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Even in Port Aransas, where boats often appear on dry land, the skeleton of a 19th-century schooner demands a closer look. My double take stopped my car outside Farley Boat Works, on Avenue C, just a few blocks from the ferry landing.
Judging by the beams and wooden framing, the boat looked like the younger sister of one of the pirate ships that once plied the waters of the nearby Gulf of Mexico.
“This is a replica of a truly Texas type of boat,” explains Rick Pratt, a friendly fellow with a good-natured piratical bearing. With his weathered countenance and impish grin, Pratt clearly loves sharing his knowledge of watercraft and the craft of building them.
“This is a boat that no one has seen for decades,” he says, “but it would have been common around Port Lavaca in the 1880s.
“This is the kind of boat that would have served as a freighter in those days, delivering the mail and navigating through the shallow passes where the water is no more than 3 feet deep.”
But why here? And why now?
The answer to both questions is that Farley Boat Works is actually a living museum. Aspiring seafarers, families and groups come here to build their own boats. Anyone willing and able is encouraged to construct a boat. The 60-foot schooner taking shape in the back lot is one of the larger projects—but the craft can be as simple as a small skiff or as complicated as a wooden cabin cruiser similar to one the original Farley Boat Works built that transported President Franklin D. Roosevelt on his legendary tarpon fishing excursions in 1937.
Pratt introduces me to shop manager Frank Coletta, who takes up the story.
“We help people build all kinds of boats,” Coletta says. “We provide the shop space as well as all the tools and guidance.”
How long does this take?
“We have a waiting list, but a typical skiff will take about two months,” he says. “A family with five or six people can build the same boat in about two weeks.” Could be a vacation project for an ambitious family.
The three of us walk over to a stack of wood shapes. Coletta points to the pile of plywood and lumber, and says, “We actually can build one of these kits in about three days.”
The kit approach might be more appropriate for today’s time-challenged boat builders who still want to invest their sweat equity in the experience of assembling a true heirloom.
“I got my start in a place like this on the West Coast,” Coletta says. “It was during a plywood boat festival. But there wasn’t one like it in Texas.”
On that note, Pratt says that Farley Boat Works is a project of the Port Aransas Preservation and Historical Association.
Now, why “Farley”?
“The Farleys started their boat works in 1915, back when Port Aransas was set up to become a port,” he explains. “Then two major hurricanes hit in 1916 and 1919, and the dream of a true port was dead.”
So, he says, the Farleys decided that Port Aransas should become a sport-fishing destination. One angler requested that they add a cabin to make the standard skiff more comfortable on a hot day, and the resulting boat made the Farleys famous, Pratt says.
That was in the days when catching the fierce and feisty tarpon was the goal of many a sport angler visiting Port A. Then FDR made his much-discussed and well-documented visits.
Pratt guides me to one of the nearby storage units and unlocks the door so the sunlight can illuminate the battered frame of one of the original Farley boats, now awaiting full restoration.
Will this boat, the last of the classic boats from the original Farley Boat Works, ever go into the water? I ask. “I don’t know,” Pratt says, “I’d hate to be the guy that sank the last Farley boat.”
Charles Lohrmann is the Texas Co-op Power editor.