Skipjack Capsize at the Turkey Shoot

By Tom Neale, 10/4/2007


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Skipjack Claud W Somers on calm

The Skipjack Claud W Somers heeled suddenly, water boiling over its leeward rail. Gusts of wind veered and whipped across the Rappahannock River, slamming into its sails with surprise blasts of power. Skipjacks capsize more often than you might expect. They were built with wide, relatively shallow bottoms to skim across the shoals of the Bay. They’ve been known to capsize even while at anchor when the wind veered hard in a furious squall. Usually the only people who see the capsizes are those who are about to get wet. This day was different.

Skipjacks are among the last of the commercial fishing sailboats in the world. It was tough enough to sail old wooden boats. They didn’t have the fancy keels and winches and lines and all the other high tech rigging that makes sailing easier and safer today. And it’s important to remember that a sailboat sails forward usually because wind is pushing the sails from the side (often fore or aft of the beam). The sails are, obviously, up high. Rather than just turn the boat over, the theory is that, because of the shape of the hull and the fact that the keel is heavy and provides lateral resistance and has a tendency to keep the boat from sliding off sideways downwind, the boat moves forward.

Sailboat Races
(for non-participants and observers)

1. There are fairly specific rules that apply to many sailboat races. Unfortunately some push the rules and the race to the limit and this can result in less fun and sometimes collisions and injury.

2. Sometimes powerboat operators don’t understand that sailboats out on a race are operating under racing rules.

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You can get an idea of the principle by thinking about an egg. It’s rounded, just a little like a sailboat hull. Think about greasing the egg with butter and putting it on a wooden floor up against a wall. Then push on the egg with your greased finger, just aft of the fattest part. Your push is like the wind. The wall acts like the keel and its resistance to the water. It keeps the egg from moving sideways in the direction of your push. Instead, the egg pops forward. Of course, if you push too hard you get a gooey mess. And if you push from the wrong end, the egg moves the wrong way. (That’s where the set of the sails and the helm comes into play on a sailboat.) Sailing is, in other words, an act of careful balancing and requires skill. And one thing that the egg example doesn’t address well is that, with a sailboat, the push is coming from up high, giving it the tendency to turn over, but for the keel, ballast and other factors built in to keep this from happening.

Now consider the Skipjack. Its bottom is much flatter than the typical modern sailboat. And its keel is raised or lowered so that it can scoot across really shallow water. And add to that the fact that, when they were working, some were dragging nets and some were “drudging” “Drudging” is, in modern terms, “dredging.” It means they drag heavy gear across the bottom, hoping to bring up seafood. You have to really appreciate their skippers and crew. Most Skipjacks today are essentially working museum boats, as is the Claud W Somers. This is good because we need to remember old boats. They’re carefully cared for, they still sail, usually in special events, and the public gets a chance to go aboard and see what it was all about. But they’re still Skipjacks.

Boats sailing in Turkey Shoot

Passengers on the Miss Ann watched in fascination on that blustery day in October, 2004 as sailing yachts all over the river struggled to remain upright and the Claud W Somers continued to roll over. Her rail dug in, water flowing over the deck while the wind mercilessly pushed. She capsized in around 28 feet of water. But within minutes all aboard had been rescued by nearby boats. Two weeks later they floated her and today she’s sailing the Bay again, in great form.

This all happened during the annual Turkey Shoot Regatta sailboat races which are conducted out of the Yankee Point Marina off the Corrotoman River in Lancaster County, Virginia. The Turkey Shoot Regatta began over 16 years ago as a parade of old boats. Now it’s a three day affair that benefits area hospices. It is a member of the National Hospice Regatta Alliance. All proceeds, including the regatta entrance fees, go to that cause. Many businesses donate sponsorships. Those who work to make it happen are donating their time and effort. Other hospice regattas are conducted in many other areas; you can check them out on If you’re a sailor, you may want to enter in your area.

The boats which enter the Turkey Shoot Regatta are required to have been designed over 25 years ago; some were built many years before that. In the past as many as 100 boats have raced. You never know what’s going to happen when sailboats race in the fall on the Chesapeake. Last year a full storm raged across the Bay on the first day of the race. It was so bad that the race had to be cancelled that day. But there was plenty of beer and food and music and fun and the race next day was great.

Two Classic Ladies in Race

All this brings out the best, and those watching from the Miss Ann have the best view. This is a classic 124-foot long luxury yacht built in 1926. If you’re like me, you’ve probably drooled over pictures of boats like this. The boat was built in the days when the wealthy spared no expense to have luxurious yachts. She is provided for the event by the Tides Inn of Irvington, Virginia, which maintains her and uses her for tours for guests and special occasions. Those who book passage to see the race on its last day (Sunday) are contributing to this cause. And they get a trip on the yacht which usually lasts several hours, a box lunch sponsored by the Bank of Lancaster and a finish line view. The yacht anchors out in the river near that line. There’s also running commentary about the classic racing boats, their racing tactics and the background of the river by—well—me.

The rule for the day is that the first over the line wins, with other boats placing in the order they cross. The racing boats converge on a spot just upwind of the Miss Ann, all fighting to be first, all subject to the whims of the wind. After the boats cross the line they sail close alongside the yacht, jockeying for position before the Miss Ann passengers who vote by secret ballot to decide the winner of the “Miss Ann’s Choice Trophy.” The criteria for this award is simply the boat that most impresses the passengers, for whatever reason.

This year the races are scheduled for October 6 and 7, 2007 with registration and partying on the 5 th. If you’re in the area and want to sign up for tickets on the Miss Ann call Karen Knull, Yankee Point Marina, 804 462 7018, but do it soon because space is limited. Or if you want to race, call the same number. It’s supposed to be a fun and safe race; many who enter have seldom if ever raced before. When I last checked a few days ago, over a hundred boats had entered! For more information including info about entering your boat in the regatta, see

Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale