Correction to This Article
The review was accompanied by a photograph of a boat that was incorrectly described in the caption as a skipjack. The boat pictured was motorized; skipjacks are powered by sails.

Book Review: Skipjack: The Story of America's Last Sailing Oystermen by Christopher White

By Ken Ringle
Sunday, December 13, 2009

SKIPJACK

The Story of America's Last Sailing Oystermen

By Christopher White

St. Martin's. 372 pp. $25.99

For those of us who love the Chesapeake -- and others merely curious -- the ultimate Bay sourcebook remains the late William W. Warner's wonderfully readable "Beautiful Swimmers," which chronicles the biology of the blue crab and the culture of the watermen who pursue them. Surprisingly, little has been written about the Bay's other edible treasure -- the Chesapeake oyster -- or about the sail-powered wooden workboats that harvested them for more than a century.

The skipjacks are all but vanished today. Last winter only a single one hoisted its sails, and its captain was 88 years old. But 10 years ago as the 20th century drew to a close, author Christopher White moved to Tilghman Island for two years to document the twilight of oystering under sail and the cantankerous captains struggling to keep their imperiled way of life alive.

"Skipjack" is his story. And if White is no Warner, either as a reporter or a stylist, he comes touchingly close at times with this evocative portrait of the nation's most beautiful and poignant vocational anachronism. It's an action-packed tale, complete with waterborne grudge matches, on-deck shootouts, fierce winter storms and suspenseful escapes. The long-boomed skipjacks, with names like City of Crisfield, Lady Katie and Hilda M. Willing -- some date from the 19th century -- are as encrusted with history as with barnacles beneath their fading paint. They emerge as characters themselves -- some sick, some noble, all stubbornly battling to stay afloat.

But the real stars of White's story are the members of the skipjack community. They include Stanley Larrimore, a Scripture-quoting 64-year-old from Deal Island, who, while dredging for oysters, takes care merely to caress the banks with his dredges in order to leave more bivalves for tomorrow; Wade Murphy, a hot-headed Tilghman Island competitor, determined to captain the fastest boat and work the longest hours; and Miss Pauline Jenkins, the octogenarian former school teacher who adopts and mothers White as she does her former pupils in the oyster fleet. It's worth buying the book just to get Miss Pauline's family recipe for scalloped oysters.

Maryland's unique oyster laws date from 1865 when, with the advance of steam power, the state restricted oyster dredging to boats powered by the wind alone. It was an early conservation law and was aimed at ensuring that the Chesapeake's astonishingly bountiful oyster beds would remain sustainable. With the boats and their huge sail rigs idled on calm days as well as Sundays, the oyster beds got a frequent respite from the wind-pulled dredges and a chance to recover and grow. That, at least, was the theory.

The first sailing oyster boats were schooners, but in the 1880s the skipjack was developed: a shallow-draft center-board boat with a relatively short mast and a long boomed mainsail to power the oyster-raking dredges through the Chesapeake's depths as well as its shallows. Soon there were hundreds, hauling in each winter some 10 million bushels of oysters -- a harvest more than 50 times what it is today. Given the number and rapacity of the oystermen, the harvest eventually plummeted. But then in 1925 it stabilized at two million bushels for 35 years as the skipjack fleet aged and shoreside opportunities lured crewmen from the brutal, wave-splashed work in the winter winds.

That might have solved the problem. But other factors were gnawing away at sustainability: Hand tongers were working their scissor-like rakes in the shallows. "Patent tongers" were allowed to scoop oysters from deep beds utilizing what amounts to a hydraulic jaw mounted on a crab boat. The disease MSX began killing the Chesapeake's oyster beds during the drought of the 1960s, and in 1967 the skipjackers themselves won permission from the state to power-push their dredges two days a week with their small auxiliary boats.

Oystering in the Bay has gone downhill ever since, despite catch limits, scientific research and ever-shifting state regulations keyed less to ecology than to a fractious population of watermen born to a heritage of free plunder on the common grounds of the Chesapeake.

To his great credit, White resists any temptation to romanticize his skipjackers as quaint rustics simply overtaken by a modern world. He knows better. He has lived with them, worked aboard with them and listened as they admitted that they were often their own worst enemies. But he's just as clear-eyed when observing their virtues: loyalty and love of family, a relentless work ethic, stubborn independence and a cultural taproot to traditions of surpassing humanity. And he serves them all up for us on the half-shell.

Ken Ringle is a veteran writer and Bay sailor.


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