Despite fiberglass boats’ climb in popularity—a trend forcing wooden vessels ever-closer to footnote—a Maryland flag-draped skipjack unique to Delmarva continues to draw seafarers to Choptank River streams for one to two-hour, public sailing excursions.
The Skipjack Nathan of Dorchester, a 24-year-old, medium-sized dredge boat designed to harvest and horde somewhere in the ballpark of 100 to 150 bushels of oysters, has a two-pronged function: to give visitors the opportunity to enjoy scenic glides across some of the Eastern Shore’s nautical landscapes as well as the week-long, chance to charter their own course.
The latter freedom, said Dorchester Skipjack Committee treasurer and charters manager Dana McGrath, has proven especially popular with sailors—whether rookie or veteran.
“If they charter the boat, they can pick the time that they want to go out and they can bring food or drink on board,” said McGrath, a New Jersey native and retiree who has served on The Committee for 15 years. “We have parties, we have reunions, and we have several weddings on board, which are fun. It’s a small intimate group. So, we do a variety.”
Constructed between 1991 and 1994, The Skipjack Nathan of Dorchester set sail for the first time on July 4, 1994. Created to preserve the wooden boat building heritage and skills of DorchesterCounty, Skipjack Nathan is a vestige of a bygone era.
More skipjacks were built in Dorchester than anywhere else, but it has devolved into a dying profession.
“The workmen’s skills aren’t the same,” said McGrath. “They use power tools now.”
Fiber glass boats are becoming increasingly popular, she added, because they are easier to maintain.
“There’s a tremendous amount of maintenance that you have to do on a wooden boat,” she said.
A “tremendous amount” can mean any number of laborious tasks from sanding to repainting the bottom of the boat every year and testing its wood.
“… People just don’t build wooden boats very much anymore,” she said. “They don’t have the time.”
Aside from time, the need for skipjacks has also diminished for one obvious reason, said
McGrath: “… because you cannot possibly make a living dredging for oysters anymore.”
The writing is on the hull, so to speak.
“The watermen know that it’s just getting tougher and tougher,” she said. “So we use the Skipjack Nathan as a very busy tourist attraction.”
Bud Marseilles, president of the Dorchester Skipjack Committee echoed McGrath.
“Our organization is kind of unique,” he said. “We are a bunch of volunteers who own, maintain and operate a commercial passenger-carrying vessel and we train our volunteers to sail like a professional crew.”
The Nathan, Marseilles added, is used to promote regional tourism and to give passengers a glimpse into the fast disappearing life and culture of the waterman who harvested oysters while sailing Maryland’s iconic skipjack.
This move has yielded lucrative rewards.
Presently, the Skipjack Nathan’s public sailing season lasts from the first Saturday in May through the end of October.
The Skipjack Committee (a group of mostly retired volunteers) oversees the Saturday sails, which run for two hours and last from 1 to 3 p.m.
One Sunday each month, the Committee offers two one-hour sails, beginning at 11 a.m. and again at 12:30 p.m.
The one-hour public sails offer a blanket benefit.
“Those are aiming for people who don’t have time for two-hour sails,” McGrath said.
“Perhaps they’re here for the weekend, so it might be the last thing before heading back.”
And then there’s the pocket-padding.
“They are also less expensive,” McGrath added. “Folks might choose to go out on a one-hour sail versus a two-hour sail.”
Summer is peak season for Dorchester Nathan. From sunny season to early fall, The Committee is offering three free sails: Memorial Day (already past), July 4 (on its way), and Dorchester Showcase Day on September 22 (in early fall).
The July 4 sail bears an especial significance.
“It’s our country’s birthday and also the Nathan’s birthday,” McGrath said.
Cruise lines often sail into Cambridge and a subset of their passengers sometimes want to spend their downtime on the Skipjack. Several business charters also come through. And on a random Wednesday in early June, McGrath finds her schedule filled to the brim—a familiar commonality.
“There’s a business conference at the Hyatt. They want to find an outdoor activity and they have more than 20 people who want to do it,” she said. “So, one group is doing it this afternoon, and the other group, hopefully [if the weather cooperates], is doing it tomorrow. And then on Friday, we have another charter.”
Maintaining a core group of dedicated volunteers sometimes proves challenging, namely because skipjack work is very labor intensive. Raising the boat’s large sails is difficult, and often requires two people.
“Getting enough crew and not burning out those that we do have,” McGrath said, can be tough.
A doctor has to sign off on a physical form that indicates a volunteer is capable of doing the work. Prospective volunteers also undergo a spring orientation.
In many ways, the volunteers are the heart and soul of the operation.
“Each year, we get four or five good, new crew and committee members, who keep us going,” McGrath said.
One of the Skipjack Nathan of Dorchester events is the upcoming 2013 Choptank Heritage Skipjack Race slated for Saturday, Sept. 21.
Expectations are high.
“Now in its 16th year, the Skipjack Race preserves our maritime heritage, while also showcasing our natural beauty of the Choptank River,” said Lou Hyman, chairman of the Choptank Heritage Skipjack Race Committee (and vice president of the Skipjack Committee),” It is a great event for photographers and families.”
The public Skipjack Sails are open to families, seniors and individuals of all ages. Life jackets are available for everyone, including infants.
For a full sailing schedule and information about pricing, visit www.skipjack-nathan.org or call 410-253-0919.
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