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Oysters  Clean Water  Fishing  Sailing  Sailboats  Chesapeake Bay  Skipjack  

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Sailing Aboard the Skipjack Stanley Norman

By SarahD - Published June 08, 2009 - Viewed 12957 times

Aboard the Stanley Norman

What a way to spend a Saturday -  a beautiful, crisp, September day on the Chesapeake Bay, aboard a 65’ sailboat – plenty of wind at 15 knots, blue skies, warm temperatures. Just perfect. But this was not your ordinary sailboat cruise, and I doubt if the original sailors of this sailboat had such a joyous day like this very often, if ever.

And that’s because oyster dredging in the Chesapeake Bay was mostly back breaking work done in all types of weather, good conditions as well as the most foul, and for long hours and days at a time.                                                            

I recently had the pleasure of joining some 20 other people for a day of sailing aboard the Stanley Norman, a 65’ historic skipjack owned and operated by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF). The cruise served to remind us of some not so distant Bay history: that fishing was not always done by motorized boats, it was often grueling, cold, wet work, but was quite profitable for many who pursued it in the days when oysters in the Bay were once plentiful (more about the money later). And that the skipjack is a vital part of the heritage and history of the Chesapeake. It also helped to underscore a point:  the present health of the Chesapeake remains fragile at best, and needs dramatic improvement if it is to be preserved for commercial and recreational purposes for future generations.

According to the CBF, “The Stanley Norman, one of the last of the Chesapeake’s famous fleet of skipjacks, provides an authentic setting to study the Bay’s resources. Originally built in 1902, the Stanley Norman is an unforgettable venue for participants to dredge for oysters, test water quality, and imagine what it was like to work on a 65’ wooden sailing vessel.”

Imagine, indeed. All one had to do was look around  - the oystermen may be gone, but their vessel, at least this one,  looks pretty much as it did when built (although much has been replaced - I think the wheel is original, and maybe little else!). Unlike many sailboats her size, she lacks any pretense of luxury. She was built for work, and not pleasure. The mast isn’t even varnished (much to the consternation of one passenger). In fact, nothing was, just painted the traditional white of many skipjacks.


 So what exactly is a skipjack, anyway?

They were light, inexpensive wooden sailboats that were easy to construct and were capable of navigating the sometimes shallow waters of the Chesapeake Bay. Think wide with a really long boom (typically they are same length as the deck of the boat): the wide beam, hard chine, and low freeboard provided a pretty good work boat from which to dredge oysters and store them on deck in big piles. And the piles got pretty big. 


Long boom  

Oysters dredged by the Stanley Norman

Skipjacks had a single mast, with mainsail and a large jib, were easy to handle, and didn’t require a large crew.  BayDreaming.com's Guide to the Chesapeake Bay  says that these boats were “powerful in light winds, and capable of coming about quickly without losing way.  All these traits made the skipjack ideally suited to performing continuous "licks" (passes) over the oyster beds. “ 

The skipjack was so easy to build that even a simple house carpenters could construct one.  As a result, hundreds of skipjacks were built when they first came on the scene in the 1890’s. And they were often quite profitable fishing boats, at least in earlier, plentiful times. It is said that a oysterman could build a skipjack, dredge oysters for a season, and pay off the boat at the end of only one season. How many industries today can make a claim similar to that, I wonder?


Heave HO! Raising the mainsail and the boom on the Stanley Norman

During their heyday there were as many as 2000 skipjacks on the Bay. That is certainly not true anymore. At most 30 of these treasures remain, and not all are in the sailing condition that the Stanley Norman enjoys.

Definitely NOT a skipjack.. 

Neither is this

Passengers were offered a turn at the wheel, an offer I eagerly accepted. As the Stanley Norman’s Captain Dave explained, don’t expect that navigating a skipjack will be like driving an car – turning the wheel does not mean an immediate turn in that direction – there is a lag. Understood and accepted. But I seemed to be heading directly for the Thomas Point lighthouse..that lovely, red-roofed restored Bay lighthouse. And I had already turned the wheel as far as it would go. A few minutes later, after crew adjusted the jib a bit, we were on a different course.  

 Me and my concerned expression at the wheel of the Stanley Norman 

 ...while a watchful Captain Dave stands nearby 

 Approaching Thomas Point Lighthouse



Getting closer.. 


Thomas Point Lighthouse

 Thomas Point Lighthouse tours started in 2007, summers only 

According to the CBF, “What most people know about oysters is how they like them prepared”.  True enough. What many people may not realize is that oysters provide a  tremendous ecological benefit by filtering the Chesapeake: oysters purify the Chesapeake Bay as they filter the water for their food. An adult oyster can filter as much as 60 gallons of water a day. The CBF also points out that the oysters in the Bay could once filter a volume of water equal to that of the entire Bay (about 19 trillion gallons) in a week. Today, it would take the remaining Bay oysters more than a year to do that. 

In an interesting demonstration, two clear tanks were filled with Bay water and were further clouded by the mud from dredged oysters. One tank was left empty, the other was filled with live oysters. When the Stanley Norman docked in Annapolis hours later at the end of the day, the water in the tank with oysters was completely clear, while the empty tank was still cloudy.

Filtering ability of oysters – 2 tanks experiment

First issued by the CBF in 1998, the Chesapeake Bay Report Card 2007 revealed that Bay health remained in moderate to poor condition in most regions. Harmful algal blooms and fish kills, continued poor water clarity with a slight improvement in aquatic grasses all contributed to an overall grade of C-.

Crab fishermen on the Bay 


Paul from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation… 

 …revealing the beating heart of an oyster..it may be a while before I eat another raw one after seeing that 


Click here to read about repairs to the Stanley Norman mast





Sarah Doelp
BoatUS Classified Ads Coordinator
888 282 2628 - toll free

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