Written by Lion Bill Sailor
Maryland made the skipjack its state boat in 1985. In spite of the fact that it is just a workboat that harvests the Chesapeake, the few remaining boats are part of the only sailing oyster fleet of the United States and a prized part of Chesapeake history.
Between the great lakes and tidewater Virginia the ice age scooped out the Chesapeake Bay. Over 100 feet deep in some areas, with thousands of islands, necks and capes to cause circulation of the water the bay became a great aquatic habitat . Oysters, crabs and fish of all kinds provided food aplenty for the natives and the birds..
In 1607 the European settlers came and settled in Virginia, and within 30 years they had settled parts of the eastern shore. The land was rich for food crops, There was plenty of hunting and fishing until the harvest. Raccoon, wild turkey, boar, small deer and pheasants were plentiful. The bay gave you croakers, hardheads, eel, rockfish, clams, crabs and oysters. There were lean years and good years, but if you had a musket and made yourself a boat you could feed your family.
The settlers copied the dugout canoes of the Indians at first. Cut down a big pine tree, hollow out the logs, fasten them together, and seal the seams with tar. Soon the Europeans added a triangular sail and a rudder. Each section of the new world had a master builder, famous by word of mouth if their boats worked well for the captains.
The settler became equally dependent on the bay and the land. Many individuals were building boats of all kinds. sloops, canoes, rams, schooners, bugeyes.. The boats got larger, and some got up to two masts, but they still started with the basic dugout tree as the hull form. Boat builders, sail makers, coopers, tradesmen to supply the nails and ropes, anchors etc.filled the harbor areas.
In 1820 the first conservation laws began for the Chesapeake. Dredging oysters was banned from the Chesapeake to stop over fishing. The dredge was dragged over the oyster bar picking up most of the oysters, muddied the waters, and stripped all the oysters from the bar. Hand tonging was still allowed.
Then came the Civil War. Local sympathies were with the South if for no other reason than to resist anyone trying to impose their beliefs on the rebels. Like all wars, it came to an end but only after 620,000 Americans died. In 1865 oyster dredging was allowed again in the Chesapeake to help families eat, and take advantage of Tangier Sound‘s newly found rich oyster beds.
The veterans came home and had to start from the beginning at their trades again. There weren’t that many pines any more, but at first they built the Bugeyes with dugout logs, with two masted sloop rigs. They didn’t have much money for their boats so they needed a cheaper boat and something that didn‘t need a big tree to start with…
After a few years of tinkering, the boat builders came up with an idea. A boat they could build anywhere that would slip over the oyster beds without grounding and could be repaired easily. It became called the skipjack.
Instead of a deep keel and dugout trees, they used planks built on bulkheads. Then they used a centerboard. This is a keel that can be raised or lowered in the center of the boat to keep it stable when sailing full speed, but when you wanted to go in the shallow water you could raise the centerboard, and lower or reef the sails to go slowly over the oysters.
Whatever length hull you built, the bow sprit and the beam were 1/3rd of that length. The Mast was the length of the hull and the sprit. The boom was the length of the hull. Easy to build, easy to sail, slow enough for oyster tonging, trot line crabbing, and fishing for rock, eel and hardhead.. That was the skipjack and they started building them in the 1880s filling in the spaces of all the other boats on the bay until you could see a cloud of sails each day on the bay..
How did it get called the Skipjack. It probably wasn’t the skipjack tuna which was not a Chesapeake Bay fish. The boat used rings for its mainsail, and in a quick squall, the mainsail could be dropped in seconds. It was also capable of turning on a dime looking like it was skipping on the water, cutting back to rake the next “lick” of oyster bed. The watermen from Smith Island, and Tangier still speak a form of archaic English, which had an old English word meaning “inexpensive but useful servant” that sounded like Skipjack.
It was a working boat….No Chrome, mahogany or teak, No rooms, you slept in a hammock from November to March staying on the boat and oystering, returning home to your family in the Spring. It was a hard life, little comfort, food little better than they had in the war, but it was a living. Each day the boat would drift over the oyster bars, needing hardly any wind, and the crew would use dredges or hand tongs to drag the oysters off the bar. They slid them on the deck, and culled the good oysters from the shells and rocks that they returned to the bars. A day was from dawn to dusk, and cold. Dredging involved dragging a large raking dredge across the bar, powered by the sail, Tonging involved a 24 foot scissors type tool with 3” half baskets on the bottom. A man raised the tongs up, opened the baskets, dropped the tongs down to the oysters, closed the baskets and hauled up the basket full of oysters, spat rocks and shells to be culled on the deck. That was an extremely hard job.
The skipjack captain were well known, but not well liked. There were stories that the bars of Baltimore had many a drunk shanghaied into service on a skipjack for the winter. Then the sailor had to hope that after a hard winter of working, the captain would pay them for the months of forced labor and not knock them off the boat with the boom in the Spring.
