Farley Boats And Tarpon:
The Farley Family Boatbuilders
For more than a half-century,
The Farley family of Port Aransas
produced hand-crafted fishing boats
that were the choice of tarpon fishermen,
shrimpers and even presidents.
Texas Parks & Wildlife
By Phil H. Shook
Back when boats were custom crafted out of Louisiana cypress and Phillipine mahogany, and tarpon roamed in great numbers around the jetties of Port Aransas, the Farley inboard set the standard in style and function on the Texas coast.
A half century before the sleek modern fiberglas center console crafts made the scene, Farley boats cut through the inshore chop and helped put Texas on the map as the tarpon fishing capital of the world.
From about 1915 to the mid-1970s, three generations of the Farley family designed and built the classic Texas sportfishing boat in the back of their home in Port Aransas.
When world leaders and world class anglers such as Kip Farrington or world leaders like Franklin Delano Roosevelt came to Port Aransas to fish for the silver king, they trolled the jetty rocks and beachfront in Farley boats.
At the turn of the century, tarpon fishing already had begun to attract anglers to Port Aransas from across the country, even though access to the local waters was severly restricted. In 1906, guests staying at the Tarpon Inn resort could fish from skiffs tied together and towed out to the jetties by a sailboat for $3.50 a day. That year, according to the log kept by J.E. Cotter, the Tarpon Inn's proprietor, visiting anglers caught 1,573 tarpon during the April to November fishing season.
Don Roy Farley, a third generation member of the Port Aransas boat building family, says it was probably after a storm in the early 1900s that a member of the Farley family first visited Port Aransas and saw a great opportunity for a boat builder.
The tarpon still were around in great numbers, but by then the idea of rowing a boat dory or flat bottomed skiff even a relatively short stretch in the strong Gulf currents and choppy seas had gone out of vogue.
Storms in 1915 and 1919 had wiped out the existing charter fleet and the local guides were desperate for boats. "There was a great demand for any type of power boat," Don Roy says.
As Don Roy tells it, his grandfather, Charles Frederick Farley (or Fred as he was known) was living in Birmingham, Alabama, in the early 1900s when he was summoned to Port Aransas by a brother, who had visited the fishing village after the storm.
"Fred's brother probably sold him a bill of goods that he could come down here and be a millionaire by building boats," Farley said. "He never did turn out to be a millionaire but he did build a lot ofboats."
Before he came to Port Aransas, Fred, a master craftsman, had traveled with his three brothers along the Gulf Coast, designing and building everything from utility boats to lighthouses and ornate New Orleans bars.
Fred's earliest fishing boat design, which would set the standard for inshore sportsfishing for years to come, was an 18-footer built to meet the needs of local fishing guides. "They wanted a low-sided boat, one that would fight the choppy waves," said Don Roy. "You couldn't buy a Chris Craft to do that because their sides were high, they were flatter and they pounded in that chop"
The Farley, on the other hand, was designed to fish the local waters. "You could always outrun the factory-built boats in the choppy water," Don Roy says.
A distinguishing feature of the Farley boat was the chine, the point on the hull where the sides and bottom intersect. On the Farley, the chine didn't touch the water until well aft of the bow. "If it was just sitting in the slip, that hard chine on that Farley's semi-V (hull) was somewhere between half and two thirds back," Don Roy said. Most of the eary Farley designs, like the 24-footer, that FDR fished out of in 1937, had a hatch in front of the windshield that you could open. The low cabins allowed anglers to cast in any direction.
Don Roy said a lot of guides didn't have the money to buy a marine engine so many of the early boats were powered by Model A and Model T Ford engines, four-cylinder Chevrolet engines, early Chrysler engines or any thing else the guides could find. He said the Chrysler 75 would become the first marine engine that the guides could afford to buy parts for and repair. Many of the early boats used Ford and Chevrolet automobile engines are anything the guides could find. And because the auto engines ran hot, frequently you would see the guides on the water open one side of the hatch and rest it on the other to cool down the engine compartment.
The earliest Farleys were 18 to 22 footers that carried two people, but later they were built larger to accommodate bigger engines and larger parties.
