The skipjack is a traditional
fishing boat used on the Chesapeake Bay for oyster dredging. It is a
sailboat which succeeded the bugeye as the chief oystering boat on
the bay, and it remains in service due to laws restricting the use
of powerboats in the Maryland state oyster fishery.
Design and construction
The skipjack is sloop-rigged, with a sharply raked mast and
extremely long boom (typically the same length as the deck of the
boat). The mainsail is ordinarily triangular, though gaff rigged
examples were built. The jib is self-tending and mounted on a
bowsprit. This sail plan affords the power needed to pull the
dredge, particularly in light winds, while at the same time
minimizing the crew required to handle the boat.
The hull is wooden and V-shaped, with a hard chine and a square
stern. In order to provide a stable platform when dredging,
skipjacks have very low freeboard and a wide beam (averaging one
third the length on deck). A centerboard is mounted in lieu of a
keel. The mast is hewn from a single log, with two stays on either
side, without spreaders; it is stepped towards the bow of the boat,
with a small cabin. As typical in regional practice the bow features
a curving longhead under the bowsprit, with carved and painted
trailboards. A small figurehead is common. A typical skipjack is 40
to 50 feet in length. The boats use direct link Edson worm steering
gear mounted immediately forward of the transom.
The dredge windlass and its motor are mounted amidships, between the
mast and deckhouse. Rollers and bumpers are mounted on either side
of the boat to guide the dredge line and protect the hull.
Due to state laws, the boat has no motor (other than for the
windlass). Most skipjacks were eventually modified with stern davits
to hold a dinghy or pushboat to allow motorized travel as permitted
The skipjack arose near the end of the 19th century. Dredging for
oysters, prohibited in 1820, was again made legal in 1865. Boats of
the time were unsuitable, and the bugeye developed out of the log
canoe in order to provide a boat with more power adapted to the
shallow waters of the oyster beds.
The bugeye was originally constructed with a log hull, and as the
supply of appropriate timber was exhausted and construction costs
rose, builders looked to other designs. They adapted the sharpies of
Long Island Sound by increasing the beam and simplifying the sail
plan. The result was cheaper and simpler to construct than the
bugeye, and it quickly became the predominant oystering boat in the
Debate remains to this day about the origins of the name. Some
speculate it came from a name New England fisherman called the
flying fish, bonita. Still others claim it is derived from an
archaic English term, meaning an "inexpensive yet useful servant."
Maryland's oyster harvest reached an all-time peak in 1884, at
approximately 15 million bushels of oysters. The oyster harvest has
since declined steadily, especially at the end of the 20th century.
The size of the fleet has likewise declined. New skipjacks were
built as late as 1993, but a change in the law in 1965 allowed the
use of motor power two days of the week. As a result, few of the
boats are operated under sail in commercial use; instead, a pushboat
is used to move the skipjack, and little dredging is done except on
the days that power is allowed.
At one time, the number of skipjacks produced is estimated at
approximately 2,000; today, they number about 40, with less than
half of them in active fishing. The future of the fleet remains in
doubt as efforts continue to restore the productivity of the oyster
The skipjack was designated the state boat of Maryland in 1985.