The Beck Boat Story
JOHN (JACK) B ORZALLI MARCH 28, 2010 MALACHA, FL 33993
1979 B&V Boat works fiberglass “Beck Boat”
While a lot of you know of, or have heard of, or maybe even owned a Beck (Not Deck) Boat, there are probably those here who have no idea what they are.
I was asked to talk to you about them, because for some reason that makes no sense to most people, I have 3 of them. I can discuss how they are constructed, and how they work with first hand knowledge, but as to the historical background on their use for commercial fishing, I have to rely on mostly hearsay evidence. I have an article from the November 8, 1995 issue of the Pine Island Eagle that has some history in it, and the rest of my information came from discussions with older guys, and you all know how great their memories are.
Fiberglass Beck Boats are about 15 feet 6 inches long (LOA) with a beam of 66 inches. If you see one out on the water today, it is most likely a molded fiberglass hull that replicates the original wood boat lines. The only wood ones I know of are being used as planters, or decorations. At first glance, you can see they look like rowboats with decked over bows and lawn mower engines in the middle. But don’t be fooled; they are really rowboats with decked over bows and lawnmower engines in the middle.
The Beck boat concept, a basic boat, powered by a small air-cooled (lawnmower type) engine, was not a new one in the 1950s. I recall renting such a boat, in the summer of 1947, for a day’s outing in the harbor at Santa Barbara California. It was not until we moved to Matlacha in 1987 that I ever another one, even though I often wondered why not.
If a genius marine architect was given the challenge of designing a motor boat that would have 2
minimum initial cost, minimum operating cost, minimum upkeep, minimum obsolescence, and be quiet under water, all at the same time, the solution would be something pretty close to what is known in these parts as the “Beck boat.” In the design, function and cost won out over form every time. . In the 50s, for boats under 16 feet, safety equipment requirements were considerably less, and registration fees were either less or if the engine was less than 10 hp, not required,
Sam Beck began building his wooden boats at his home on Coco Plum Drive in Matlacha sometime in 50s. I have no definitive date as to when Sam Beck Started building his boats. Harry Brown, who was a personal friend of Sam Beck thinks it may have been as early as 1951. (Howard Perron, who lives near me on Bruce Street, told me the Mr. Beck was building boats in the winter in 1958. ) Harry said he thought Sam Beck came to Matlacha from Indiana, and that he did made his living building boats full time in Matlacha. Harry described the Beck Boat building effort on Coco Plum Drive as consisting of a small yard area, and storage building for parts. According to Harry, there were three boat hulls is the yard being processed at one time. One was in the hull building phase, upside down. The next hull would be right side up, being outfitted, and a third hull would be in the canal for final testing. Sam Beck would often call in his friends to assist him in turning the hull built in the first phase to the upright position. Mrs. Beck worked right alongside Sam as he built the boats.
Keith Aeschleman, whose father built a house on West Point Lane in 1955, a short 3
block from Coco Plum Drive, knew Mr. Beck and provided me with a lot of information, as did. Harry Brown. Sam Beck was one of the original members of the Pine Island/Matlacha Volunteer Fire Department. One of his duties was acting as a Fire Inspector. During one of his inspections in Bokeelia, he hurt his leg when the floor on a fire damage building collapsed under him. This accident caused him a lot of pain. According to Fred Russell, who ran the Texaco Station in Matlacha for 30 years starting in 1960, Mr. Beck also liked to frequently have a beer at the Snook Inn, adjacent to the bridge in Matlacha. Sam also liked to fish.
According to all, Groshon kept after Sam Beck to build him a boat. Beck finally told Bob Groshon, who lived a block away on Cajuput Street, that because of his health, he did not think he could finish the boats he already had on order. He told Bob that if he would complete the 5 unfinished boat contracts he had waiting, he would give him the boat building jigs to build his own boat. Bob then started building boats in his yard. I am not sure how many boats he built on Cajuput Street. The story I got was that Violet Groshan got tired of all the mess, and loud fishermen in her yard, so she bought a piece of property on Stringfellow Road on Pine Island for B and V Boat works. Violet and Bob Groshon then started the B and V Boat Works in a building on Stringfellow Road(B and V for Bob and Violet Groshon). That building now houses Carl’s Auto SERVICE. Douglas Potter, who married Bob Groshon’s niece, loaned me the hand written Beck Boat sales record for the B and V Boat works. I am not sure this record includes the boats built in Matlacha, but the first sale recorded in the book was on September 2, 1971. with hull number 212. This is a copy for the order of boat number 217
The B and V boat works was a truly custom builder. Almost all the buyers added options to the basic boat.
