A guide poling along the bonefish flats of Belize. An ornithologist in Cuba running through the back channels of a tidal river. A captain leading a skin diving expedition in the Bahamas. I’ve been along for the ride in all three scenarios, and in every one we were riding in a panga.
The panga is ubiquitous along the coasts of many countries in Central and South America, as well as Asia and Africa, earning a place in history as the most important low-cost workboat of the last 50 years. And now the panga design is making inroads into the recreational side, with many builders offering versions of the original.
There is debate over where the inspiration for the modern panga originated, but consensus is they derived from the narrow, high-bowed wooden surf boats used by net fishermen in Asia. The fishermen needed shallow-draft boats to hunt schools of baitfish and cast nets from a raised bow. Mass production of the motorized pangas we know today came courtesy of Yamaha, who was looking for a market for its new 40-hp outboard engine in the 1960s.
“Back then the boats were even called Yamahas,” said Todd Allmand, owner of Miami’s Allmand Boats, which has been building pangas since 1978. Yamaha modified the traditional fishing hull for outboard duty. Their design became the blueprint for the modern panga: a low-cost, fuel-efficient boat that runs both shallow and deep and planes with low horsepower.
The key feature of the Yamaha design is the Delta pad, a flat, slightly concave running surface that extends along the keel, about two inches wide towards the bow and about sixteen inches at the transom. “They did this to make it easier for fishermen to pull them onto the beach,” said Allmand. The pad, combined with the narrow beam, influenced the boat’s sea-keeping abilities. It pops onto plane almost instantly and skips on top of a bay chop rather than cutting through it.
The original pangas also had flared bow sections to help disperse waves, and concave running surfaces inboard of the chines to help stabilize the boats despite their narrow beam. To suit the needs of net fishermen and to make them easy to build and ship, the original pangas also did not have decks; instead they had transverse frames running laterally from bow to stern. The gunwales also had foam flotation built into them, to help fishermen right the boat if it capsized in rough seas.
The boats became known as pangas after the type of baitfish pursued by the netters; a mullet-like fish with a knife-shaped body that resembled a panga, another name for a machete. When Yamaha teamed with the World Bank in the 1970s to distribute boats, engines, and design plans to developing nations worldwide, the panga revolution began. Builders in Mexico and elsewhere began tweaking the design to local specifications.
American tourists traveling to Mexico or other destinations around the world appreciated the utility of pangas, taking them out flats fishing, snorkeling and scuba diving, whale watching, and offshore in search of marlin, tuna, and sailfish. They wanted that here.
Allmand still sells most of his boats abroad, but he does build some for U.S. recreational use. So do a few other builders who took notice of the panga’s global popularity. Angler Boats builds a 22 and 26 panga, and another company called Andros Boats builds a line of flats, bay, and center-console fishing boats based on the panga design.
Rob McDaniel is another builder inspired by the panga from frequent trips to Guadalajara. He remembers what struck him about the boats. “One day we were poling around in nine inches of water,” he recalled. “The next day we ran nine miles offshore to dive for lobster.”
McDaniel started importing pangas from Mexico in 2001 and building them there in 2002. In 2005 he shipped the molds to Sarasota, Florida and started Panga Marine. McDaniel took the basic narrow-beam hull with the delta pad concept and added recreational amenities such as decks, casting platforms, T-tops, and steering consoles.
Rivolta Yachts, a builder of high-end custom boats, took to the panga concept a few years ago and started a line of more polished panga-inspired boats called Mojito Boats. “We took the performance aspects of the hull and made ours beamier and with high gunwales,” said company owner Renzo Rivolta. “The typical buyer is the fisherman with a family who wants a safe, stable, versatile boat with amenities.” Rivolta is experimenting with jet propulsion in its commercial line, called XO, and we may see a recreational version from Mojito in the future.
That’s a long way from the traditional cast netters using the ancestral pangas to chase baitfish, but it shows the panga hull form is here to stay.
Pete McDonald writes for Boating, Yachting, and other marine and fishing publications. In the past, he has written for Power & Motoryacht and Salt Water Sportsman, and spent 11 years on staff as a technical editor at Boating. All things considered, at any given moment he would prefer to be fishing.