Florida’s fleet: A discussion about boat building in the Sunshine State

March 24, 2017
By Marcy Shortuse

BY SUE ERWIN – Island residents attended a presentation featuring maritime archeologist Brendan Burke on Tuesday, March 14 in the Boca Grade Community Center Auditorium.
Burke, a researcher of commercial fishing and shrimping, works for the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum. His presentation included stories and photos of people from the early 1900s catching shrimp and building boats.
He explained that during the early 20th century, a new type of boat was born in Northeast Florida. The Florida style trawler became one of the most important boats in the history of the state from 1919 through the 1980s. Florida supplied the world with trawlers and fishing boats of all types.
“People have assumed that Florida has no export industry in the past, but these early family boat makers were sending wooden vessels to China by the late 1950s,” Burke said.
He said some families in Greece started manufacturing boats in the early 1900s and several of them relocated to Tarpon Springs and continued making the boats there.
In the early 1900s, the builders followed the concept of Anemoi; a wind compass based on the association of seasons to better understand weather conditions. They learned to build vessels that could withstand the water when high-pressure systems created strong northerly winds.
Burke showed photos of Mt Etna, the first offshore shrimp boat built in Florida by the Versaggi family.
Most of the boats at that time were made up of cypress and pine. Round bottom boats were made to take on rough seas, while flat bottom boats were good for calmer waters.
He showed photos of the Corbett, another original shrimp trawler built in St. Augustine in the 1920s.
“By the 1930s, long boats with gas engines and small cabins were big enough and powerful enough to take out on overnight trips.
Burke said the “Doodlebug” is Florida’s oldest surviving fishing vessel and is currently moored in St. Augustine.
The cutting edge of commercial fishing happened when diesel engines were put in boats during the late 1950s.
Burke co-authored a book, “Shrimp Boat City: An illustrated essay of St. Augustine’s connections to commercial shrimping and boat building,” with colleague Ed Long. The book is about how the industry was 100 years ago and how it has changed over the last century.
“It’s the story of American ingenuity in a place that you don’t necessarily expect for it to happen— this sleepy little fishing village in Florida,” Burke said. “As a maritime historian, I’m used to looking at things that happened 200 years ago, but this is a very recent part of Northeast Florida and St. Augustine’s history.”
The Boca Grande Historical Society sponsored the program.
For more information, visit bocagrandehistoricalsociety.com or call 964-1600.