Skipjacks are the last working boats under sail in the United States. In winter, fleets of skipjacks used to dredge oysters from the floor of Chesapeake Bay. "Drudgin," as watermen called this process, was hard, cold, dirty, sometimes dangerous work.
The name, skipjack, is taken from fish (such as skipjack herring, skipjack mackeral, skipjack tuna) that leap in and out of water, and play on the water's surface. With a reputation for speed, skipjacks sometimes can resemble the fish as they come about quickly making continuous passes or "licks" over oyster beds.
On Maryland's Eastern Shore, the skipjack originated in the 1890s. It was better known as a small "two-sail bateau" with a V-hull. The craft evolved into a larger, hearty skipjack, powerful in light winds. Ranging in length from 25 to 50 feet, these boats have a shallow draft with centerboard and carry a single mast, two-sail sloop rig.
In 1957, more than 80 skipjacks plied the waters of Chesapeake Bay. Today, the prevalence of powerboats, and disease and environmental hazards affecting the oyster present a bleak future for commercial skipjacks. Despite restoration efforts, the fleet has diminished sharply in recent years. Few skipjacks operate commercially except in the tourist trade. In November 1999, the skipjack fleet was selected as "Treasure of Month" in the Save Maryland's Treasures program of the Maryland Commission for Celebration 2000. The Commission's Save our Skipjacks Task Force explored ways to preserve the fleet.
In the lower Chesapeake, skipjack races are held each Labor Day weekend off Deal Island, Somerset County.
July 18, 2000
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