The base price of a Beck Boat with a 9 or 10 HP engine in 1971 was $845. Most of buyers opted for a higher horsepower engine. I am not sure why, but probably because the fishermen wanted to get home earlier when they quit fishing. You don’t need that much HP to troll in a Beck boat. Frank Clay, who fished in a wood Beck boat for years, said the original models had a 5 HP
Engine. I estimate the hull speed of a Beck Boat at about 5 knots. One of my boats has an OLD 16 HP Briggs and Stratton engine. I can get it up to 5.1 knots with two people in it. I have an electric Golf Cart motor in one of my boats, with about a 2 HP capability. My maximum speed in that boat is 4.3 knots. While that is not very fast, this boat has some other advantages. A basic Beck Boat has two modes, GO and DON”T GO. With my electric motor, I have two forward speeds, stop, and two speeds in reverse. I can even talk to my fishing partner over the motor noise! My third Beck Boat is powered by a 28 pound single cylinder Honda engine with a 2:1 reduction on the output using v-belt pulleys. It has a movable idler pulley, which serves as a clutch. While this boat will not plane, it is faster than my 16 HP equipped boat.
I admit that some of the higher horsepower models are able to plane. The sight of Kurt Hoover going by my on plane on January 15, 2010 was really impressive.
Bob Groshon produced wood Beck Boats until he sold the business, after 1974, to a Mr. Groth, who with his three sons continued producing “Beck Boats”. I am not sure when the fiberglass versions began, but the earliest fiberglass Beck Boat I know of is a 1979 Model belonging to Kurt Hoover, who lives on May street in Matlacha. By looking at boat VIN numbers, and registration documents, I have verified Production numbers for the Fiberglass Beck Boats between 267 in a 1979 Model to the 1984 Model I have, with number 334. That implies at least 68 fiberglass boats were built over 6 model years by Groth and his sons. The first Boat Number in Groshon’s order book is 212. That would indicate there were about 55 wooden and 68 fiberglass boats built at the B and V Boat works. I don’t know what number, if any that Sam Beck started with. Perhaps Bob Groshon started at 200, and built 11 boats on Cajuput street before he moved his operation to the facility on Stringfellow. I bought my boat in 1993 from Mr. Jacobi, who owned the Old Fish House Marina in Matlacha, he told me 1984 was the last year that Beck Boats were built. Mary Russell, Fred’s wife, told me frequently you could see 30 or 40 “Beck” boats fishing in Matlacha pass, so maybe there were 266 of them before fiberglass production started. Maybe Sam Beck built 211 wooden boats in the 13-18 years he
built boats on Coco Plum Drive. That is less than 2 boats a month. We may never know. According to the Eagle Article, Kim Reed of Cape Coral subsequently bought the molds from Gary Groth. He cleaned them up, and in the 1990s was selling new “Beck Boats”. Keith Aeschleman told me a salesman brought one of these boats to his house one day and tried to sell it to him. Reproduced below is the flyer the salesman gave
I saw one of those on display at a marine Flea Market at JayCee park in Cape Coral one time, and have regretted for years I did not buy it. It was a beauty
George Fey, who lives on Jade Street in St James City, has restored a 1979 fiberglass Beck Boat to an Awesome presentation.
George told me that the last boat built from the Beck Boat Moulds was on his street in a garage. I have not had time to pursue this lead. If there is anyone here who knows more, I would appreciate some help.
As for the original wooden Beck boat jigs, The Pine Island Eagle article reported that Leo Portrey acquired them, and built a few wood boats on the patio of his home near Hopkins Point on Oleander Street in St. James City.
In my travels, I have found the term Beck Boat seemed to have evolved here on Pine Island referring to any of the many boats that have been built on the same concept. Boats using this concept are also called Putt Putt boats in lots of places, and even here on the Island. Bonny Davis, who grew up on Pine Island, showed me a photo taken in about 1962, when she was 2 years old, standing in front of her father’s wooden boat, tied to a pier in Matlacha. She referred to the boat as a Putt Putt boat, and said he father built it. Her father was a commercial fisherman on Pine Island, and apparently used the boat as an all around work boat, and fishing boat. The lines were similar to this fiberglass boat, Orville Erickson keeps for his son on May street in Matlacha
Orville also has a 1972 model LUCKY boat, which looks very similar to the Beck design.
