Central Florida man restores a piece of flats fishing history: 1979 Banana River Skiff
Jimmy Oriol has a passion for chasing shallow-cruising fish on the flats, armed with only his fly rod. His bay boat got him close to the fish, but it wasn’t the ideal platform to get him to those tails wagging seductively in mere inches of water. In 2010, it became apparent to him that a skiff was in his future. As it happened, a friend of his had a small boat sitting under his carport that, while not exactly a show boat, would definitely float in very little water. It had been recently repowered with a new 50-hp Yamaha. Jimmy drove six hours to see it, a deal was struck and he now had a boat to pole and to chase those reds up onto the flats with.
Never intending to complete a full restoration, Jimmy—who lives in Orlando and works as a project manager in residential real estate development—knew that a few modifications were necessary to make the boat safe and usable for the flats. The original skiff was a center console with a trolling motor and its trailer was close to the last mile. After completing minimal modifications, adding a poling tower and trim tabs and a new trailer, Jimmy set out to learn the finer points of pushing a skiff. Over the next three years he learned a lot. Becoming a polished flats stalker took time and along the way Jimmy realized that he had something in this little boat. Most notable was how nimble and quiet the boat was on the pole and how shallow he was getting without spooking fish. After doing a little research Jimmy learned that his Banana River Skiff was a small piece of flats boat history.
The BRS was originally built by a gentleman named Dave Exley who was always tinkering with details and design elements of his skiffs. Eventually Dave landed on a hull design that was ideal for quiet stalking and he built several models for the Deep Water Cay Club to outfit their bonefish trips out of Grand Bahama. Through the late 1970s and into the early ’80s, Exley continued building the BRS out of West Melbourne, in Central Florida. The cost of being an innovator coupled with the recession of the early ’80s took its toll and Exley decided to lease the molds to his friend Jack Broyl of Dolphin Boats, in Homestead, who eventually bought them outright. A side-by-side inspection of Oriol’s BRS and a new Dolphin Renegade reveal a nearly identical bottom. Characteristics of the BRS are evident in other technical skiffs, as well, such as the Mirage. Jimmy had a skiff with a pedigree, one of the original technical poling skiffs.
After running the boat in “rough” condition for a few years he decided it was worthy of a complete restoration and following a move to Orlando, found Glasser Boatworks in Rockledge. After Jimmy gutted the boat down to a bare hull he agreed to have Glasser do all of the glass work and paint while he rigged and wired the boat himself. He started with a set of criteria and features he needed, along the lines of: super simple, light, sub 6-inch draft, old-school low-profile design. Jimmy continued planning, while realizing the need for a new transom, new decks with front hatch and wide gunnels, new fuel tank, hydraulic steering, AwlGrip paint job and more. This was going to be a lofty undertaking that would conclude with an all-new mint version of this old skiff that would bring a little tear to even Dave Exley’s eye.
Over the course of the next 20 months, Glasser picked away on Jimmy’s dream boat from the hull up, beginning with adding some glass to the inner hull surface to beef up the shell. Next, they built new bulkheads, a new transom and motor well and added foam flotation to the transom sponsons. Composite CoreCell and Penske (Airex) boards were used, eliminating wood from the construction. With the structural work moving towards adding deck surfaces, Jimmy wired the boat while they planned the deck layout. A forward storage locker was added along with rod tubes and a new 20-gallon fuel tank. Every surface was gel coated and AwlGrip painted inside and out above and below deck.
Next, they flipped the hull and began the arduous process of repairing, sanding and block fairing the wavy bottom on this 35-year-old diamond in the rough. Jimmy and Glasser both wanted this build to look perfect. A clean Ice Blue and Matterhorn White color scheme was decided on and after priming and painting the finished hull it was time to turn her over and lay out the deck. Things were starting to take shape. The top was laid out very cleanly as per Jimmy’s original vision with a side console helm incorporated into the gunnel cap and a forward hatch which was fabricated while Jimmy started fitting the hardware and fuel lines. With the deck completed they attached and permanently bonded it to the hull using methacrylate adhesive to form a monolithic hull without the need for any screws or other hardware.
At this point in any build the boat actually looks like something you can go fishing on and it becomes very exciting. Jimmy could see light at the end of the tunnel and assembled the remaining hardware. Steering installation followed by setting the poling platform and adding lights and pumps and hanging the engine and the home stretch was at his fingertips.
Jimmy trimmed the insides out with SeaDek, added LED accent lighting and a new seat cushion capped off by a custom designed (by him) Banana River Skiff logo decal for the hull. The final step was adding spray rails under the rub rails from Teak Isle in Orlando which Jimmy claims reduced spray intrusion by 75 percent, pretty noteworthy for skiff owners. The addition of these rails can make the trip across the bay much more enjoyable.
It has been nearly a year now since this project was completed. The boat has fished extensively from the Florida Keys to the Louisiana marshes, not far from where Jimmy grew up (coastal Mississippi). Where you’ll find her mostly though these days is slipping along quietly in some quiet backwater estuary around the Space Coast where Jimmy currently resides. I recently had the pleasure of joining him for a morning in the waters north of Stuart to sea trial the boat and film a segment for this season’s “Project Dreamboat” television. Jimmy had a chance to reflect a bit about the process of building his own dream boat.
One of the first things I noticed was people at the boat ramp admiring his boat. I sensed Jimmy took justifiable pride in the outcome of his sweat equity in the finished product. At some point when a person takes on a project such as this, he invariably asks himself, “Am I crazy for doing this?” Jimmy claims he has no regrets about it and I believe him. To see potential in an old boat and bring it back to life is very gratifying.
At the point when we were to wrap up our TV shoot, Jimmy had arranged to meet up with Mr. Exley. In an appropriate twist of fate, Exley met us at Sandsprit Park, where the very idea for the original Banana River Skiff was conceived during a camping trip back in 1976. Dave walked around the boat and remarked to Jimmy how beautiful the finish work was. I could see Dave was imagining her in her original form back in 1979.
It was touching to see the excitement the two shared and listen to some old stories about the company from times past. The two promised to get together for a future fishing trip and we all parted company—but not before I made Jimmy commit to push me around on his boat up in the Lagoon one day.
“Any time,” he said, and I will be taking him up on that offer you can be sure. FS
First Published Florida Sportsman Magazine April 2017