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Willy Boats to congregate on island


Free Press Staff
Keys Citizen

ISLAMORADA — The late William Henry Roberts is credited by many avid Florida Bay anglers as having developed the flats boat prototype that set the standard for today’s backcountry skiffs.
He handcrafted his sturdy brand of shallow-water fishing vessels, known as Willy Boats, in Tavernier and Islamorada for roughly three decades.

Although he died in 1993, his legacy continues on.

“It’s still the best [flats] boat out there,” longtime Islamorada fishing captain Skip Paxton said.

Paxton was a friend of Roberts and his wife, Loretta, and he bought his first Willy Boats vessel in 1977, after transitioning from a struggling musician to a fishing guide. Paxton has owned three Willy Boats in his lifetime and he swears by the brand. Two are still used by his sons for weekend guide trips on Florida.

A private Friday evening get-together will be held at the Lorelei Restaurant and Cabana Bar on Upper Matecumbe Key to celebrate Roberts and his boat-building legacy.

The event is expected to have 30-plus attendees with 10 to 15 Willy Boats ranging from 1976 models forward.

State Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, and Joyce Kemp, Roberts’ daughter, are set to be a part of the gathering as well.

“[Willy Boats owners] have always loved them,” Kemp told the Free Press last week. “They’re custom-built creations.”

Flats builder Willy Roberts is pictured aboard one of his creations. CONTRIBUTED
Roberts works inside his Plantation Key Shop. CONTRIBUTED.
This Willy Boats skiff is on display at the World Wide Sportsman complex in Islamorada. BRIAN BOWDEN/Free Press

So where did it all begin for Roberts?

According to Kemp, her father, who was born in Key West, began boat building at a young age. He started off constructing sailboats in the Bahamas alongside his father and grandfather. After that, he lived in Miami where he build wooden cabin boats.

“It [boat building] was just born in his blood,” Kemp said,

“Eventually, in the late 1950s, he transitioned back to the Keys. Kemp recalled that he grew tired of the hustle and bustle of city life. The island chain is where Roberts — who didn’t graduate high school, but later obtained his GED at the age of 65 — would handcraft the first of many Willy Boats, which he designed to meet the needs of local anglers fishing in the shallows of Florida Bay.

And it’s where his legacy really began.

Kemp said he built each wooden boat by hand, starting with a pencil and a piece of paper. Eventually, constructing fishing vessels from fiberglass became the industry norm. But not for Roberts.
“Willy never liked “boats,” Paxton said.

“My dad used to always tell me that if God wanted fiberglass boats, he would have made fiberglass trees,” Kemp said while laughing.

And the interesting part about it is that Roberts wasn’t really an angler at all. His cataracts made it difficult of him to enjoy the sport. So, according to Kemp, he never went. But she said he sure knew how to design and build a fishing boat that did the job.

Willy Boats are still manufactured to this day out of Merritt Island. Mike Williams owns the rights to the vessel modes and offers them nationwide. Williams along with Barbara Edgar, daughter of Islamorada historian Irving Eyster, put together Friday’s event.

“I think the craftsmanship is what originally sold them.: Paxton said. “Now it’s partly the mystique and history behind them.”

“He was such a modest mad,” Kemp said of her father. “But he would be thrilled [to know his work lives on].”

For more information on Willy Boats, visit, or contact