Skipjack, a Rugged Sailing Workhorse
“I remember working near Poplar Island when you could almost reach out and touch a boat in every direction and we were all working together with sail…a hundred in a little section.” Captain Art Daniels.
There is an old English proverb that says; “Necessity is the mother of invention”. The Oystermen who harvested the Chesapeake Bay around 1890 needed a light, easy to construct and inexpensive sailing vessel. It needed to be able to navigate the shallower water of the Bay. Watermen wanted a wide beamed, hard chined, vessel that was low to the water. It also needed to have a large and stable storage platform. It needed to be easy to handle and able to quickly come about. To make it possible for the oyster dredges to perform continuous “licks” or passes over the oyster beds. Skipjacks with their single-masted rig, sharp-headed mainsail and a large jib were an immediate success when they first appeared in the Chesapeake in 1890.
In her book Chesapeake Bay Skipjacks, (Tidewater Publishers, Centerville, MD) author Pat Vojtech writes about the skipjack EVA built by a Cambridge man named Johnson who used scrap lumber to build her in 1888. Before they called them Skipjacks they were called
Bateaus but over time they came to be called Skipjacks,
By 1891 the Ruby G. Ford was built in Fairmont. She is remembered by many dredgers in Somerset County, MD. to be the first bateau or skipjack in the area.
The skipjack, despite the fact that in Somerset County, the name bateau stuck longer after the rest of the world were calling them skipjacks, flourished there and more skipjacks where built in Somerset County than anywhere in the region of the shore. In places like Smith Island the name bateau lingered and was not really changed until the 1930’s.
A law was being passed in Maryland in 1865 which forbad oyster dredging by any other means than sailing vessels. Even back then responsible people were concerned that over dredging the bay would eventually ruin the oyster harvest. It was one of the first conservation measures.
The Maryland Law Library reports: “Maryland laws regarding oysters in 1865 were found in Article 71. This article was repealed and re-enacted on March 22, 1865. We have attached Chapter 181 of the Laws of Maryland from 1865 that includes the changes to Article 71.
Section 1 provides that you must have a license to dredge and Section 4 includes: “no steamboat, steam vessel or steam machinery shall be used for the purpose of taking or catching oysters with a scoop, dredge, drag or any other instrument whatever;”
The Laws of Maryland and some historic versions of the Maryland Code are available online through the Archives of Maryland. For Codes, Compilations of Laws, Rules and Regulations see: http://aomol.msa.maryland.gov/html/codes.html and for Session Laws see: http://aomol.msa.maryland.gov/html/laws.html”.
The nimble skipjack design caught on fast and at one point there were as many as 2000 dredging for oysters. In 1985 Maryland named the skipjack as its official state boat.
The skipjacks were usually between 30 and 60 feet long. Some could carry as much as 500 bushels of oysters.
They had a retractable centerboard that acted as a keel to counter the lateral force of the sails and to keep the boat on a straight course. It could be retracted making it possible for the skipjacks to dredge in as little as three feet of water, an advantage over even smaller boats.
There was a simple formula for building a skipjack. The length of the boom should equal the length on deck. The length of the bowsprit should equal the width on deck or beam of the boat. The height of the mast should equal the length on deck plus the beam. The boats, like so many of the working wooden boats, were built without plans. A process known as “Rack of eye”. The cross-planed, hard-chined hulls were cheaper to build than the rounded hulls of the more attractive sloops and schooners of the day. Yet, the skipjacks have a rugged beauty all their own.
Certainly the most distinctive aspect of the skipjack dredgers is the yawl boat or push boat hung from davits at the stern. Essentially the push boats were little boats with big engines that were used to literally push the skipjack as if by its own little tugboat. Generally, they had automobile engines and were position into chocks on the stern of the skipjack that accommodated the bow of the little push-boat.
When the wind was down, docking or traveling to the oyster grounds the push-boat could add the power of an internal combustion engine to the skipjack. When dredging for oyster the push-boat had to be hauled up out of the water so that the oyster police could easily see that the skipjack was operating under sail and not powered by the pushboat in compliance with the law. By the 1960s oyster harvest had diminished and the state of Maryland allowed dredging under power to be done two days a week Monday and Tuesday.
The popularity of oysters attracted dredgers and poachers from up and down the coast. Oyster wars plagued the Chesapeake Bay in the latter half of the nineteenth century and were essentially over by1915. Maryland and to a lesser extent Virginia established Oyster Police to control the chaos and carnage that erupted in the quest for the lucrative oyster harvests.
The heavy steel dredge was thrown overboard and dragged back and forth over the oyster beds. When it was full, it was pulled up by hand and dumped on the deck where crew members culled for oysters. The shells, mud and unsuitable oysters were shoveled back overboard. Eventually the gasoline engine powered winder replaced pulling up of the dredges by hand. This made a tremendous difference in the time it took to haul up the dredge. It also contributed to the more rapid depletion of oyster beds.
It was a hard life working the oyster harvest. Cold weather and poor working conditions made the job of watermen dangerous. In 1917, William McPearson told a Baltimore District Court how he lost nine fingers and nine toes to frostbite after a winter of working on the Airel owned by Captain Noah Holland of Farimount in Somerset County.
Not all skipjack captains were cruel to their crews. Some were notoriously good especially to their crews drawn from their hometowns. Some were cruel to their crews drawn from prisons.
The once incredibly popular skipjacks have faded from the bay. Fortunately, there are some preserved for posterity. The Fisherman’s Museum in Reedville Virginia has a working skipjack named the Claud W. Somers which is a vessel listed as a National Historic Site.
The Claud W. Somers is a two-sail bateau, or skipjack, built for oyster dredging, she is one of a handful of skipjacks remaining on the Chesapeake Bay.
Claud W Somers continued to work the bay until 1983 when Alfred Garey Lambert purchased her and labored over the next 17 years rebuilding and restoring the vessel. Upon his death in 1999, his children selected the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum as the new steward of the Claud W. Somers.
Claud W. Somers is listed by the National Historic Register: “Claud W Somers is a Chesapeake Bay skipjack, built in 1911 in Young’s Creek, Virginia, by W. Thomas Young of Parksley, who also built Bernice J.. She is ported at the Reedville Fisherman’s Museum in Reedville, Virginia. In 1977 Claude W. Somers was struck by a squall near Hooper Strait Light, leaving six drowned, including her owner-captain.”
You can see the Claud W. Somers, walk her decks and actually sail on her at the Reedville Fisherman’s Museum, a delightful place to visit. It has, in addition to the Claud W. Somers restored to its original condition and approved by the US Coast Guard, a wonderful museum which preserves the history of fisherman and fishing in the area. For details visit their website at: http://www.rfmuseum.org/