The LUCKY is 11 inches wider than a Beck Boat, but still less than 16 feet long. I have been unable to find out where they were built, but maybe they were built in Cape Coral, Ft Myers, or Sarasota. If anyone here knows, please see me after the talk.
Vince Merkel, my neighbor in Matlacha, uses a boat called an ANDERSON that he bought in 1973. He thinks it was made in the St. Pete area, It is 17.5 feet long, and has a live well and storage compartments.
Vince installed a clutch in this boat that he took from a wooden B and V Groshon BECK boat he bought, just to get the clutch. After removing the clutch, he sold the BECK boat. In keeping with the Beck Boat frugal approach, Vince said he sold Beck Boat for what he paid for it.
This is the high tech clutch he installed:
The one feature that all of the Non Beck share, is the use of something other than stick steering.
I have looked at several Beck Boats. While the hull remains a constant, I have never seen two interiors outfitted the same. There is no standard arrangement. The Boat is a prime example of the KISS philosophy. and easy to modify to suits your desires. Most owners do just that. I am just compulsive enough that I have three, two to handle my project works, and one to fish out of.
Keith Aeschleman started fishing locally using a boat that he inherited from his father, who built a house on West Point Lane in Matlacha. This boat was most likely made before, and during the time Sam Beck was making boats. The boat was called a Pine Island Troller. (Built around 1955.) The boat was made in N. Ft Myers close to Highway 41 on Pine Island Road. Maybe the name had more to do with where the boat was built, than where it was used.
Keith’s dad used it for about 9 years. They were still making them in 1966. (Keith does not know for sure if the Pine Island Troller had stick steering, but he thinks it did) Keith inherited his Dad’s boat and used it until he replaced it with a used Beck Boat. This was probably around 1970.
In the spring of 1983, Keith ordered his current boat from Groth at B&V boat works. On arrival in Matlacha in January 1984, the boat he had ordered had been sold to one of Keith’s neighbors. The neighbor had talked Groth into selling him Keith’s boat, so Groth built another one for Keith.
Keith tried to get Groth to deliver this boat with a clutch, but Groth would not do so. Keith’s wife Pauline said she wanted a blue Boat. Groth told them he only built green ones. While Keith did not get his clutch, Pauline got her blue boat.
What did they cost?
Her is a copy of Keith’s receipt:
As you can see from the pictures, seating for the crew may consist of gas cans, coolers, inverted buckets, sometimes a folding steel or unfolding plastic chair, and the gunwales. In the stern area stands a platform a foot or so square called a TREE, which is used with cane trolling poles..
To the top of this, four or five pieces of automobile radiator hose, each about a foot long, are secured in the shape of a stern facing fan. When trolling begins, the butts of the bamboo poles are pushed into the radiator hoses.
Each pole has maybe 50 feet of braided line that terminates in a 20 pound or so monofilament leader with a trolling or jigging lure on it. The shanks of the poles rest against short pieces of gas line hose, held in place by screws. This does not mean that you can’t fish with any pole or rod you care to. I have often heard that trolling is for old people. I know it sure beats casting all day!
Unlike the prey of sport fishermen, when you are using the cane poles, whatever hits one of the lures is not afforded the courtesy of having the boat stop for it. If the boat stopped, all the other lures would sink and immediately become tangled in the sea grasses. Instead, the boat trolls on, frequently acquiring more trout since they tend to school, while the fisherman swings the first pole forward in its radiator hose hinge holder, grabs the line and hand lines in the trout; flipping it over the stern and into the boat.
For the inexperienced, if you get into a school, it is essential that you lay the pole back down, and get the line back in the water before you pick up the next pole. I can assure you that over 200 feet of line on the deck from four different poles can take a long time to untangle. If you get into a school of ladyfish, it may be quicker to re-string the poles! One of the B and V Boat Works orders included the installation of 7 oarlocks for poles, I can cuarantee you that fishing 7 poles at a time would not be a job for a chain smoker.
The air-cooled engine exhausts above the waterline. This eliminates the exhaust noise most inboards and outboards belch into the water to scare the fish away. However, this means conversation with a buddy is difficult in a Beck boat. When the wind is wrong, which seems to me to be most of the time, you also breath the exhaust fumes.
