The Skiff: For Rowing, Sailing, and Pirates

The term skiff is associated with a variety of small boats – some with a sordid past.

In some cases, skiff is used to refer to small motorized boats used for nefarious actions such as piracy or drug smuggling. The skiff isn’t all bad, though. Read on for more information on this interesting vessel.

History of the Skiff

References to vessels as a skiff date back as early as the 1540s, deriving from the French term “esquif,” the Italian “schifo”, and Germanic “scif,” all meaning either boat or little boat. There are references to skiffs on the River Thames as early as 1812. The term appears in connection with a variety authors and pieces of literature:

  • John Milton’s book Paradise Lost in 1670
  • Famed poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was taken on expedition by skiff and ultimately drowned sailing in a skiff off the coast of Italy
  • Sir Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake
  • Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat
  • Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick
  • Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea

The Many Forms of the Skiff

A skiff is defined by Merriam-Webster as “any of various small boats especially: a flat-bottomed rowboat.” These boats have also been described as being small in size, having a smaller crew, and being used for leisure, utility crafts, and fishing. With these broad criteria, a number of boats have traditionally been defined as skiffs, including:

  • Sailing skiff: Common in New Zealand and Australia, sailing skiffs are primarily used for racing. These vessels are still used for racing in sizes ranging from 10 to 18 feet. Technology has continued to develop, spreading desire for similar boats across the world. Internationally, the term skiff is used for boats that would otherwise be referred to as dinghies such as the Cherub Skiff, International 14, 29er, and 49er. Racing skiffs is also a way for the younger generation to enjoy sailing, as the smaller nature of the boats allow for young people to enter the sport. Organizations such as O’pen Skiff support this effort.
  • Rowing skiff: Originating out of the skiffs originally used on the Thames, rowing skiffs gained popularity in the 19th They are generally round bottomed boats which are capable of sporting a sail. There are still regattas today that feature these boats, including those organized by the Skiff Racing Association which was formed in 1901 to provide a governing body for skiff racing.
  • Fishing skiff: In America, the term skiff is most commonly used with fishing boats, usually a flat-bottomed, open boat with a pointed bow and flat stern. These vessels were originally powered by rowing but have since developed to include outboard motors.

The Darker Side of Skiffs

While skiffs may be associated with literature and regattas, they also have a darker association with piracy and drug smuggling.  The small size and quick movement of the vessels make them ideal for individuals attempting clandestine acts on the open seas.  While piracy may seem like a thing of the past, associated with Pirates of the Caribbean, it is alive and well and heightened by the conflicts created by war and the difficulty countries have in policing the seas.  In fact, it has been reported that the seas are getting more dangerous rather than less. Skiffs appear frequently in news surrounding piracy and drug smuggling, including:

Don’t let this reputation of skiffs scare you away from climbing aboard one of these boats. These small vessels are still great for racing, fishing and leisure.