Dredging up the past
Skipjacks once again sailing off into the sunset
A century ago, when oysters were plentiful in the Chesapeake Bay, skipjacks were, too. Hundreds sailed the Bay in fall and winter as watermen hauled their catch on deck and then to ravenous markets on shore.
Now, like the oysters they were designed to harvest, these iconic wooden boats survive at a fraction of their former numbers — and are championed by people devoted to their preservation.
The skipjack, some say, draws its name from fish that leap along the surface of the water. A few were built and used in New England and in the sounds of North Carolina, but the skipjack flourished in the Chesapeake.
“They were built for oyster dredging,” said Pete Lesher, chief curator of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. “That’s their purpose.”
Lesher estimated that Maryland and Virginia shipwrights built 300 to 600 skipjacks between the 1880s and the start of World War I. Production was kick-started when Maryland legalized dredging in the 1860s. To dredge, a heavy cage or basket is attached to a boat and towed through the water to scrape oysters from the Bay’s bottom. Though not an easy job, it was more efficient than plucking them from the water with tongs.
To discourage competition from corporate interests and New England watermen, the law required boats to be registered in Maryland and operated only under sail.
“Back in the Civil War era, that meant no steam boats. They were trying to protect the little guy,” Lesher said.
The skipjack became the vessel of choice by the 1880s. The dead-rise construction of its hull — a v-shaped bottom and angled sides — bypassed the need for ribs and simply relied on heavy planks. That saved money and made skipjacks faster to build.
The rig is also distinctive. “There’s one mast, and the mainsail has a very long boom,” Lesher said. “That means there’s a lot of horsepower to harness the wind’s energy. You don’t need a lot of speed, but you do need power.”
The mainsail also has several rows of “reef points” that provide options for shortening the sail. “It’s like a tractor trailer that has 13 gears. Those reef points are the gears for the skipjack. When it starts breezing up, you have to shift to a lower gear, and that’s what all those reef points are about,” Lesher said.
Sail dredging dwindled throughout the 20th century and largely stopped in the 1990s, making Chesapeake skipjacks the last commercial fisheries fleet in the United States to operate under sail. Approximately 60 skipjacks worked the Bay in the 1960s, and 30 in the early 1980s. As the numbers dropped, people took notice. “There was a perception that those boats were on borrowed time,” Lesher said.
The first skipjack set aside for preservation was the Rosie Parks, purchased by the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in 1975. It underwent a full restoration in 2011–14, with meticulous use of the original shipwright’s techniques.
Orville Parks, the original owner of the Rosie Parks, was known both for oystering and racing, and the museum entered the restored boat in the races at Deal Island and Cambridge in 2014 and 2015.
“This year, we redeemed her reputation,” Lesher said. “We got first place, and by a large margin. We like to think Orville Parks is smiling.”
Where to see skipjacks in the Chesapeake Bay region
About 25 skipjacks are still afloat. About half carry passengers for public sails, charters or school programs. Others can be viewed at dock or on land. For a close-up encounter, here are some options. You can also follow the restoration of the George W. Collier on Facebook.
At dock or on land:
- The Rosie Parks: Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, MD; cbmm.org/exhibitions/floating-fleet
- The Joy Parks: Piney Point Lighthouse Museum & Historic Park in St. Mary’s County, MD; www.co.saint-marys.md.us/recreate/ppl.asp
- The Claud W. Somers: Reedville Fishermen’s Museum in Reedville, VA; rfmuseum.org
Public sails (seasonal) or charters:
- The Stanley Norman: Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Annapolis, MD; cbf.org/skipjacktrips
- Watermen Heritage Tours: watermenheritagetours.org (Captains Wade Murphy and Ed Farley)
- The Dee of St. Mary’s: Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, MD; calvertmarinemuseum.com under Cruises
- Nathan of Dorchester: in Cambridge, MD; skipjack-nathan.org
Comments are now closed for this article. Comments are accepted for 60 after publication.