Please select your home edition
Edition
Ancasta Ker 40+ 728x90

The graceful Skipjack - sailing into history

by Lee Mylchreest on 14 Mar 2011
Skipjack on a leisure cruise .. .

In the Third World sailing boats are still a familiar sight, used for transport and fishing.

Their delicate sails enliven the horizons of many a coastal waterway.

In the Western World they have long been relegated to the field of pleasure and sport - except for a few hardy survivors, and the whimsically named Skipjack is one of them.


A century ago, hundreds of skipjacks plied the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland on the eastern shores of the USA, sailing her waters and dragging dredges in search of oysters so lucrative they were called Chesapeake Gold.

With their distinctive shallow draft and two-sail rig, skipjacks were a unique - and iconic - workboat of the Chesapeake Bay.

Now there are believed to be only six working skipjacks left in Maryland. And just four have reported catching oysters so far this season: Hilda M. Willing, Thomas Clyde, Fannie L. Daugherty and Somerset.

The skipjacks are victims as much of the changing times as the dwindling oyster populations. It just doesn't make much sense these days to sail big, wooden sailboats to catch fewer and fewer oysters.

There are perhaps a couple dozen skipjacks on the bay, but most are owned by nonprofit ventures and museums or used as pleasure boats or for charter cruising trips.

'It's been slipping every year for the last hundred at least,' said Christopher White, author of 'Skipjack: The Story of America's Last Sailing Oystermen.' 'I'm actually surprised these six men working today are still out there dredging. I would have predicted they would have not made it as long as this. It just goes to show you how much grit and tenacity they have to keep working.'

White spent time with skipjack captains in the 1990s, working on the boats and chronicling the dying way of life for his book, which was published in 2009.

The gaff rigged Skipjack was specifically developed to dredge for oysters in Chesapeake Bay. In the late 1800s, more than a thousand reportedly plied the bay. They were relatively inexpensive to build, and their shallow draft enabled them to dredge oysters closer in to shore. Watermen often built the craft themselves in their backyards.

Deal Island is one of the last bastions of oyster dredging, and still holds a skipjack race every Labor Day. In the old days in boom times they could catch 400 or 500 bushels a day. It was grueling work, though, sailing through all kinds of weather in fall and winter.

But oyster harvests plummeted in the late 1980s, as diseases devastated the bay's once-abundant shellfish. The statewide catch is a fraction of what it was before.

About the Skipjack:
The skipjack is sloop-rigged, with a sharply raked mast and extremely long boom (typically the same length as the deck of the boat). The mainsail is ordinarily triangular, though gaff rigged examples were built. The jib is self-tending and mounted on a bowsprit. This sail plan affords the power needed to pull the dredge, particularly in light winds, while at the same time minimizing the crew required to handle the boat.

The hull is wooden and V-shaped, with a hard chine and a square stern. In order to provide a stable platform when dredging, skipjacks have very low freeboard and a wide beam (averaging one third the length on deck). A centerboard is mounted in lieu of a keel. The mast is hewn from a single log, with two stays on either side, without spreaders; it is stepped towards the bow of the boat, with a small cabin. As typical in regional practice the bow features a curving longhead under the bowsprit, with carved and painted trailboards. A small figurehead is common. A typical skipjack is 40 to 50 feet in length. The boats use direct link Edson worm steering gear mounted immediately forward of the transom.

The dredge windlass and its motor are mounted amidships, between the mast and deckhouse. Rollers and bumpers are mounted on either side of the boat to guide the dredge line and protect the hull.

Southern Spars - 100Wildwind 2016 660x82Zhik Dinghy 660x82

Related Articles

The Clipper Race turns 20!
Throughout the race, tales of crew celebrating birthdays on board filter back and they are always a special occasion Throughout the race, tales of Clipper Race crew celebrating their birthdays on board filter back and they are always a special occasion, likely to remain a completely unique event in their lifetime.
Posted on 23 Aug
America's Cup - Architect of NZ Qualifier withdrawal steps down
The Commissioner for the America's Cup General Dr. Harvey Schiller has stepped down from the role The Commissioner for the America's Cup General Dr. Harvey Schiller has stepped down from the role and will finish at the end of the month. The move was confirmed today by America's Cup correspondent Bernie Wilson of the Associated Press.
Posted on 23 Aug
An Q&A with Steve and Heidi Benjamin about the NYYC’s 2016 Queen’s Cup
Sail-World caught up with Steve and Heidi Benjamin to learn more about Heidi’s historic win in the NYYC’s Queen’s Cup. When it comes to U.S. Grand Prix sailing, it’s hard not to encounter the names of Steve and Heidi Benjamin. The two highly polished sailors have been successfully campaigning their series of yachts, named SPOOKIE, for years, starting first with a Carkeek 40 and progressing to their TP52. I caught up with Steve and Heidi to learn more about Heidi’s historic win in the NYYC’s Queen’s Cup
Posted on 19 Aug
PredictWind - One stop shop
PredictWind have taken the bold step of adding government provided forecasts to their award winning forecasting software PredictWind the world leader in forecasting believe that more is better, and have taken the bold step of adding government provided forecasts to their award winning forecasting software.
Posted on 15 Aug
Rio 2016 - Fresher breezes expected inside and outside on Day 3
Stronger winds are expected for the third day of racing in the 2016 Olympic Sailing Regatta in Rio de Janeiro. Stronger winds are expected for the third day of racing in the 2016 Olympic Sailing Regatta in Rio de Janeiro. Two of the fleet scheduled to race outside on the Atlantic Ocean course off Copacabana Beach, while the 470 Men and Women will race inside on Guananara Bay.
Posted on 10 Aug
35 Copa del Rey Mapfre - Armin Strom Sailing Team in action
Armin Strom Sailing Team remain in contention for the top of the podium throughout the 35 Copa del Rey Mapfre this week. Heading the leaderboard from the start and quickly finding a ‘turbo’ foiling mode saw Armin Strom Sailing Team remain in contention for the top of the podium throughout the 35 Copa del Rey Mapfre this week.
Posted on 8 Aug
American Windsurfing Tour – Final day
Ferdinando Loffreda slashed his foot open in the campo last night so retires from the Pro bracket. Ferdinando Loffreda slashed his foot open in the campo last night so retires from the Pro bracket.
Posted on 7 Aug
35 Copa del Rey Mapfre - Final day images by Carlo Borlenghi
Carlo Borlenghi provided this gallery of images from the final day. Carlo Borlenghi provided this gallery of images from the final day.
Posted on 7 Aug
Azzurra wins 35th Copa del Rey Mapfre
Azzurra, the boat flying Yacht Club Costa Smeralda’s burgee, has won 35th Copa del Rey Mapfre placing first in a race Azzurra, the boat flying the Yacht Club Costa Smeralda’s burgee, has won the 35th Copa del Rey Mapfre placing first in a race even in the final day of the event.
Posted on 7 Aug
Team Norauto wins the Copa del Rey Mapfre!
The showdown between New Zealanders, Adam Minoprio and Phil Robertson was battled out at the Copa del Rey in Palma. You could well hear 'well done mate!” on the dockside today in Palma. The showdown between New Zealanders, Adam Minoprio and Phil Robertson, both world champion match racers and both skippering the Norauto and Armin Strom GC32s, was battled out at the Copa del Rey in Palma.
Posted on 7 Aug