers’ El Toro. I have had numerous run ins with El Toros over the years. You can still find them for sale on Craigslist. You can also buy old-school plans for them. They are essentially 8’ prams, similar in design to the Eastport pram that I build a few years ago. Some have buoyancy tanks built in, some just look like wooden bathtubs. Legend has it that the Smith Brothers have this well worn mold that they build hundreds of El Toros with over the years (see above). The El Toro was designed in Richmond, CA (where I used to live) by some members of the local yacht club. They wanted a sturdy boat that could be raced and was easy to build by a parent and child team. You can still walk through the boat yard at Richmond Yacht Club and see dozens of El Toros, all with the same hull, but with completely different interiors. I had the opportunity to run a boating store in Seattle for a few years and our front counter was literally a large piece of Lexan sitting on top of a Smith Brothers El Toro. Pretty cool, huh?
Another interesting thing about El Toros is that although they were originally intended for kids, for over 40 years, there’s been an annual race across San Francisco Bay called the Bullship. We all plop our adult bodies into our El Toros that we’ve built, bought or borrowed and sail from Sausalito over to San Francisco. After my first Bullship I was actually very close to building a perfect El Toro in order to use it as a plug to form a carbon fiber hull over it to do the race again the next year.
There’s a great episode of the Hooked on Wooden Boats podcast where Wooden Boat Dan talks about the Smith brothers. It’s been a couple of years since I last listened to it, but I seem to remember they could crank out a boat in just a few days. Considering I’m almost 250 hours into mine, that’s pretty mind-blowing. I would love to hop into a time machine and go back and be able to spend a day in their shop watching/helping these guys crank out some boats in their prime.
If you consider that these guys were building boats old-school, just imagine what a small shop could crank out of their Maslow was spitting out parts up against the wall while you’re stitching them together on the sawhorses while the epoxy is curing on another one over in the corner. If we ever have a Renaissance of small, wooden water craft, it would be immensely fulfilling to be able to crank out a new boat every few days for some lucky owner to be able to go mess about on a local lake. I used to spend my Sundays sailing my Eastport pram on Greenlake in Seattle and they were some of my best days.
El Toros on Greenlake, Seattle circa 1970