|1 The Chesapeake Bay has been an oyster fishery since the early 19th century. In response to the depletion of the Bay's oyster population (from 15,000,000 bushels in the 1880's to 3,800 bushels in 1999), a series of conservation laws have been passed. In Maryland, one law in particular allowed only sail-powered vessels to dredge for oysters. Based on this restriction, one type of ship, "the Skipjack" evolved and survives today.
1 The Skipjack type of boat evolved from traditional, generally flat-bottomed bay crabbing skiffs, enlarged and given a V-shaped wooden hull. Meeting the need for an easily and inexpensively-constructed vessel, they often were built by house carpenters or by the watermen themselves (costing $3,000 to build in 1905 and $140,000 in 1999). In 1985, a large number of the remaining skipjacks (35) were documented by the Maryland Historic Trust and the Maryland Historical Society and submitted for recognition in a thematic National Register nomination. Seven of the skipjacks recognized through this process presently dock at Wenona, Chance, Janes Island and Deal Island in Somerset County where they continue to be used for harvesting oysters.
The Skipjack got its name from the playful bluefish, which, at times, seem to skip along the surface of the water.
What used to be a vast fleet of Skipjacks (in 1910, there were 2,000 of them working on the Bay) has been reduced to only a few remaining vessels today (less than 10 plan to work the 2000-2001 season). The surviving Skipjacks are, for the most part, still working on the Bay and continue to harvest oysters. This gives them the distinction of being the only sail-powered working fleet remaining in the United States.
As an outdoorsman and photographer I can't think of anything prettier to see than the great white sails of these old oyster boats bellowed out against the bright blue sky. See for yourself at the next Annual Skipjack Races at Deal Island, Maryland. The races are held on Labor Day and must be viewed from the Tangier Sound via boat. The Skipjacks take some passengers and there are cruise boats from Deal Island and Crisfield which attend the event.
Hope you can make it to the races next year!
The links below should offer more information about the Skipjacks and the Skipjack Races:
1 Lower Eastern Shore Heritage Plan, The Lower Eastern Shore Heritage Committee, Inc., February 2, 1994