The Working Waterfront: Skipjack Review


Skipjack: The Story of America’s Last Sailing Oystermen

Christopher White

by Linda Beyus


St. Martin’s Press 2009

Hardcover, 372 pages, $25.99

A saga of the last working boats under sail

It would be fair to say that Skipjack is as powerful as The Perfect Storm without the tragedy. Yet, the tragedy here is the decline of historic sailing dredge boats called skipjacks, which are barely still in use, and the decline of Chesapeake Bay oysters due to overharvesting, disease, and pollution.

Author Christopher White describes firsthand what it’s like onboard a skipjack, handling equipment that can snag crew body parts if one doesn’t pay attention, dredging in fog and hoping that a container ship doesn’t slice the 50-foot wooden vessel in half, and “spatting” (planting seed oysters) on beds in off-season in spite of the deadly MSX and Dermo diseases killing off large quantities of the shellfish.

Living on Tilghman’s Island for a year as one of the community of oystermen and their families, White has a down-to-earth, respectful, and appropriately dramatic tone throughout Skipjack. He doesn’t ever romanticize the watermen and their boats.  White writes, “From onshore these boats had seemed romantic, a pleasant anachronism. Far from quaint, they were kept afloat by grit and tenacity, by sweat and muscle.” He adds that each skipjack oysterman was  “a piece of the water…part of the ecology of the bay.”

White writes of arriving to crew on a skipjack for the first time well before dawn and seeing  “treelike masts…their white sails aloft” in the moonlight. “My heart raced a little. I had stepped back into the Age of Sail. Like a time traveler, I had entered another world.” Skipjack masts can be 69 feet tall, with a 52-foot boom, on a 50-foot boat.

While 1,000 skipjacks dredged a healthier Chesapeake a century ago, only 18 skipjacks were active in the late 1990s, located on two islands-Tilghman and Deal-while White dredged and lived with them. The count is currently six and dropping due both to aging captains and aging boats beyond affordable repair. Yawl boats under power are allowed to push skipjacks only two days a week, and some younger captains and crew don’t want to bother to sail dredge anymore, an arduous feat, with diminishing catches.  

Oyster sustainability was ensured for decades due to the initial 1865 law limiting dredging to sail power. It changed for the worse in the late 1950s when patent tongers-oystermen using hydraulic-powered tongs-were allowed to pry oysters loose from the beds (“strong enough to dig up asphalt,” says one skipjack crew member). Prior to that only hand tongers, who waded in shallow water, were allowed along to harvest along with the skipjacks. Diving for and farming oysters added up to five legal ways to harvest oysters at the start of the 21st century.

In the epilogue, White sadly reports that Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources now allows full-blown power dredging with scoops in parts of the Chesapeake, another nail in the coffin of the skipjacks and, possibly, of oysters. (In November the Obama administration ordered the EPA to draft a Chesapeake cleanup strategy that would require mandatory measures by states rather than voluntary, so there is some hope for oysters.)

Of the rapidly diminishing oyster population and formerly sound conservation practices gone awry, White writes, “More than the fishery was at stake for the waterman. At stake was his way of life, a lineage for [many] going back three generations.”

Skipjack isn’t a book only for sailors or those interested in the fishing industry. And the author doesn’t overwhelm the reader with history or marine ecology-he touches on many aspects just enough and focuses on the people and their way of life.

After devouring this vividly written book filled with superb, vernacular dialogue, this reviewer will never eat any non-farmed oysters (or “orsters” as the Tilghman folks call them) again without thinking of how skipjacks dredged for this delicacy, scraping reefs and mounds on a 16-hour grueling workday in rough conditions for nearly two centuries. It is a way of life now fading away.

Linda Hedman Beyus, when not in Maine, lives in Connecticut and is a regular contributor to Working Waterfront.