The Chesapeake Bay is unforgiving and harsh at times. Squalls surprise a boat out in the open water long before it could reach the safety of land, and the crew had to battle it out with the wind and waves. It might just be the contrary disposition of the waterman but as a group they don’t swim, seldom use life preservers, and prefer to deal with nature head on.
The age of power was beginning, and power boats began competing with the skipjacks, power dredging, and using crab pots in long lines to catch the crabs. The skipjacks rigged its own little pusher boat with a car engine to move the skipjack when the wind would not, The steering wheel of the boat maneuvered the pusher to guide the skipjack and the plentiful Chesapeake fed them all. Since a skipjack could be built new for $3000 in 1905, and run on wind it was still popular.
But the Chesapeake would claim its share of the wooden boats each year, and they began to dwindle with storms, ice, and old age wearing away at the frail fleet . By the late 1950s there were few rams, bugeyes, or sloops left, but the skipjack kept plying the waters of the Chesapeake.
In 1959 around a potbellied stove captains and some of the Lions talked about the old days, and the fact that the skipjacks that used to race every day on the Chesapeake no longer had a place to race, or folks to watch. A lion in the Deal Island-Chance Lions, Ben Evans convinced the club to hold a race from Deal Island Harbor down to Wenona and back on Labor Day.
On Labor Day in 1960 16 skipjacks jockeyed for position to cross the starting line as close to the starting gun as possible. The Rosie Parks won, and everyone celebrated with a meal at the Deal Island firehouse afterwards.
Over the next few years the race grew in popularity and a few of the captain’s would get rambunctious and have a separate race between themselves. Bragging rights were the cost for the entire next year, and among the unique captains of these old boats that was enough.
In 1964 Brenda Brodey became our first Miss Skipjack. Every year at the end of July we hold a Miss Skipjack Pageant to find the young lady that will reign over the Labor Day Festivities, and represent us in parades around the Eastern Shore. It isn’t Miss America but that means very little because like the bragging rights for the race, our young ladies are instilled with the heritage of the watermen, and the skipjack captains are usually part of their family. Winning when you compete against your neighbors in the small communities of the skipjack area means the world to these young ladies. Many of our girls that compete for Little Miss Skipjack come back and compete for the title of Miss Skipjack…..up to three times.
In 1975, while there were still a small fleet of skipjacks, A group on the bay decided to build a new skipjack to all the specifications of the oyster fleet. The Nathan of Dorchester was built, and shows schoolchildren and grownups what it is like to be on a working sailboat. They carry on the tradition of the skipjack heritage.
Now there are around 30 skipjacks in varied states of condition from Tilghman Island down to Deal Island and Wenona, and in the Maritime Museums of Maryland and Virginia.
We have the Fanny Daugherty, the Kathryn, the City of Crisfield, the Somerset, and Ida May, and the Hilda M. Willing between Wenona and Deal Island Harbor.
The Sigsbee and the Rosie Parks belong to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, and Tom Parks, Captain Orville Parks grandson is restoring the Rosie. The Sigsbee usually makes it to our race. The Rosie Parks won the first Lions Skipjack Race.
The Ada Fears has just recently been restored to working condition. She sailed as the Lady Agnes oystering the bay until someone decided to change her name. She and the Minnie V, the Caleb Jones, the Martha Lewis, the Thomas Clyde, the Helen Virginia, the H.M. Krentz and the Nathan of Dorchester make it to most of our races, along with the oldest skipjack still sailing. The Rebecca Ruark was built in 1888, and Captain Wadey Murphy still sails her giving tours and weekend trips on the boat for enthused sailors.
We hope that Ellsworth, Mamie Mister, Ladie Katie, F.C. Lewis, Howard and Stanley Norman will join us again soon.
A year or so ago a public radio host asked me to get her an interview with a skipjack Captain. I called Daddy Art Daniels and we talked about the races. I mentioned that I had had the luck to sail with Captain Charles Abbott on the Thomas Clyde one year with quite a few others(28). He drawled, “Well you have to consider the weather, and everything else for the race.” I asked him how many passengers he had in the last race, and he said about 30. I laughed, and you won didn’t you…… He did, as he often does, knowing his boat that he has had since soon after she was built in 1949. One year he was in third place, and cut so close to the shore no one else followed him His shallow draft and knowledge of currents and tides carried him to first place that year too.
This year we held our 53rd Skipjack Race and Festival. Daddy Art Daniels captained the City of Crisfield in its 53rd race, Wade Murphy captained the Rebecca Ruark, built in 1888 and won to become the winningest captain in the history of our race. Come on down next year, enjoy soft crab sandwiches, oyster sandwiches, barbecue, kids rides, music all three days, a cash raffle and family fun you will not find anywhere else on the Eastern Shore..
If you come early Monday morning and attend the blessing of the fleet, you can ask the captains for a spot on their boat, and ride in the race. The race gives you a feeling of being a part of history. You are riding on a boat that has served the watermen of the Chesapeake for over 100 years, and the history soaks into you as you ride. Come down and enjoy a part of yesteryear that probably will not be with us much longer. Like all our ladies, they take a lot of tender loving care.