To put this all in its essential perspective of frugality however, an entire day’s fishing burns two to four gallons of regular gas. In the late 70s and early 80s, trout were bringing $.65-1.00 pound for the gutted catch, you could make gas expenses with just a few fish. Some of the good days
would end with 50 to 90 pounds going to the fish house. I don’t think good days were the norm, and I think almost all of the Beck Boat fishermen only did it part time. I am sure there were those who did it full time. In any case it was a welcome source of supplemental income, and a good excuse to get out of the house. Using his Beck Boat, a fellow might make enough to pay his winter rent for a place on Pine Island, and have some left over for a beer.
I have records from a friend who fished winters from 79-84. This is a copy of his 1980 log.
The laws for commercial fishermen kept restricting the Beck Boat fishermen. At one point, most of them had to sell their catch to some guy who had a commercial fishing license for who got a 10% cut.. Over half your income had to come from fishing to get a commercial license. The 4 fish limit put an effective end to “Making expenses”.
As for construction details, keep in mind these boats were built for individuals to fish by trolling for sea trout. They were obviously constructed with a lot of consideration for costs.
One of the unique features of the Beck Boat is the steering:
There are vertical levers sticking up out the gunwale on each side that are connected to a rope. That rope runs all-round the boat through pulleys just under the gunwales and is tied to a short horizontal lever on the rudder shaft.
Pull on a vertical lever and the boat turns one way; push on that lever and it turns the other way. There also may be a steering wheel, or horizontally oriented steering stick, just aft of the cuddy.
The steering rope has a couple of turns around the steering wheel’s shaft, or the steering stick. 24
So you can steer from either vertical lever, or the bow wheel or stick. While some owners claim the bow steering is a great convenience, I have also found it to be a source of a lot of unexpected excitement. If your fishing partner manages to put his chair, or leg, or lean against the wheel or stick, he has essentially locked the steering mechanism. If the Beck Boat is running, one can not hear too well over the exhaust noise, and screaming at your partner to unblock the steering is often misunderstood. If you are lucky, you can turn off the engine in time to keep from crashing into the neighbors dock.
The engines are one or two cylinder, 10 to 18 horsepower, air-cooled things that you can still buy at Northern Equipment for $900-$1500. Briggs and Stratton are common, but not exclusive. Frank Clay, who fished in a wood Beck boat for years, said the original models had a 5 HP Engine.
You can hook up most anything that turns to the shaft. It just has to turn counter clockwise. Actually, all the fishing rule changes have made it easier for the Beck Boat crowd to enjoy their funny little boats. Now, those of us enamored with the simplicity of the Beck Boat can be satisfied messing around in boats, and time on the water where speed is not an issue, and shallow water is inviting us to go where the big boats cannot.
Now, those of us enamored with the simplicity of the Beck Boat have to be satisfied with time on the water where speed is not an issue, and shallow water is inviting us to go where the big boats cannot.
They usually connect to the propeller shaft without bothering with such foolishness as a clutch or transmission.
Note that the hard coupled shaft results in the engine taking the propulsive thrust of the prop. In some models, the shaft is connected by a Lovejoy flexible coupling, and they have a pillow bearing with a set screw to take the thrust.
In either case, if the engine is running, the boat is moving forward. You have two speeds: Go or don’t go. If you want to go in reverse, push on the dock or get hold of the push pole.
Small engine project
As originally constructed, the boat had flotation built in from the completely fiber glassed in deck sections, creating void spaces on either side of the propulsion tunnel. Over the years, the deterioration of the deck has negated much flotation from this source, so you may find a plastic bailing scoop, or an electric bilge pump installed for emergencies. The backup power plant is a pushpole and thus, the bow and the prop do double duty as depth finders. The prop is actually protected somewhat by a skeg on the cutlass bearing. When people ask me what it is, I tell them, “It is a depth finder. If you hear it scrapping on oyster shells, the water is too shallow”. You start scrapping in about 14 inches of water, but you can usually go in 12 inches or less, by sitting on the bow to get the stern up.
No self respecting Trout Troller would have ever been caught dead in possession of such sissified and useless luxuries as fish finders, GPS receivers or radars. In my case, I am not allowed out in my Beck Boat without a Cell Phone. That does not keep me from running aground, but at least I can call home and report where I am if the engine quits. So far I have never had to call for help while I was out in my Beck Boat.