The skipjack is a traditional fishing boat used on the Chesapeake Bay for oyster dredging. It is a sailboat which succeeded the bugeye as the chief oystering boat on the bay, and it remains in service due to laws restricting the use of powerboats in the Maryland state oyster fishery.
The skipjack is sloop-rigged, with a sharply raked mast and extremely long boom (typically the same length as the deck of the boat). The mainsail is ordinarily triangular, though gaff rigged examples were built. The jib is self-tending and mounted on a bowsprit. This sail plan affords the power needed to pull the dredge, particularly in light winds, while at the same time minimizing the crew required to handle the boat.
The hull is wooden and V-shaped, with a hard chine and a square stern. In order to provide a stable platform when dredging, skipjacks have very low freeboard and a wide beam (averaging one third the length on deck). A centerboard is mounted in lieu of a keel. The mast is hewn from a single log, with two stays on either side, without spreaders; it is stepped towards the bow of the boat, with a small cabin. As typical in regional practice the bow features a curving longhead under the bowsprit, with carved and painted trailboards. A small figurehead is common. A typical skipjack is 40 to 50 feet in length. The boats use direct link Edson worm steering gear mounted immediately forward of the transom.
The dredge windlass and its motor are mounted amidships, between the mast and deckhouse. Rollers and bumpers are mounted on either side of the boat to guide the dredge line and protect the hull.
Due to state laws, the boat has no motor (other than for the windlass). Most skipjacks were eventually modified with stern davits to hold a dinghy or pushboat to allow motorized travel as permitted by law.
The skipjack arose near the end of the 19th century. Dredging for oysters, prohibited in 1820, was again made legal in 1865. Boats of the time were unsuitable, and the bugeye developed out of the log canoe in order to provide a boat with more power adapted to the shallow waters of the oyster beds.
The bugeye was originally constructed with a log hull, and as the supply of appropriate timber was exhausted and construction costs rose, builders looked to other designs. They adapted the sharpies of Long Island Sound by increasing the beam and simplifying the sail plan. The result was cheaper and simpler to construct than the bugeye, and it quickly became the predominant oystering boat in the bay.
Debate remains to this day about the origins of the name. Some speculate it came from a name New England fisherman called the flying fish, bonita. Still others claim it is derived from an archaic English term, meaning an "inexpensive yet useful servant."
Maryland's oyster harvest reached an all-time peak in 1884, at approximately 15 million bushels of oysters. The oyster harvest has since declined steadily, especially at the end of the 20th century. The size of the fleet has likewise declined. New skipjacks were built as late as 1993, but a change in the law in 1965 allowed the use of motor power two days of the week. As a result, few of the boats are operated under sail in commercial use; instead, a pushboat is used to move the skipjack, and little dredging is done except on the days that power is allowed.
At one time, the number of skipjacks produced is estimated at approximately 2,000; today, they number about 40, with fewer than half of them in active fishing. The future of the fleet remains in doubt as efforts continue to restore the productivity of the oyster beds.
The skipjack was designated the state boat of Maryland in 1985.
The popularity of the skipjack in the late 1970s is seen in Peter Stevenson's 1977 book, "Sailboats You Can Build," which featured plans for a home-built skipjack as well as 2 other small day-sailing boats.
Joshua Slocum piloted a modified Skipjack, a gaff rigged sloop named Spray in the first solo global circumnavigation. He wrote about the experience in his classic Sailing Alone Around the World. The rigging was modified to a Yawl near the Strait of Magellan.
I also mended the sloop's sails and rigging, and fitted a jigger, which changed the rig to a yawl [...]