Soon after its introduction to the Chesapeake in the 1890s, the skipjack became the preferred oyster dredge boat. Some have estimated nearly two thousand skipjacks were built, all specifically designed for dredging oysters from the Chesapeake Bay. The peak building years were during the 1890s and the first decade of the 20th century.
Oystermen needed a light, inexpensive boat that was easy to construct and could navigate the shallower waters of the Bay. The skipjack’s wide beam, hard chine, and low freeboard provided a stable, large, working and storage platform. The single-masted rig, with sharp-headed mainsail and large jib, was easy to handle, powerful in light winds, and capable of coming about quickly without losing way. All these traits made the skipjack ideally suited to performing continuous “licks” (passes) over the oyster beds. The skipjack was also so simple to build that even house carpenters could construct one. As a result, hundreds of skipjacks were built when they first came on the scene in the 1890s and during their heyday there were as many as 2000 skipjacks on the Bay.
Significant decline in oyster prices in the early 1900’s resulted in the abandonment and destruction of much of the skipjack fleet.
Oyster prices increased somewhat after W.W.II, leading to the construction of a few new skipjacks. At that point the size of the fleet climbed into the 70s. The skipjack fleet, however, has declined slowly ever since then.
Today, there are only about 30 skipjacks left, and many of those are in such poor condition that it is unlikely that they can be restored. A few of the originals, however, have been lovingly restored, and some of thee newer vessels that have been kept in good repair.
Some of the restored vessels are on display at museums, while others are used for educational purposes. And there are a few skipjacks left that still ply the trade they were originally built for: dredging for oysters on the Chesapeake Bay.
The Chesapeake Bay skipjack fleet is the last commercial sailing powered fishing fleet in North America. Many of the remaining ships are in poor condition and the decline in oyster harvests has left their captains with little profit to maintain their vessels.
In the year 2000, the State of Maryland made a commitment to preserving and restoring the Chesapeake Bay skipjack fleet. The first step taken by the state was to designate the skipjack as the official state boat, because of its historic and economic importance and its symbolic value as a representation of the people of Maryland and their lifestyle. Second, the state formed a task force to address some of the obstacles that have led to the decline of the fleet. One recommendation which emerged was to provide subsidized repair services to the active dredge vessels to stabilize their condition while the oyster stocks were being replenished. The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum has provided the use of its boat shop facility, marine railway, and skilled staff for fleet repair.
With funding from The Maryland Historic Trust, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and numerous private businesses, the skipjack restoration project began in July of 2001. Under the direction of a the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum’s master shipwright, a crew of boat carpenter apprentices are providing the skilled labor needed to accomplish the task. Chesapeake Bay wood boatbuilding techniques are being handed down to the next generation and skipjacks are being preserved for generations to come. Since the program’s inception, nine skipjacks have received repair services from the restoration project.
The name “skipjack” is said to have been derived from fish, such as the skipjack mackerel or skipjack tuna, that jump in and out of the water because these boats can sometimes resemble the fish as they come about quickly making continuous passes or “licks” over oyster beds. Another possible origin of the name is an archaic English word meaning “inexpensive yet useful servant”. The typical cost of a skipjack in 1905 was $3,000.
The Remaining Skipjacks