In the early years, Farley boats were built with top-grade cypress cut into 5/8-inch thick planks. The boats were relatively light, very durable and with reasonable care would last 20 years or more, Don Roy said. When cypress became scarce after World War II, the Farley boat builders switched to Honduran and Philippine mahogany.
Port Aransas fishing guide Smokey Gaines said he can attest to the strength and durability of the Farley hull. Gaines operated a Farley for three seasons in the mid-1970s. Originally called the Starfish but renamed the Tambucin, Gaines said it was the last mahogany-hulled Farley boat ever built in Port Aransas.
"On one of its first little sashays out into the Gulf, I had my best friend and his father out fishing in it," Gaines recalled. "It was just a fun trip breaking in the new boat."Gaines siad his friend was driving the boat toward port while he was cleaning the back deck. The boat struck a floating three-foot-wide tree trunk. "I mean, he just completely jumped the whole thing," Gaines recalled. He said it bent the propeller and caused some underwater gear problems but didn't hurt the hull at all. "That says something about the strength and integrity of the hull."
Don Roy said there never were any plans drawn up for the Farley boats. Instead, the family drew the design on a wooden floor of their backyard shop. "They drew so many boats out on there, pretty soon you couldn't see which one was which," Don Roy said. "They marked it with a colored carpenters crayon and we had to start nailing plywood on the floor so we could draw new (designs)." If anybody wanted to see the boat plans, they would be shown the plywood, Don Roy said.
If the customer wanted to make a change, Don Roy said his uncles would whittle out a half-model of a boat. "I remember as a boy I wanted a toy boat," he said, "and all they had were those half-models."
Don Roy said his grandfather just started building them like some of the existing utility boats in the area. "Then he made improvements as he went along. He was a pretty smart hombre." If a guide wanted a closed cabin or an open day cabin to get more air, Fred would oblige but he always built the hulls to his specifications, Don Roy said.
Dr. Chester Shotts, a San Antonio physician, and his wife, Virginia, veteran tarpon anglers, fished out of Farley boats for years. Shotts recalled a visit to the boat works in the middle 1960s to check the progress on a 36-foot Farley, one of three he had ordered built. "Jim (Farley) would see a spot on the side of the boat that needed a plank. He would look at it, walk over to his saw, cut the plank and lay it in there perfectly, never taking a measurement at all."
Don Roy said his dad and his two uncles grew up building boats, and they learned the business almost by instinct. Don Farley, Don Roy's father, built one boat then turned to guiding for his livlihood, while his two brothers, Jim and Fred Jr., continued to build boats.
After World War II, the boat works was moved behind what is now Don Roy's current residence on Mercer Street in Port Aransas, where it remained until it was destroyed in Hurricane Carla in 1961. The boat works then was moved to another location where it remained in operation until 1975.
The Farleys also built hydroplane race boats for the Borden family of Corpus Christi. These boats were raced all over the country. One of the hydroplane models was a 28-foot double-ender powered by a World War I Hispano-Suiz V-8 airplane engine. Another 34-foot model had two of the old liberty airplane engines. Don Roy recalled that one of the hydroplanes powered by a 400 horsepower engine was clocked at 54 miles per hour. "That was fast in those days," he said.
Whether guiding anglers on the local waters or building boats in their backyard, Farley family members were never far from one of their boats.
In 1952 Don Roy followed his father out to the fishing grounds, guiding anglers as a full- or part-time guide for the next 40 years. When he guided during the 1950s and 1960s, most of the fishing was done around the jetties and along the beachfront. "We didn't know that tarpon may have been farther offshore. There was no one out there drifting and bottom fishing." He said there were big concentrations of tarpon at the ends of the north and south jetties. The general approach was to slow troll up and down the jetties when the tarpon were really thick. Another technique was to go down along the surf on calm days, and with Polaroid glasses, you could see the tarpon milling. "Boy, if you could catch them milling, you could drop a mullet in t! here and they would hit it every time," Don Roy recalled. "When (the tarpon) got scared, they started loping fast and breathing and we would go out around them and slow troll and let them come in to the mullet."
