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Jeff Robbins' custom-crafted Ogeechee riverboats don't just take you upstream. They take you back to a simpler time.

Jeff Robbins pilots one of his signature boats through the water, showing how its unique design makes it perfect for river travel.

Jeff Robbins' custom-crafted Ogeechee riverboats don't just take you upstream. They take you back to a simpler time. 

Jeff Robbins might be the last Ogeechee river boat builder around. Robbins began building the pirogue-style vessels nine years ago, starting with a gift for his father, who used to talk about fishing out of them as a child. Without any instructions to go off of, Robbins referenced a picture of his grandfather standing beside an Ogeechee river boat in 1925. “I knew the original boats were built with cyprus or plywood, so I winged it from there,” he says.

Nearly a decade later, his boats have been featured on television shows such as The Walking Dead” and “The Originals,” purchased by the CFO of Coca Cola, and have earned widespread acclaim for their exquisite craftsmanship. “I posted a picture online of the one I made for my dad,” says Robbins. “A man who had just lost his father saw it. He said his dad used to take him fishing in one and he asked if he could come see it in person. As soon as he looked at it, he couldn’t stop smiling. That’s when I realized that these boats are special because of how they transport you back to a time when people had relationships with the rivers and the food they caught themselves. From that moment, everything kind of mushroomed.”

The scarcity of the Ogeechee river boats and their makers is just a fraction of what makes them a tradition worth continuing. Likely originating in Augusta, these boats have been around for about a century, but they are not simply antiques. Before outboard motors, they were used to paddle in creeks and small rivers. “Fords weren’t affordable for most people when Ogeechee river boats were in their hayday,” explains Robbins. “You could paddle them upstream, which was necessary if they were to be a genuine form of transportation that could bring you home and back again. That’s the reason for the narrow stern. You can turn them 180 degrees with a single stroke in part because the back-end is out of the water. The boats are roughly fourteen feet and 200 pounds, so that’s a huge testament to their design. A canoe won’t do that.”

“The older you get, the more you seek out whatever it is that makes you feel like a kid again, that thing that takes you back to a simpler time.”

“They have the stability of a john boat,” explains Robbins. “They don’t really flip. The narrow stern and wide bow makes them faster on the water. I actually widened out the stern, changed the angles a bit, and narrowed the bow even more. This enhances the pivot in the middle that allows you to spin it around,” he says. “Many of my boats are almost a cross between a traditional Ogeechee river boat and a McKenzie river boat because of the way I set up the rocker and the stern. I also put a tackle drawer under each seat, which is fairly unique.”

“People go for something they think is stylish” Robbins adds. “But Ogeechee are about function. They can go to every single spot on a river — over rocks, through difficult-to-navigate areas, you name it. If you fish behind someone in one of these, they’ll be nothing left to catch because they’ll hit every hole on the water.”

Robbins demonstrates what one of his custom-made boats will do in a creek situated by the ruins of a pre-Civil War rope factory. He glows as his vessel glides effortlessly over the water, pivoting any which way he wants on a whim. The teardrop shape pools water behind the craft, reducing the drag to near nothing. As I watch, he runs the boat over a the partially submerged foundation of the rope factory. The vessel is as durable as the memories of them that have been passed on through the generations.

After the demonstration, we load his boat into his pickup truck. He hesitates. “There’s one more thing,” he says. “I’ve been trying to figure out how to write this part for years. I realized that all this time, I’ve been building boats to get back to my granddad’s house by the river. It’s owned by someone else now, but knowing I could paddle there makes it real.”

“It’s funny,” he says. “The older you get, the more you seek out whatever it is that makes you feel like a kid again, that thing that takes you back to a simpler time.” 

Robbins' boats range from $2,200 to $4,500.

While Robbins built his boats from a photo of his grandfather, the design of the Ogeechee River boat shares common ancestry with several river boats used throughout the South, including the Brier Creek boat.

At its widest, the craft is a mere 40 inches, narrowing to 28 inches at the bow and 9 inches at the stern. This, in concert with its teardrop shape, allows it to cut through the water with ease. Submerged logs are always an issue when you're out on  the water, but the Ogeechee river boat plies them with ease thanks to its raised bow.

It's not a boat you want to push too far, making each trip out a meditative act. After all, why would you be in a rush when there's the river's natural beauty to enjoy? When you’re ready to start your river adventure, visit ogeecheeriverboatcompany.com.

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