Florida-Style Shrimp Trawler, ca. 1920 - 1980

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America's shrimping industry began at the turn of the century in Fernandina, where the highly effective "otter trawl" nets were first drawn by powered boats. By the 1920s, the center of this booming industry, lead by a few immigrant families including the Salvadors, Polis and Versaggis, had shifted to St. Augustine and the entire Northeast Florida region was supplying shrimp by the ton via iced rail-car to the New York market. Also at this time, a new style of shrimp boat appeared on these waters, built by Greek boat builders from the sponge fisheries of Tarpon Springs. The new, Greek shrimp boats displayed a dramatic sheer line ending with a high bow with a sharp entrance and a deck-house located forward to facilitate the hauling of nets from the stern. Unlike previous shrimp boats with their V-shaped hull, the Greek style shrimper was rounded in cross-section. This hull shape resulted in a deep and slow roll at sea, the source of complaints from some seasick shrimpers used to a hard-chined vessel. The earliest shrimpers were small, mostly under 30' in length, though they grew in size over the decades to typically 40' by the 1930s, 50 to 60' in the 1940s and 70' in the1950s. The Mollie and Me II, pictured above, was built by Greek boat-builderHarry Xynides in either the late 1950s or early 1960s (photograph courtesy ofthe Xynides family).
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While the Greek-style trawler never completely replaced the V-hull shrimper, the type persisted for decades due to the success of the Diesel Engine Sales Company (DESCO), founded in St. Augustine in 1943. By 1954 DESCO had built 500 shrimp boats, by 1971 a total of 1700 and by 1981 a
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trawler was leaving the plant every four days. While the most prolific builder, DESCO was hardly the only manufacturer in St. Augustine, home also to St. Augustine Trawlers, Inc., along with several smaller yards owned by the Sarris, Nix and Xynides families. The shrimp boat building decades were the heyday of wooden boat building in St. Augustine and one of the last remaining examples of this once vibrant industry in the United States.

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The roots of America’s shrimping industry first began growing in northeast Florida. Beginning during the first decade of the 20th century, highly effective ‘otter trawl’ nets were adapted to the coastal waters of Fernandina, Florida. A collaboration of families, many of them recent immigrants with Mediterranean fishing traditions, quickly built an industry that ‘discovered’ shrimp for the nation. During these early years
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many of the families, with names such as Sollicito, Salvador, Poli, and Versaggi, moved to St. Augustine for its access to good schools and boat-building resources. By the 1920s St. Augustine was the center of this booming industry and supplied shrimp by the ton to New York City markets via refrigerated rail car. Simultaneously, a new style of fishing boat evolved to meet the needs of the business. Based on sponge boats introduced to Florida by Greek spongers, the shrimp trawler carried familiar lines of the Mediterranean. A
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rounded bottom and high, bluff bow was modified to carry a wheelhouse up forward, an engine down below, and a cut off, U-shaped transom. The old sailing rig was done away with and replaced by a single pole mast with a boom for handling the nets and catch. This hull shape resulted in a boat that rolled more
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than flat bottomed fishing boats, but was weatherly and could stand up to rough seas. These trawlers began to grow from the first shrimp boat, which were most often converted from other boats. Purpose-built shrimp trawlers began to commonly measure over 30’ in length and by World War II, were often over 40’ in length. It was this pre-war period that the Florida-style trawler was born. Builders such as Klonaris, Tiliakos, and Deonas were among the first to hew local live oak and long leaf pine into the hull style that would become iconic of the American fishing industry. After the war, trawler size continued to increase and the Super-trawler was born, a large, high-horsepower boat over 50’ in length that could travel thousands of miles
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to fish distant waters such as the southern Caribbean. Diesel Engine Sales Co., started in St. Augustine in 1943, modernized the world of trawler building. What Henry Ford did for automobiles, Diesel Engine Sales Co. (later known as DESCO) did for shrimp boats. By 1954 the company had completed over 500 trawlers, complete and ready to fish on their first voyage! The Florida-style trawler was traditionally built from wood with a pine keel, white oak frames, and cypress planking. As good building
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wood became more expensive and hard to find, yellow pine was used as planking and during the 1960s fiberglass entered the scene as a hull material. A few steel hulled trawlers were built but wood and fiberglass
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dominated the industry. The Mollie and Me II, pictured above, was built by Greek boat-builder Harry Xynides during the mid-1960s (photograph courtesy of the Xynides family). Many other builders prospered on the banks of the San Sebastian River, the boat-building epicenter of St. Augustine. From the corporate yards of DESCO andSt. Augustine Trawlers to the family owned yards of the Sarris, Xynides, and Nix families, this small river was once home to a forest of shrimp boat masts. By the late 1980s, the building boom was over and few shrimp boats are built in St. Augustine presently. However, many of the thousands of shrimp boats built right here in St. Augustine persist, plowing the waves of the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean every day to bring home the catch.

 

 
 

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Click here to read the article “Trawling Through St. Augustine’s History” from Florida Scuba News

Detailed History of Shrimp Boat Building in St. Augustine

 

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