The sea takes its toll on a wooden ship and the dwindling fleet of skipjacks on the Chesapeake Bay is no exception.
Their lot has gone the way of their primary quarry. First built in the 1880s, the utilitarian and majestic single-masted sailboats were widely used in the early 20th century to dredge oysters on the Bay. But the oyster harvest began to plummet because of overharvesting, pollution and disease, and the skipjacks disappeared with them. Once numbering more than 1,000, the fleet stands now at 13 — the only U.S. commercial fleet still propelled by the winds.
“This is really the last vestige of the age of sail in North America,” said Ed Farley, captain of the H.M. Krentz, which still dredges for oysters in the winter, while taking tourists on pleasure cruises in the summer.
In June, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the entire fleet to its list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places — all threatened by neglect, insufficient funds, inappropriate development or insensitive public policy. Being on the list does not guarantee any funding for reconstruction or protection. Instead, the designation is intended to raise awareness and perhaps serve as a tool for rallying resources.
Despite reconstruction efforts, most of the remaining fleet of skipjacks is severely deteriorated and threatened by the elements and the high cost of maintenance, said Louise Hayman, a spokeswoman for Save Our Skipjacks, a task force created by the state of Maryland in 1999 to study ways to preserve the boats. The cost to repair individual vessels is an estimated $100,000 each.
A restoration project is under way for the remaining skipjacks headquartered at The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels and funded in part by Maryland. But it is expensive work, and boatmen wonder if they can stay ahead of the steady decay caused by salt-water, the baking sun, the pounding rain and the wear-and-tear of oystering.
Hayman said her goal is to establish an endowment that would provide a permanent stream of funding for upkeep.
Constructed between 1886 and 1956, the skipjacks are notable for their unique V-shaped and cross-planked bottoms and their brightly colored trailboards. Skipjack hulls have an average length of 45 feet, with a shallow draft and a center board.
Oystermen say the design was ideal for the Chesapeake because it was economical to build, fast and able, and well-suited for the smaller oyster catches and shallow waters.
But sailors say what’s most distinctive about skipjacks is the people who sail them — and the way of life they lead.
“Yes, we work harder for less, but at some point, you do what you love,” said Farley, 52, who lives outside St. Michaels, MD.