On July 4, the skipjack Nathan of Dorchester turns 29, the youngest skipjack in the fleet. Cambridge had always been the center of the skipjack building industry with more skipjacks built in Cambridge than anywhere else along the Bay. A dedicated group of volunteers from the nonprofit Dorchester Skipjack Committee spent over 14,000 hours building Nathan and this past winter volunteers spent over 2,200 hours repairing, scraping and painting Nathan so she looks like she did when first commissioned in 1994.
Nathan is unique in part due to her age…or in this case, youth. Before building the Nathan, no skipjack had been built for 40 years. And only one other skipjack has been completed since then. While originally built to be a sail powered oyster dredge boat, Nathan’s true mission has been in tourism and education. For the past 29 years, the Nathan has been true to her mission, sailing and educating visitors far and wide on the waters of the Choptank River and Chesapeake Bay. During her 29 years of service, Nathan has carried over 41,000 passengers, made over 2,600 voyages and is underway 80 to 100 times each sailing season training sail crew, and carrying passengers on a unique voyage back in time.
Oysters were first harvested by hand in shallow waters around the Bay. Then schooners, pungies, and later bugeyes, were built to dredge oysters in deeper waters of the Chesapeake Bay. When the oyster bars in the deeper waters of the Bay were depleted due to over harvesting, a shallow draft boat was needed to access the rich oyster bars closer to shore.
A shallow draft boat with a hard chin, retractable centerboard and dead rise hull became known as a two-sail bateau, later commonly called a skipjack. Skipjacks are easily recognized by their sharp clipper bow, bowsprit, and large main sail, which is used to generate the power necessary to pull heavy oyster laden dredges across the oyster bars.
Quickly replacing older, deeper draft oyster dredge boats, about 800 skipjacks worked the Bay dredging under sail harvesting oysters during the winter months. Skipjacks were less expensive and relatively easy to construct and were made to last about 20 years. At the end of her life, a skipjack was traditionally stripped of its metal and left to rot in a creek or marsh and return to nature. Today the skipjack fleet is holding steady at about 25 to 30, some in varying degrees of restoration or decay.
For the past 29 years, the Nathan has taken groups of people out on the Choptank River and Chesapeake Bay teaching visitors of all ages about the ecology of the river and Bay, the oysters and a way of life on the Eastern Shore that is quickly vanishing. The Nathan has also been a floating ambassador for Cambridge, visiting ports of call up and down the Chesapeake Bay. May she continue to do so for many decades to come.
The Nathan of Dorchester offers a unique opportunity for folks to experience oyster dredging under sail. Four crew members, a Coast Guard certified captain and a docent take people out every Saturday. To beat the heat in July and August, sails depart Long Wharf at the end of High Street in Cambridge at 10 a.m. for a two-hour sail. During May, June, September, October and early November, Nathan carries passengers Saturday afternoons from 1 to 3p.m. Visit www.skipjack-nathan.org for more details.