Still another approach, Don Roy said, was to fish the ends of the jetties when the tide was going over the end and the fish were close to the rocks. "You stayed into the wind and tide and kept a bait in there," he said.
In his book Fishing the Atlantic Offshore and On published in 1949, the famous big-game angler and author Kip Farrington most likely was describing Farley boats when he wrote that "Port Aransas is one of the few places I know of where small, compact speedboats are constantly used for saltwater fishing. The Aransas fleet is most spectacular and is always kept in fine condition." Don Farley was Farrington's guide at Port Aransas during the 1940s.
One of the many exciting angling events that took place in Farley boats, none has been more celebrated than FDR's introduction to tarpon fishing at Port Aransas in May 1937. The president, looking like any other summer tourist in a floppy hat and long-sleeved shirt, fought and landed tarpon from Farleys on separate trips to the jetties, once with Capt. Don Farley and once with Capt. Ted Mathews. On both outings Don Roy's great-uncle, Barney Farley, was on board, helping lip-gaff the fish at the end of he battle.
There are few veteran Port Aransas anglers who cannot recall an exciting angling adventure that happened while fishing from a Farley boat. Houston angler John Wootters, who has fished these waters since the 1930s, caught tarpon out of Farleys but the episode that he recalls most vividly took place in the 1950s and involved a shark. He was sailfishing about 20 miles out of Port Aransas in a 24-foot Farley when the party of four suddenly encountered a monster shark on the surface. "It was about the length of that boat," wootters recalled. "It had a vertical tail and a dorsal fin at least two feet tall."
Wootters says he later collected affidavits from the other witnesses and sent them, along with an account of the experience, to Francesca La Monte, who was then associate curator of fishes at the American Museum of Natural History and secretary of the International Game Fish Association. La Monte wrote back and said that while it was not possible to identify the fish from the description give, it was one of the largest sharks reliably reported up to that time in American waters.
The image that remains "unforgettable to this day," Wootters siad, was the girth of the fish. "The length wasn't that impressive compared to how big around it was and how deep those pectorals were down in that clear water," he said. Wootters said he believes the fish was a great white shark because it had many of the features of that species, including a sharply defined, conical nose.
One of the most remarkable fish stories that ever has taken place in inshore waters of Port Aransas is related by Don Roy, who witnessed the event at the wheel of a Farley boat.
He was tarpon fishing with a charter party, fishing the Port Aransas north surf, when he saw a dark shadow in the water up ahead. Don Roy said he thought it was a school of milling tarpon, but when he got closer he could see its blue color. The closer he got the bigger the fish got, Don Roy said, until he was able to see the eye and bill of a swordfish--the largest of the billfish that normally inhabit the deepest waters offshore. "I was in a 26-foot boat and that thing was close to 12 feet long," he recalled.
He said he made 40 casts to the fish before he finally got it on. "We fought him for about an hour and a half, and we couldn't do anything with him," Don Roy said. "He would just run off all that 36-pound tarpon line, and I would run him down and get it back."
Don Roy said every time the broadbill would try to run over the second bar or third bar, he would run by him and the fish would move back toward the beach. At one point the fish go so close to the beach that his back was out of the water. "He was really getting excited and the fellow was really pulling on it and tore the hook out," he recalled.
Back at the marina, several of the guides didn't believe the story. But four days later the broadbill washed up on a San Jose Island beach. "Old Wes Nixon who used to beach fish found it," Don Roy said. "He sawed the bill off and brought it in. Until he confirmed it, a lot of people still didn't believe it."
There are still Farley boats to be found on Texas waters from Port Aransas to Seabrook. Some are spending their last years in disrepair, others have been converted to shrimp trawlers while others are grounded in the back yards of former charter captains and guides. A few still cut gracefully through the chop in the waters around Port Aransas.
The era of Farley boat building ended in the mid-1970s just as it started, Don Roy said, with people constructing something that they liked to build. "They were good boats and they lasted a long time," he said.
Fred Farley never made the fortune that his brother promised, but he left a rich legacy of style, craftsmanship and angling adventure.