Renn Tolman

Renn Tolman is the designer of the Tolman Skiff that has been built by scores of boat builders world wide. Often you'll find a Tolman Skiff Standard, Widebody or a Jumbo at your local launch ramp on the ocean or river or lake, because it is at home on calm or rough waters. It's an instantly recognizable skiff with it's sweeping sheer, and v-bottom.

Renn Tolman - R.I.P.

Renn Tolman Piloting Fithian Jumbo
Photo of Renn Tolman by Paul Fithian

It's been over 14 years since I discovered Renn Tolman and his wonderful design the Tolman Skiff. Renn has offered to the public the design and building instructions for his Tolman Standard, Widebody, Jumbo and the Tolman Seabright. His last design for the Tolman Trawler was off getting line drawings made as of a few days ago.

In this 14 years I've exchanged many emails with Renn, and watched as hundreds of Tolman Skiffs were being built, modified and used for fishing, and family excursions, and boating on rivers, lakes, and the oceans of the world. Renn's designs have a large following of boat builders and enthusiasts, and I am grateful to have met online and in person a great number of these people from all over the world.

Renn's designs can be found all the the United States, in Europe, including Germany, Italy, England, Iceland, Sweden, and as far away as Australia, New Zealand, and Indonesia. I am sure folks have built Tolman's elsewhere, and it's just a matter of time before we get to see them. Sooner or later a Tolman owner or builder shows up to Fishyfish and shares their story, making this big old world seem awfully small. Renn Tolman brought us together.

Obituary – July 9, 2014

Renn Tolman

Homer boatbuilder and musician Renn Tolman passed away peacefully in his tiny beachfront cabin on the afternoon of Saturday, July 5. He was 80.

A celebration of Renn’s life will be held at his boat shop in Homer at 4 p.m. Saturday, July 12.

Renn was well-known in Alaska coastal communities for designing and building the Tolman skiff, a practical dory-style v-bottom boat that found wide use among hardy seafarers on Kachemak Bay and around the world. His two do-it-yourself books, describing an economical “stitch-and-glue” construction process involving plywood and epoxy resin, sold thousands of copies. Tolman skiffs can be found in Germany, Norway, Australia and other countries. An old-school outdoorsman, Renn traveled far across open water on hunting and fishing trips. At his death he had just completed a new design, the Tolman Trawler.

As a flute and pennywhistle player in local bands and a step-dance teacher, Renn played a central role in Homer’s thriving contra dance scene, providing an authentic link to the New England and Cape Breton traditions he treasured. Every New Year’s Eve, his boat shop was thronged for a community dance, sometimes featuring ringer musicians flown in by Renn. He recorded a CD of Cape Breton and New England tunes, due to be released this fall.

Renn Tolman was born February 23, 1934, in Keene, New Hampshire. The Tolmans ran a small four season resort in Nelson, N.H., converted from the family farm, and played an important role in the revival of square and contra dancing. Renn’s father, Newt, a well-known flute player and writer of curmudgeonly Yankee charm, introduced the instrument to his son.

Renn left Tolman Pond for prep school at Vermont Academy, but flopped in his first attempt at college. After a three-year stint in the Army as an intelligence unit radio operator, he returned to graduate from the University of New Hampshire in 1959 with a B.A. in History. He taught in a private school, did graduate work briefly at Harvard, and then moved to the West in 1963. He was a tutor at a dude ranch, a hard rock miner, a carpenter and became a pioneer ski patrolman at Aspen, Colo. and Jackson Hole, Wyo.

He moved to Alaska in 1970, settling in Homer and finding work as a carpenter before moving into boatbuilding and then developing his own skiff, which he considered a practical boat for a working lifestyle.

“It’s not one of these goddamn weekend toy boats and it’s emphatically not one of these goddamn antique boats,” he told a reporter in 1991. “Those are for starry-eyed young dropouts or retired business executives.”

