Chesapeake Bay Skipjack
THE GLADDEN FAMILY'S RECONSTRUCTION OF HISTORIC CHESAPEAKE BAY SKIPJACK "IDA MAY"
The Ida May is a 42.2' long two-sail bateau, or V-bottom deadrise type of centerboard sloop, commonly referred to as a skipjack. She was built in 1906 in Deep Creek, Virginia, using typical Bay cross-planked construction methods, and is a member of the working fleet of sailing oyster dredgeboats. She has a beam of 14.4', a depth of 3.3', and a net register tonnage of 7. She carries a typical skipjack rig of jib-headed mainsail and large jib, and has a longhead or clipper bow and a square stern. The wooden hull is painted the traditional white. The Ida May has a sharp, slightly raking stem with a longhead mounted beneath the bowsprit. At her stern, the chine meets the transom below the waterline in an unusually low "tuck." The transom is steeply raked with a rudder carried on pintles and mounted on an outboard skeg. There is a chock or jig for the pushboat mounted to starboard of the rudder. Guards are mounted on the sides of the hull to protect it from the bumping of the oyster dredges. The single mast is raked somewhat aft, set up with double shrouds, forestay, and jibstay. A topping lift leads to the end of the boom, which is jawed to the mast. Lazyjacks are used for furling both mainsail and jib. The mainsail, laced to the boom, is jib-headed; the large jib has a club on its foot. The bowsprit, braced with headrails (flying wooden braces) is rigged with double chain bobstays and chain bowsprit shrouds. In addition to the sail rig, typical of the skipjack, the vessel carries a motorized pushboat suspended over the stern on davits; this can be "chocked" into the stern in order to push the larger boat. The skipjack is flush-decked. There is a tall trunk cabin aft with a "doghouse" addition with large windows at its forward end, and a companionway slide in the after end. There is also a slant-topped, low cuddy hatch forward, with a slide providing access to the forepeak. The deck is surrounded by a high pinrail around the stern quarters, and a low pinrail atop a lograil at the bows. The vessel carries dredging gear including oyster dredges, rollers mounted on the rails amidships, winders, and a winder engine.
Soon after its introduction to the Chesapeake Bay 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.
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