The Story of America's Last Sailing Oystermen
Skipjack is one of a growing genre of non fiction books in which the author does something intersting for a year or so in order to write a book about it. Christopher White, a native of Baltimore, MD, moved to Tilghman Island, on the Eastern Shore, and sailed with, sometimes working as a crewman, on some of the last working skipjacks.
A Skipjack is shallow draft wooden boat, with center board and a single mast, sloop rigged, with an enormously long boom and an immense spread of sail. By law, they have no engine on board, but use a small push boat, which is carried on davits at the stern and lowered into the water when used and is operated from the stern of a skipjack. Imagine an eight foot rowboat with a huge V8 truck engine in it, tied to the back of a 40 foot sailboat and pushing it along. Skipjacks lower dredges to the bottom and scrape up oysters which are dumped onto the deck and sorted by hand. Maryland law allows dredging under power only two days a week, so most days dredging is done under sail.
White did an excellent job of capturing the sound of Eastern Shore speech. Dredge is pronounced "drudge" oysters are either "orsters" or "arsters," depending on whether the speaker is from Tilghman or Deale island. Fish are "feesh" and "either" is a multi-purpose word. "We lose a couple of drudge boats either year" he quotes Wade Murphy, captain of the Rebecca T Ruark, a skipjack built in 1896 and still sailing, now taking tourists out for short cruises. At the time of White's residence on Tilgman, in the 1990's, Murphy was still dredging with Rebecca and White crewed with him often.
Chesapeak Bay oysters are under assault from two diseases, MSX, which kills oysters in the more saline waters of the lower bay and Derma, which thrives in the brackish waters of the upper bay. Losses due to these two diseases are aggravated by over harvesting as watermen try to stay in business with a declining resource, using power dreding and "patent tongs," a kind of marine steam shovel. To extract as many oysters as they can before they all die. In the spring and summer, oystermen are hired by the state of Maryland to plant oyster shells and "spat," larval oysters, on the depleted oyster beds.
Skipjack does a good job of capturing the flavor of life on the Eastern Shore, the language of it's people and the difficulty of making a living in a dying industry. I have lived on the Shore for the past 27 years and seen it change from a land of independent working watermen to one of pleasure boats and condominiums. I even built some condos myself. I must be getting old, because I long for the good old days.
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keywords: Skipjack, Eastern Shore, Chesapeake Bay, watermen