SKIPJACK–A Review from Open Salon

A review by Steven Toby, written for the Maritime History Listserv, included here with his kind permission.  Sounds like a fascinating book.

Skipjack: The Story of America’s Last Sailing Oystermen by Christopher White is an excellent book on the last commercial fishing craft operating under sail in the US. The author has a journalistic rather than a scholarly approach, although he has an academic background in the biology/ecology area. He’s a great storyteller, and some of the anecdotes are almost novel-like.

Particular strengths of the book are its portrayal of the mystique surrounding the skipjack, an oyster dredging craft on Chesapeake Bay. While I’ve owned a house on the Eastern shore of Maryland since 2004, and sailed these waters on three cruising boats I’ve owned from 1983 to 2003, so that many of the landmarks were familiar, I discovered from this book how little I knew about the area’s culture. I’d heard the local accent; the author finds ways to represent it in print that ring true. I wasn’t aware that how you pronounce the name of your favorite bivalve allows those in the know to tell what port you sail out of. Nor was I aware that the town of Tilghman (as it is on maps) is called Tilghman’s by watermen who live there.

The author creates what at least seems like an insider’s view of the communities that grew up around ports skipjacks sailed out of. He crewed on several of the boats, but he also watched the oyster shuckers (and tried the art himself) and a blacksmith who makes the dredges and ironwork fittings for the boats. As a crewman, he managed to do pretty much everything on board, from sail handling to culling the catch and raising and lowering the dredges. He even steered a boat as she was “taking a lick” of an oyster bed under sail. He shows us the slang used by the watermen and describes many of the captains to the point we have some idea of their characters. They are known among themselves by nicknames they received in childhood and never outgrew. And the places they come from are traditional: even after the year 2000, only one woman sails with the fleet; the others stay home and cook the seafood the men bring home. Mr. White includes some of their recipes . While black  and white men have served together on the crews for a long time without obvious discrimination, the places they live are still largely segregated (Mr. White skims over this but you can read between the lines). As the book progresses he uses more of their vocabulary and syntax so the reader really feels like he’s learning the local dialect. It’s amazing that an outsider could have seen these tight-knit communities from the inside in a relatively short time.

The last skipjacks were launched in 1956. I was three. What exists when you’re growing up seems permanent. Later, as a teenager, I read the few sentences about the skipjacks in Chapelle’s “American Sailing Ships,” where the author, writing in 1935, holds them up as an example of good fisheries management: by making dredging under power illegal, Maryland not only preserved the Age of Sail into modern times, but also conserved the fishery itself so that future generations could eat oysters, too. During off season cruises I often saw skipjacks at work; at area restaurants, I frequently enjoyed the product of their operations. It never occurred to me that Chapelle’s view of the fishery was optimistic and that in my lifetime it might cease to exist.

Today, however, oysters are endangered, and it’s clear from Mr. White’s account that the skipjacks and the men who sail them are, too. Once they have crossed the Bar, there will be no getting them back, any more than a recovery for the oysters should they become extinct. This becomes clearer and clearer as we read about the skills and knowledge of the few old men, most long beyond retirement age, who were commanding skipjacks when Mr. White did his research. Accordingly, he may be pardoned for writing a conclusion that might be overly sentimental, yet is superbly done. He’s also to be commended for not taking the easy outs that are available to those who would assign blame. Mismanagement by state regulators, overfishing, pollution, and diseases whose source is still uncertain all played a role. The psychology of the “commons”, where no one actually owned the oyster beds, also had a role in developing a mind-set among the watermen that was not conducive to conservation, much like the open range in the Old West.

As a naval architect, I can quibble with one aspect of the book. It fails to fulfill the promise of its title; not being strictly about the skipjack, it leaves important details about the boats unexplained. There was no Howard I. Chapelle to take the lines off a dozen hulls and provide drawings of the hull forms and internal arrangements of the boats; Chapelle himself provided only those few sentences in “American Sailing Ships” and a small drawing, plus a three page description, of a day-sailer sized version of a skipjack in “American Small Sailing Craft” (1951). The original builders used neither paper plans nor models. They took their secrets with them to the grave; Bronza Parks, who built the last of them, LADY KATIE, died two years later. Mr. White was told that Parks had been shot to death in an argument, but perhaps that is only folklore. TheChesapeake Bay Maritime Museum (CBMM) at St. Michaels has a skipjack in its collection (built by the same Mr. Parks by the way), and has helped maintain many others, yet their skipjack can only be viewed from the dock; there’s no access for the public below decks. Therefore, while I guessed there must be a head and cooking facilities on board because I knew they went out before dawn and returned late in the day, I had to learn from the text that there are full overnight accommodations on a skipjack, and that before World War II it wasn’t uncommon for the crew to live aboard for weeks at a time. Even recently, skipjacks have had a cook to prepare a hot breakfast as they are motoring out to the dredging grounds before dawn. There’s also a hold where the catch can be stored overnight, although it’s more common for the boats to bring their catch back to harbor each evening (and in earlier periods, “buyboats” came alongside and bought the catch at the end of each day). Each skipjack carries a pushboat on davits. Those are also on display at CBMM, and they are a mini-tugboat with a monster engine with remote controls leading on board the mother ship to a throttle and shift near the wheel. The pushboat has no rudder, and the means of holding it to the mother ship and slewing it like an outboard motor to aid in turning are not obvious from looking at it, nor documented elsewhere that I know of. Even the simplest drawings would have helped the technically oriented reader to understand the design of the skipjack and its dredging equipment.

American scholarly culture has mostly ignored the kind of highly skilled, blue collar workers who manned the skipjacks. Today’s children are exhorted to stay in school as long as possible because going to college and graduate school is necessary to qualify for the “best” careers according to elite opinion – medicine, law, academics, engineering, and Wall Street. It’s a pleasant change to read about people whose children skip school to crew on their fathers’ or grandfathers’ skipjacks, and even after learning that “drudging” is hard, dangerous work, pursued in winter on increasingly fragile, old wooden ships, still want very much to own a skipjack later on in their lives. Mr. White makes us share in the devastation these people must feel when they find out that it is not to be.

In a bizarre epilog, Sunday’s local paper from Easton, Maryland, has an article indicating that four watermen from Tilghman’s Island were arrested by the Natural Resources Police last week. They are accused of dredging under power from a skipjack, at night, without displaying navigation lights, in a location that is reserved for tonguing. The skipjack was LADY KATIE and I recognized one of the men’s names as the son of one of the skippers who mentored Mr. White as he was doing his research.

Skipjack is a unique peek into the mind-set and traditions of these extraordinary people who, like their quarry, are endangered. Listers (at least those from the Eastern US) should read it while it’s still true, but later on, it will have even more value as a record of what once was.