Skipjack cruise

Sail the Potomac on the Minnie V.

Deckhand Zach Schuster turns the sail of the 104-year-old skipjack Minnie V. during a trip along the Potomac River near National Harbor.
Deckhand Zach Schuster turns the sail of the 104-year-old skipjack Minnie V. during a trip along the Potomac River near National Harbor. (Photos By Xiaomei Chen/the Washington Post)
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Friday, August 20, 2010

A typical Saturday evening at National Harbor is busy -- to say the least. Loud boats speed by offshore, kids climb on "The Awakening" and diners enjoy their meal alfresco. But take a step onto the skipjack Minnie V. and all of that bustle seems to fade away.

The sailboat, made in 1906, is a relic from an era when the oyster business dominated Maryland's Chesapeake Bay and quick-moving skipjacks could efficiently dredge the bay floor for oysters. Despite being the state boat of Maryland, there aren't many in operation.

As the boat motors away from National Harbor, Capt. Andrew Samworth describes a river far different from today. Once abundant, oysters kept the brackish water so clear "you could look down 30 feet."

Far from shore, the engine is turned off and the mammoth sail is raised up the 57-foot-tall mast. It is a wonderfully quiet moment that enables everyone to take in the scene -- a fiery sunset over Alexandria, a soft breeze filling the sail, the calming sound of waves lapping against the boat and an osprey guarding its nest. In the distance, just past the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, is the D.C. skyline.

After the ride, Charlottis Woodley of Loveville said the quiet was one of her favorite moments of the trip.

"Just to listen to nothing," Woodley said wistfully, "because you don't get that anymore."

The boat's path depends largely on the wind, but it can go as fast as seven knots (about mph) and on a recent tour, passed near the Jones Point Lighthouse.

The ride lasts 90 minutes to two hours, and although there is plenty of time for silent reflection, Samworth and his crew keep the group of 18 entertained with tales of the river's past.

At its peak in the 1880s, oysters were in demand and the Potomac was bursting with them. Boats would cover the water, searching the river floor for the delicious treat. Immigrants, drunks and anyone else whom captains could coerce would be put to work on the boats.

"Oysters were like the gold rush," Samworth said, later adding that the water "was like the wild west; gunfire was not uncommon."

The last shooting over oysters was in 1954, and now the only booms you'll hear are at the end of the ride. Fireworks are launched every Saturday night through the summer at National Harbor.

-- Amy Orndorff

WHERE IS IT? The cruise departs from National Harbor in Oxon Hill.

WHEN IS IT? July through October, Fridays at 5 and 7 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 1, 3, 5 and 7 p.m.

WHERE CAN I FIND MORE INFORMATION? Call 703-684-0580 or 877-511-2628 or visit

HOW MUCH DOES IT COST? $25, $15 for children younger than 12. Saturday sunset cruises with fireworks cost $35, $25 for children younger than 12.

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