In the late 1800s and early 1900s, skipjacks were familiar sights in every port on the Chesapeake Bay. The captains and crews were hardy souls who earned a living in the harsh conditions of wintertime dredging for oysters under sail.
Like many other native Chesapeake Bay craft, the skipjack was constructed with a specific purpose in mind. The vessels were built with a wide hull and cargo hold, a flat or V-shaped bottom, and shallow draft to allow them to dredge in the shallow waters of the Bay. Due to their simple sail plan, skipjacks could be run by a small crew. Typically, they are rigged with a small self-tending jib at the bow and an oversized, triangular mainsail. This combination made sail handling easier than it would be on a gaff-rigged boat and provided the power needed to drive the vessel along the oyster beds.
There is much debate about how the term “skipjack” originated. Some believe that it may have been derived from the New England fisherman’s name for the flying fish, Bonita. In some part s of the Chesapeake, these vessels are also known as “bateaux”.
Due to the great number of vessels engaged in the oyster trade during the mid-1800s, the state of Maryland passed a law in 1865 forbidding oyster dredging by powered vessels. Although skipjacks were allowed a small motorized “push boat” to get them out to the fishing grounds faster, for over a century local watermen aboard skipjacks used only sail power for fishing. Due to diminished harvests and increasing economic pressures, in 1966 Maryland revised the law to allow skipjacks to dredge under power two days per week.
In 1884, the Maryland oyster harvest reached an all-time peak at 15 million bushels. At that time, there were more than 1,000 skipjacks fishing in the Bay. Today, the annual harvest of Bay oysters is less than 1% of the the1884 catch and the remaining skipjack fleet numbers less than 20 working vessels.