The Eastern Shore Feature

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Chesapeake Bay's Skipjacks

Settlement along the fertile shores of the Chesapeake Bay was an obvious choice for 17th-century English immigrants, who soon farmed the cash crop of tobacco and plucked plentiful blue crabs and plump oysters from its bottom. Among the reminders of the Bay's fishing culture, which endures, is its dwindling fleet of native skipjacks: broad, flat-bottom wooden sailing vessels for dredging oysters. Economical to build, skipjacks had the shallowest draft—the distance from the waterline to the lowest point of the keel—of any boat in the bay. This made them excellent for cruising above the grassy shoals favored by oysters.

At first, oyster harvesters would stand in small boats and use simple, long-handle tongs, to grasp clumps of oysters from the bottom and bring them aboard. It was tiresome, difficult work. In the early 1800s, sturdy Yankee schooners, having left the depleted waters of New England, entered the Chesapeake Bay with dredges, iron contraptions that dragged up oysters along the bottom. With their first large harvest, Chesapeake's fishing industry changed forever.

Dredging was initially banned as being exploitative and intrusive, first by Virginia and later by Maryland. However, after the Civil War drained the region's economy, Maryland legalized the practice, allowing it under certain conditions for boats powered only by sails. By 1875 more than 690 dredging licenses were issued. Soon more-sophisticated dredgers emerged; all were loosely called bateaux, French for "boats."

The oyster bounty was not to last. After peaking in 1884 with 15 million bushels, less than a third of that amount was caught in 1891. Despite the growing use of steam and gasoline power on land and water, "only under sail" dredging laws prevailed in the Bay. As the 19th century drew to a close, boatbuilders were forced to experiment with boat designs that were cheap to build yet had sails that would provide enough power for dredging and transporting the harvests. In 1901 one of these new bateaux appeared in Baltimore's harbor. She caught the eye of a Baltimore Sun newspaper reporter, who wrote that their "quickness to go about may have earned for them the name of skipjack." The name stuck. On occasion, skipjacks have been compared to bonito tuna because, like the great Atlantic fish, they seem to skip over the surface of the water.

Oysters—and the Chesapeake's renowned blue crab—are still harvested by a diminishing number of watermen, their fleets of small, flat-bottom boats—sometimes powered by modified automobile engines—concentrated in locales such as Crisfield and Kent Narrows as well as Smith and Tangier islands, but less than a dozen sail-powered skipjacks are still working. Sailing on one of them (generally from early April through October, when they're not dredging) is an exhilarating way to fully experience the culture and history of the Chesapeake. The Herman M. Krentz, built in 1955, sails from St. Michaels, and the 80-foot Rebecca T. Ruark, originally built in 1886, from Tilghman Island. An authentic replica skipjack, the Nathan of Dorchester, also available for sails by the public, is berthed in Cambridge.

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