Talk to any of the old guard Keys flats guides who were around in the 1960s and you’ll find that most of them fished on a Willy Roberts skiff at some point. Many owned one or more, and almost without exception all of them will fondly recall a simpler time when fish were numerous and flats uncrowded.
In 1965 while enjoying a vacation in Islamorada from his successful career as a musician, Skip Paxton (a.k.a. Gary Skrobeck Sr.) was offered a job playing piano at the historic Green Turtle Inn for bar customers made up largely of tourists and fishing guides. The local guides took a shine to young Skip, took him under their wings and soon thereafter Skip traded the keyboards for a skiff. Thus began a new career for Skip.
While maintaining a relationship with the locals in the early years, among them Mr. Roberts himself, it was only natural for Skip to have a guide boat of his own from this small, custom shop. Fast forward a half century and Skip remains in Islamorada still working his trade on the same flats out of his very own vintage Willy Roberts boat.
Nearly two decades passed before his son Gary came along. Being raised by a veteran guide in the Florida Keys will almost certainly have an effect on a youngster growing up. Living on what is essentially an island surrounded by salt water and countless fishing opportunities would only compound this matter.
Younger Gary was completely immersed in the lifestyle, always on a boat, in and out of the water and working around the industry in any way available to him. Whether fishing work or boatyard work called, there were options and Gary took advantage of most of them.
During my visit with the father and son team, the younger captain recalled seeing the very boat he now owns for years at a local marina. Built for another guide, Jack Roberts (no relation), Gary saw the boat in its declining state and often dreamed of owning her, perhaps guiding clients of his own one day.
For whatever reason, call it rock fever or just the restlessness of youth, the urge to leave the island struck Gary. After high school and college, Gary spent a tour on the mainland as a service writer for Viking Yachts in Riviera Beach.
Working in the business for a few years kept him around boats and fishing and provided predictable revenue stream. But there was something missing. The pull of the islands was too powerful. Gary found himself back in Islamorada.
The islands had changed much since the days when his father had begun his career. Back in the 1960s, fish far outnumbered boats. Today, it seems, everyone in the Keys goes by “Captain” and the flats are saturated with pressure from countless boats, anglers and Jet Skis alike. Undaunted, the young captain threw his hat into the ring.
Ten years passed and Gary was thriving in his chosen trade. A more seasoned guide at this point, he found himself faced with a challenging opportunity: the chance to own the very same 1972 Willy Roberts skiff he had admired from afar for years. There’s always a catch, however. The boat had seen better days and had even spent a bit of time on the wrong side of the ocean surface.
Restoring the skiff would involve a serious commitment of time and money along with a generous serving of sweat. In the captain’s own words, “A job like this can be tedious, physically tough, and at times redundant. At the end of the day, you are the only one who puts limitations on what you’re capable of. Steer the course. Hard work always pays off.” With this attitude in hand, Gary bought the boat.
WOOD, SWEAT AND YEARS
Old wood boats don’t always age gracefully. Neglected boats that have sunk, even less so. This old classic was a prime example of the latter. Gary and good friend Chris Evert dove into what would be an arduous project.
They began by sanding the entire hull to bare wood. As with any wood hull used in tropical waters, a skin coat of fiberglass would be necessary to guard against water intrusion as well as against the destructive Teredo navalis (shipworm.) Since this boat would not live in the water full time, worms would be less of an issue, but it was important to add glass to build a super fair surface for the finished appearance and paint.
The sanded hull was hot coated with two coats of West System epoxy before applying 10 oz. fiberglass cloth. Next, the glass was pre-sanded and faired before shooting AwlGrip D8002 High Build epoxy primer which was also blocked down and faired starting with 220 grit sandpaper and working up to 1,000 grit. The highly finished surface was shot with multiple coats of Awlcraft 2000 in Ice Blue.
Moving topside, a complete gut job of the interior was completed, leaving only the original ribs, stringers and foredeck. The original framework of white cedar was in exceptional condition beneath 45 years’ worth of paint and dirt due to this wood’s superior durability. With this skeleton intact, the interior/bilge was sanded, primed and painted, again with AwlGrip.
A series of templates was made next starting with the cockpit deck. Using 1⁄2-inch Coosa board, Gary cut in a new deck. He elected to pre-drill the Coosa material at every screw location and fill each hole with epoxy before fastening the stainless steel screws. Tedious as that sounds, Gary emphasizes the importance of providing the best possible bonding surface to every screw. In his words, “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to fix it?”
Next, all bulkheads and the aft deck (including all hatches and gutters) were templated and constructed using 1⁄2-inch Coosa Blue Water Series, the highest density version of this board available. With bulkheads installed and the deck laid out, they laminated/epoxied two pieces of this material around the hatch lids and plunge routed the gutter tracks, fitting it all together to ensure a flush and level surface when the lids were closed. The topsides were then finished and painted with Awlcraft 2000 in Snow White. Deck surfaces were taped and rolled out in two coats with a 70/30 fine/coarse mixture of AwlGrip Griptex for the non-skid surface.
Vintage Willy Roberts boats are known for having lots of wood trim and accents and some are completely decked out in it. Gary elected not to go all the way with the wood, but he still wanted to retain the old classic’s personality to some extent. Skip’s abilities in woodcraft along with a locally acquired supply of scrap material were put to use next.
With a load of epi (Brazilian walnut) and hickory a friend donated from another project, Skip got busy creating a laminated set of hatch covers and door frames and a classy looking deck for the poling platform. He also recreated the original rod holders inside the cockpit and the push pole holders out of the Brazilian walnut, lending the boat a nice vintage quality.
Modern touches include hydraulic steering, GPS, Lenco Trim Tabs, and a 90-HP Yamaha engine. Finally, an aluminum fabricator friend of Gary’s from his time at Viking, Steve Salis, built the poling tower. Two years later, she was water ready. With his established book of business and a vintage Willy skiff in better-than-new condition, Gary had brought dreams to full circle: his own vision of owning and working a legendary boat, and a family legacy that had begun with his father in a smoky bar some 50 years ago. FS