By turns courtly and cantankerous, but always generous, Renn fired off salty opinions in a raspy voice without ever quite shedding his New Hampshire vowels and prep school grammar.

Diagnosed with colon cancer in 2008 and given a poor prognosis, Renn continued to live an active life, hunting and fishing, playing flute, traveling regularly to New Hampshire to visit his girlfriend, skiing each winter in Idaho and Wyoming, and providing a vigorous step-dancing demonstration at his New Year’s dance six months ago.

He was preceded in death by his parents, Newt and Janet Tolman and Beth Barrell, and a sister, Sarah Barrell. He is survived by his late-in-life love, Betsy Street of Nelson, N.H.; his former partner of many years, Mary Griswold of Homer; a sister, Elizabeth Skinner of Mohawk Valley, N.Y.; and, among other relatives, cousins Barry Tolman of Nelson, N.H.; Mary Robinson Shonk of Dublin, N.H.; Susan Woodward Springer formerly of Seldovia; and Colin Tolman of Homer.

Memorial contributions may be directed to Kachemak Heritage Land Trust, 315 Klondike Ave, Homer, AK 99603.

Renn Tolman's Tolman Skiff Jumbo and Tolman Seabright

Tolman Seabright Skiff


Renn Tolman's Tolman Seabright Prototype is For Sale!. At $10,000, it's a steal and is priced at what it costs in materials. Contact Renn Tolman for more details.

Renn Tolman's Tolman SeabrightRenn Tolman's Tolman Seabright

What the world needs is a truly economical planing-hull power boat. I'm the designer of Tolman skiffs, built of stitch-and-glue plywood, which are economical compared to other boats in their class due to their relative light weight, but the sad fact is an 18-wheeler running down the highway fully loaded gets better mileage than I can get in my 22 x 8-foot Jumbo skiff. A diesel engine would doubtless make it more efficient, but diesels are not commonly made as outboards, and the usual ways to install them are as outdrives (inboard/outboards), which are very expensive to buy and to maintain, or with conventional straight shaft-and-rudders, which result in boats that are deep draft and difficult to trailer because of a keel or other appendages. Neither drive system appeals to me.

Enter the Seabright skiff. This traditional boat was developed by many different builders for fishermen along the New Jersey shore that had to launch over beach due to the scarcity of harbors in the early 1900s. These skiffs used conventional inboard engines (gas in those days) with straight shafts and rudders, but what made them special was that the prop, running in a tunnel, which along with the rudder was placed entirely above the bottom of the hull. Thus these skiffs drew no more water than the hull itself, which because of its flat bottom, was often only inches. The peculiar shape of the stern, with its pod-shaped underbody and cut-away transom, gave these boats a good turn of speed, several times that of displacement-type boats of equal power (think sailboats), yet they were more efficient than conventional planing hulls (like Tolman skiffs, for example).

Perhaps the most famous modern version of a Seabright skiff was made by Robb White of Thomasville, Georgia, for use in the shallow waters of the Florida Panhandle about five years ago (see his article in WoodenBoat Magazine, March/April, 2006, and many articles in this publication). His so-called Rescue Minor (the name refers to a Seabright skiff designed by naval architect William Atkin in 1942) draws only 6 inches and powered with an 18 hp Kubota diesel achieves more than 20 mph and 20 mpg. (It should be pointed out each of these numbers drops to less than 20 when the skiff is loaded with more than just the operator.) Although the design plays a large role in his skiff's super efficiency, doubtless its extremely light weight also is an important factor. Robb built his skiff like a strip-built canoe out of poplar wood cut on his own land. Furthermore, his skiff had very low sides, saving more weight. His engine installation employed a belt-drive system derived from a garden tiller which he built himself that eliminated the conventional clutch and reverse gear, yet a further weight saving.

