There’s something undeniably dreamy about traditional wooden skiffs. The Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley often set sail solo in his skiff (a passion that, sadly, would seal his fate), while some 50 years later in 1875, Renoir captured the tranquillity of rowing these lovely little vessels downriver in La Yole in a painting that today hangs in London’s National Gallery. Altogether evocative of a bygone era, the enchanting skiff has also won over the imagination of artisan Hamish Napier-Fenning, who handcrafts bespoke designs for his company Simply Skiffs.
Based in Kent – though soon relocating to Somerset – Napier-Fenning has built some 600 skiffs to date for both private individuals and large organisations, including Stella McCartney, HSBC and the Chelsea Flower Show. Though they are mainly intended for ponds, small lakes and rivers, no request is too large or small. For a concert event celebrating the centenary of Benjamin Britten, Napier-Fenning created a range of skiffs with larger and higher seats, so that music lovers could sit comfortably for extended periods while listening to the concert and gazing at images and videos projected onto the oversized sails. Elsewhere, for a local playground, skiffs were fitted with steering wheels and wooden tables.
Any colour is available to order, as are customised names, patterns and logos. Specific finishes can be commissioned, and in the past these have included distressed vintage styles or heavily sun-bleached looks. Napier-Fenning crafts most of the hulls from basic marine hardwood ply, though other timbers are an option, including sapele – a dark west African hardwood similar to mahogany – and iroko, which resembles teak.
Skiffs are not his only speciality. Napier-Fenning – who prior to setting up Simply Skiffs in 2006 refurbished larger boats – also creates bespoke canoes, durable prams and flat-bottomed punts. The latter “are not as pretty as skiffs, but are very stable,” he explains. “They tend to be used as work boats, almost exclusively on larger estates where there’s a professional gardener or groundsman who wants to be able to knock around with loads of equipment.”
Bespoke orders start from £600 and include personal delivery nationwide – a service that Napier-Fenning insists on. “With small boats, I find it’s the only way,” he says. “When I first started out, I sent a few by courier, but always felt very uneasy about it. It’s much better to take them myself, meet the customer and see where the boats are being used… I like to keep things simple.”