How did Skipjacks come to be such an important piece of Chesapeake Bay history? As a sailboat designed specifically for harvesting oysters in the 1800’s to being the last commercial sailing fleet left in the World, they are as unique as they are beautiful.
Oystering has a long history in the Chesapeake Bay region, with archeological records showing indigenous people harvesting oysters at least 3200 years ago. Early European settlers harvested oysters for home consumption and a commercial fishery was in place by the early 1800’s. While indigenous people probably harvested oysters from the shore and while wading through shallow areas, European settlers likely harvested from boats with rakes as well as from the shore. Dredging equipment was brought to the Chesapeake by New England fishermen and commercial harvest began in earnest. The boats used for pulling dredge equipment across oyster reefs varied, depending on the needs of watermen, with Skipjacks eventually developing from log canoes and Bugeyes.
Skipjacks became the vessel of choice by the late 1890’s, with estimates suggesting that over 2000 Skipjacks were in use at one point in time. Today, only a few of these historic vessels are left but they became the state boat of Maryland in 1985 to help preserve these few. Skipjacks were cheap and relatively simple to build but they were not made to last. It takes a lot of time and money to keep these wooden vessels in working shape so many have rotted away. A few of the remaining ones are still used for oystering today but most are used for educational purposes or tourism.
Regardless of their use, there is nothing quite like seeing a Skipjack sail across the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. The features that made them ideal for oystering are what make them so recognizable today. In order to pull a heavy dredge, Skipjacks need a lot of sail, which is why they have such a large mainsail. They also had to be able to maneuver in shallow areas, which is why they have a shallow “V” hull shape and adjustable draft (how deep they sit in the water). By pulling up the centerboard, a Skipjack can go into water less than 5 feet deep, which is ideal for traveling over oyster reefs.
In order to experience these boats for yourself, you can take tours on some of the remaining Skipjacks throughout the Chesapeake Bay. You can also see these boats in action every year at the annual Skipjack races. The first is put on by the Deal Island-Chance Lions Club and occurs on Labor Day, with the boats leaving from Deal Island, MD. Soon after, the Choptank Heritage Skipjack Race occurs on the third Saturday of September. Alongside both races are festivals, with funds from the Labor Day race supporting the Lions Club and the Skipjack Heritage Museum and funds from the Choptank Heritage race supporting the Skipjacks themselves, with each boat receiving money for showing up.
These events are about helping support the remaining Skipjacks that sail on the Chesapeake Bay and sharing their beauty and history with those who are interested. At Phillips Wharf, we are fortunate enough to work with one of our local Skipjacks to share this important piece of Chesapeake Bay heritage with students of all ages. Partnerships like this help Phillips Wharf provide high quality hands on educational experiences, while supporting our local community and heritage. Here in Tilghman, you can find several Skipjacks, including the Thomas W. Clyde, the Rebecca T. Ruark, and the Hilda M. Willing.
Captain Wade Murphy talks to students aboard his Skipjack, the Rebecca T. Ruark in Tilghman, MD.