Sea Island Rescue Minor

You would have to judge Robb's effort an extremely successful boat, but the freeboard while adequate for his needs is too low in for most of us to feel comfortable in. Furthermore, his act is a hard one to follow for those of us who want to buy our mechanical parts off the shelf and want to build in plywood. Still, it gave me an idea.

What I have done is to take the traditional Seabright skiff underbody and graft it on, so to speak, to my Standard Tolman skiff design to give it more freeboard and interior volume. In the process I lengthened the Standard skiff from 20 to 22 feet but diminished the beam from 7 feet to 6 - 6 to reflect the proportions of traditional Seabright skiffs, which were relatively long and slender. In the process I think I have improved the bow by eliminating the hard knuckle of the original Seabright skiffs, which tends to make such boats yaw (bow steer) in a following sea. In other words, the bow looks much like that of a typical Tolman skiff, and we know these handle well. The bottom is flat, not veed, and although I have railed against flat bottoms in the past, the Seabright skiff has a feature which is said to mitigate pounding. The aft end of the tunnel has a slight downward curve, which deflects the water coming from the prop with the effect of forcing the bow down. Thus the hull punches through the seas, rather than rising over them and slamming down. (Robb White verified that this principle works.) This bow-down aspect can generate spray, but I have included the usual double sets of spray rails that are so effective on the Standard Tolman skiff.

Twenty to 25 hp engines are appropriate for this skiff. I intend to power my prototype with a 20 hp Yanmar diesel with a conventional clutch and reversing gear. I bought a used engine and gear, but I had to buy a new gear which has a 1:1 ratio rather than using the stock 2:1 reduction gear, which is designed to push displacement hulls. The Seabright tunnel permits only a small diameter prop, which must be run fast to get planing performance. This is an off-the-shelf item, however, and not too expensive. I expect to cruise at 17 mph. Economy will be outstanding as this engine burns 5/8 gph at about 1,900 rpms.

Sea Island Rescue Minor

A diesel setup like mine if new is about double the cost of an outboard of comparable power and thus has a long payback given the amount of hours the average boater drives per year. There may be other choices. Diesels made in China are significantly cheaper. To my knowledge these are not yet marinized, but it's perfectly possible to do this, as Robb White did with his Kubota, or have it done. (Basically, the exhaust manifold must be liquid cooled.) Air-cooled gas engines are cheap although noisy. Diesel or gas automotive engines are a possibility. Making a belt drive system like Robb's would also save money-and weight. It might even be possible to run a Seabright with an outboard in a well, although there is a problem with this. When the skiff is at rest, the water pickup ports on the engine are above the waterline. My solution would be to mount the engine on what is known as a jack plate, a stock item used on bass boats. This fits between the engine and the transom and operates electric/hydraulically to raise and lower the engine. (This is a wonderful feature on any shallow water skiff, by the way.) You would lower the engine 4 inches or so starting off to immerse the water i ntakes, then raise the engine as you get under way and the tunnel fills. In the running position the lower unit of the outboard (and here I'm thinking of a 25 hp Honda) is completely shielded by the hull, and since in this position the ventilation plate on the outboard would be snug against the roof of the tunnel, you would steer with a separate rudder, the same as with an inboard installation.

I think fuel savings alone aren't necessarily the Seabright/Tolman's biggest advantage. There's a lot of thin water in Alaska-tide flats and rivers, and a skiff that draws only 6 or 7 inches with full protection for the prop has a tremendous attraction for a hunter and fisherman like me. And as a lot of boaters know, there's a lot of other places on earth with shallow water, as well. So maybe the Seabright skiff's time has come-again.

Plans for the Tolman/Seabright are available in the form of a 25-page pamphlet (eleven sheets of drawings, which include directions for installing an inboard engine and building the rudder). This is to be used along with my book Tolman Alaskan Skiffs since construction of most of the T/S is similar to my Standard Tolman skiff. The price is $30 plus $5 for Priority Mail ($10 for Global Priority to areas outside the US). My book, which includes plans for three skiff designs, is described on my Web site,