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Day 7: November 3, 2022 – Cambridge and the Skipjack Nathan of Dorchester

Cambridge is another working waterfront town. Oysters are the biggest industry. Today they also embrace tourism.

The oyster boom began in the 1870’s. People harvest oysters from November 1- March 31. Oysters are milky soft and spawn in the summer so they don’t taste good. They are firm and juicy in the winter. Oysters can tolerate wide swings of salinity so they are found throughout the Chesapeake Bay.

The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay by John R. Wennersten is a good book. Oysters have been called Chesapeake Gold. And whenever you have big business worth a lot of money, there will be conflicts mainly over who could harvest an oyster reef. Oyster Wars involved lots of fighting amongst themselves. Oyster police were formed by the Navy. New England watermen come down to the Chesapeake and Virginia watermen were in Maryland waters and vice versa. There are three types of protected reefs that allow oystering by use of skipjack, dredge or tongers. Tangier Sound has designated skipjack beds. Tongers are like giant post hole digger but are used to harvest oysters.

We were on a skipjack and we used a dredge.

We board a skipjack that is a replica boat built by volunteers from 1992 – 1994 to preserve heritage. We will sail the Nathan of Dorchester from Cambridge Creek to the Choptank River which starts in Delaware. We are 13 miles from the Chesapeake Bay.

Our skipjack, The Nathan of Dorchester is in front our cruise ship, American Star.

A skipjack is a type of tuna that skims the water so that is where the name comes from. The boat is made entirely of wood and has a flat bottom because the boat needs to be in shallow water to dredge oysters. There is a 3′-6′ draw. This sailboat is like a sunfish with centerboard the size of a barn door!

The boom of the skipjack matches the length of the boat. The deck width matches the bow-sprit which is the spar that extends forward.

This is the bow-sprit with the name in it.

The mast height is the total of the boom and the deck. When building the skipjacks, they find the mast first. Loblolly pines grow straight and tall.

Example: The deck is 16′ wide and 41′ long so the mast is 61′. The skipjack is the state boat of Maryland. I don’t think that Kansas has a state boat…maybe a paper boat!!

This sail has a very tall single mast. Raking the mast means it leans back so it is easier to manuever and change direction. There are four crew and one captain. Wooden hoops are tied into the sail. The heavy sail must be tied on with one reef.

To “reef” a sail means to shorten it. The simple act of reducing sail reduced the surface area and thereby reducing power. A sailboat is powered by the wind, and when there is too much wind it is overpowered. Reefing also provides stability which is especially important in high winds. Their license from the Coast Guard dictates that they cannot full sail. They use winches and winders to pull in the sail. Each skipjack has a small boat called a push boat to manuever around in the harbor.

When John Smith sailed a shallop through the Chesapeake, oysters were the size of dinner plates. The oyster beds were massive and dangerous for boats. They had to sail around them. Schooners were initially used prior to the skipjack.

They are allowed to dredge for oysters for three days per week with a maximum of 20 bushels per day weighing between 100-125 lbs. They get $40 per bushel. They can only work sunrise to sunset.

A spat is a baby oyster. The velum stage is the sticky foot that attaches to another oyster (preferred) or rock or other hard surface. Oysters grow 1″ per year and can be harvested when the oyster is at least three inches across. Eventually the male oyster turns into a female oyster. WHAT???

Crassostrea virginica does not make a pearl. However, the inside of the oyster is very pretty and pearly and was used for buttons. Now buttons are plastic. In November and December, there is a big demand for oysters that are used in stuffing.

Dermo and MSX diseases decimated the oysters in the 1986 killing more that 70% within months.

In order to stay out, buy boats come out to the skipjacks and take the oysters in to market so that the watermen can stay out.

A waterman burns 6,000-8,000 calories per day, mostly to keep warm. No gym needed. Dorchester Watermen wear white boots. People who process oysters get “oyster hand” from removing sharp things like barnacles from the oyster.

Each oyster filters 60 gallons of water per day and is an indicator of water quality. Originally, the Chesapeake Bay was completely filtered in 2-3 days. Now it takes 2-3 years. The population of oysters is 10 percent of what it once was. The oysters need algae to grow and can be native wild or aquaculture. Grasses will grow when the water is cleaner and indicates the health of the Bay. The grasses put oxygen in the water.

The Coast Guard issues licenses. One of the tests is to throw a 170lb. dummy called Rescue Randy and observe the rescue. (This reminds me of Resussa Annie in CPR training.)

The Duponts started the sailing club in affluent Cambridge.

Harriett Tubman was born near here and was sold at the Dorchester Court House. In 2022, a statue was erected in her honor. What took so long??

We had a Chesapeake Bay expert on board. Charlie is a historian and naturalist and today he told us about fish and showed us how to properly fillet a fish!!

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