Skipjack: The Best Boat for Oyster Dredging

There’s nothing like fresh-caught seafood, and oysters are no exception.¬†

Skipjacks are Chesapeake Bay sailboats used for oyster dredging, or collecting oysters from along the ocean floor in a basket. Learn more about them so you can spot them in action the next time you go to the coast.

What Is a Skipjack?

Skipjacks are sailboats with a single sail mast. The boom is usually as long as the ship deck itself, and the large surface area of the sails are designed to work with the light winds of the area. It has a wooden hull with a small cabin, and the entire ship is only forty or fifty feet long.. The design mirrors sharpies from Long Island Sound. Because these ships are built entirely for the purpose of dredging, they have rollers and bumpers mounted on both sides to control the equipment. This boat design took advantage of the increasing availability of wood planks, which made them cheaper to build and easier to repair.  

The one thing you won’t find on a skipjack is much in the way of motorized power. Maryland used to completely ban the use of powered vehicles for collecting oysters. So the boats only have a motor for the windlass, which hoists buckets and anchors.

The History of Oyster Dredging Along the East Coast

From 1820 through 1865, Maryland banned the practice of dredging for oysters. Once the law was changed in 1865, however, Maryland still forbade the use of steam-powered vehicles. So shipbuilders had to be creative. They started with the bugeye, a log-based canoe that was too small, and then the brogan. 

But their log-based construction used up a lot of valuable wood at a time when supply was scarce, so builders modified sharpies into cheaper, easier alternatives to bugeyes toward the end of the nineteenth century. The laws were changed again in 1965 to allow for limited motorboat use. That decreased the demand for skipjacks, and the last one was built in 1993. Less than thirty skipjacks remain actively fishing today out of the approximately 2,000 boats ever created for Chesapeake Bay oyster dredging. The deadrise was another late nineteenth oyster dredging boat in the area, though deadrises were also used for crabbing.

Oysters from the Chesapeake Bay area peaked in 1884, and the popularity of dredging in skipjacks has dropped ever since. However, the Chesapeake Bay area is constantly trying to restore the deplenished oyster beds, so skipjacks might be making a comeback.

Traditional oyster dredgers could be in the bay for weeks at a time, collecting oysters for delivery to the ports or local restaurants. 

Some Fun Trivia About Skipjacks

  • Skipjacks are the Maryland state boat. Maryland named the famous working boat their official state boat in 1985.
  • No one is quite sure where the name came from. It might come from an old English word for a servant, or it might come from a colloquial name for flying fish in New England. But two places it didn’t come from are skipjack tuna and skipjack shad, two other kinds of fish. ‘Skipjack’ is just too popular and divergent a name for historians to track it down.
  • The Chesapeake Bay has a long oyster history. People may have been gathering oysters in the area for more than 6,000 years. Skipjacks became popular during the tail end of gathering this popular treat.
  • People are planting oysters. The Oyster Recovery Partnership in Maryland is trying to keep a healthy oyster population in place. They’ve planted 8 billion back in the bay to counteract overdredging. 

While skipjacks may not be as active as they used to be, Maryland preservationists maintain the remaining boats in the Chesapeake Bay fleet. You also might see them dredging on days when motorboats aren’t allowed or during celebrations.