Thursday 22 November 2007

What's a skiff?

Sooner or later, every boat forum goes through a controversy over what is, or is not, a skiff. The problem is that every area has a boat called a 'Something Skiff' and local people refuse to believe that a skiff can be anything else.
In America, a skiff is quite a large power boat, and in Scotland the term refers to double-ended fishing boats that can be 40ft or more. Film makers can have some very odd ideas about what a skiff looks like.
In England, and on the Thames in particular, a skiff is always one of these:

Master boat designer Gavin Atkin prompted the thought on his blog by linking to a curious page on the Penwith District Council website giving definitions of all kinds of boats from Abras to Zooms, for some reason. 'Skiff' is defined thus:
"Has been used, to refer to many various types of seemingly unrelated small boats. The word has a complicated etymology: it comes from the Middle English skif, which derives from the Old French esquif, which in turn derives from the Old Italian schifo, which is itself of Germanic origin. The word is related to ship. One current usage of skiff is to refer to a typically small flat-bottomed open boat with a pointed bow and a flat stern originally developed as an inexpensive and easy to build boat for use by inshore fishermen. Originally designed to be powered by rowing, their form has evolved so that they are efficiently powered by outboard motors. The design is still in common use today for both work and pleasure craft."

So a skiff is a little ship! I'll buy that, though I have to say I draw the line at the word skiff being used to describe a high-tech racing dinghy.
Milton, as ever, got it right when he describes a lost sailor anchoring on a whale, thinking it to be an island, in Paradise Lost. Calling the boat a skiff instantly puts over how fragile and vulnerable the poor sinner is:
Leviathan, whom God of all his works
Created hugest that swim the ocean stream:
Him haply slumbering on the Norway foam,
The pilot of some small night-foundered skiff,
Deeming some island, oft, as seamen tell,
With fixed anchor in his scaly rind
Moors by his side under the lee, while night
Invests the sea, and wished morn delays

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris

Nice post! It is a fond wish of mine to recreate the trip from "Three Men in a Boat" one day.. and here's where to get the boat:

Thames Skiff Hire