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Water Ways: Mid-Atlantic Maritime Communities

Chesapeake Bay Workboats

The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary (or body of water where ocean and rivers meet) in the United States. The Bay historically has been a rich source of shellfish such as oysters, clams, and blue crabs, and fin fish such as rockfish (striped bass) and shad. To work in conditions ranging from shallow waters to pounding waves, and to carry fishing equipment ranging from large metal oyster dredges to long fin-fishing nets and wire crab pots, Chesapeake Bay fishermen, or "watermen," have always needed boats.

Over the years, Chesapeake Bay workboats have grown from simple dug-out log canoes to complexly rigged oyster schooners, with many sizes and shapes in between. Often built by "rack of the eye" without formal plans, boats were custom-made to meet the needs--and budgets--of individual watermen.

Many types of classic Chesapeake Bay workboats are preserved in the collections of maritime museums around the region. Information about these collections (as well as schedules for boat races, boat-building demonstrations, and workboat tours) is available from the website of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network of the National Park Service.

Skipjacks

Named after a fish that seems to skip across the water, this nearly flat-bottomed workboat was designed for dredging oysters in the shallow Chesapeake Bay. Once there were hundreds, but today only about a dozen skipjacks are still used for dredging, so reduced is the oyster population due to over-harvesting, pollution, and shellfish diseases.

In the 1850s, people could buy Chesapeake oysters as far away as California. The high demand for the popular shellfish caused an "oyster boom." An early method of harvesting oysters, hand-tonging, was labor intensive and often dangerous in the wintery conditions of the oyster season. A more efficient method--scraping oyster beds with a large metal dredge--was introduced to the Chesapeake region by New England oystermen who began working the Bay when their own oyster beds played out.

At first resisted and restricted, dredging had become the main form of oyster harvesting by the 1880s. The skipjack was developed from an earlier Chesapeake boat type called a bateau to carry two metal dredges. Skipjacks dredging under sail were a common sight on the Bay and its tributaries from the 1890s to the 1960s.

But oystering declined, and other forms of fishing required different kinds of work boats. Some skipjacks were preserved by their owners, or sold or donated to museums. Many were scrapped. By the 1990s, only about 30 skipjacks remained, and less than half of them were still working. In 2001, the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Maryland, began a Skipjack Restoration Project and so far has restored six skipjacks to working order. Today, there are also a number of skipjacks owned by individuals, museums, or environmental organizations that offer pleasure cruises and educational programs. Others, like the Joy Parks, have been preserved on land as a tribute to their builders and the watermen who worked them.

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Skipjack photo by Betty J. Belanus.