There's a rather noble effort under way to save a bit of the heritage of the Chesapeake Bay, one of the few remaining sail-powered commercial fishing boats in the country.
Specifically, there's a move afoot to replace the mast of the skipjack Martha Lewis, which has been home-ported at Havre de Grace for the past several years.
The Martha Lewis is one of 35 skipjacks included in fleet that was designated in 1985 by the U.S. Department of the Interior as an official historic place. Being a wooden boat, it is especially vulnerable to the ravages of time and the elements, and periodically has been the subject of restoration efforts.
Being a Maryland boy, I've had the fortunate occasion from time to time to take a ride on a skipjack, though never on an expedition for the intended purpose of the boats. For those uninitiated in the ways of the Chesapeake Bay, skipjacks are sailboats designed to ply the rather shallow waters of the bay, while also dragging a dredge to dislodge oysters.
To understand the relative technological marvel that the skipjack is, it is necessary to understand that oysters cement themselves to each other and, collectively, to the bay bottom. A freshly dredged mass of oysters may well look more like a chunk of spilled concrete than a basket of their tougher, but more symmetrical cousins clams. A sailboat capable of dragging a dredge and hauling up what amounts to a big box of rocks has to have a lot of sail power, meaning a big boat. But big sailboats usually have keels that protrude deep into the water to counterbalance both the weight of the mast and the force of the wind.
A pleasure sailboat the length of a skipjack would require a keel far too deep to allow for dredging most of the Bay, let alone the shallows where oyster bars are generally found. Skipjacks make up for it by being relatively wide for their length, compared to other sailing vessels.
For whatever reason, the commercial skipjack fleet on the Chesapeake managed to remain economically viable well into the age of the internal combustion engine, never mind that they first came into common usage in the late 1800s when the steam engine already was replacing sail power.
It's fair to say skipjacks could not have continued to be commercially viable in the past three, maybe four, decades were it not for varying degrees of support from the Maryland state government. For example, though crews of skipjacks are obliged to do their oyster dredging strictly under sail power, just about every skipjack that's taken out on an oyster expedition is equipped with a push boat. The push boat is large enough to accommodate a large petroleum powered engine of some sort, and gives its host skipjack a tugboat style push from port to the oystering waters and then back to port. For many years, skipjack oystering has availed itself of modern conveniences.
Another advantage afforded to the skipjack fleet, at least in the late 1980s, was an oystering season that started a few days or weeks prior to the season for those using more modern methods.
It would be hard to find someone who's opposed to the advantages given to those who still dredge oysters (actually, it's pronounced "drudge" if you're on an oyster boat) using sail powered skipjacks. They're certainly relics of another era, one when the bay was a good deal cleaner and more bountiful, and they have a graceful look about them. Helping with the maintenance of a skipjack fleet through the enacting of an official advantage here and there is something that's easy to support, even if you're in the oyster business yourself and it's technically competition.
The sad part of the story is the skipjacks may yet outlive their usefulness. The Chesapeake Bay office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports oyster populations in the Bay are anywhere between 3 and 54 percent of what they were 100 years ago, depending on the river system, and the productive river systems are mostly in Virginia's waters.
The Bay oysters were ravaged by diseases in the 1980s, but staged a very minor comeback that peaked around 2000. In more recent years, the oyster business in Maryland has shifted away from dredging oysters from public Bay bottom and gone in the direction of oyster farming. Going back a number of years, the traditional oyster harvesters were opposed to public policies that would allow for oyster farming, but it seems like the old ways have resulted in most of those folks going into other lines of work.
Should Bay farming end up restoring the oyster population to at least a respectable percentage of what it was a century or more ago, there's a belief that the overall health of the waterway would be improved. The filter feeding of oysters is believed to have played a role in removing nutrient pollution – essentially algae – from the water, making it more suitable for other creatures, notably rockfish and blue crabs. Unchecked algae blooms are believed to be responsible for fish kills and the summertime phenomenon that results in large areas devoid of oxygen and referred to as the Bay's Dead Zone.
Bring back oysters, some say, and bring back the Bay. If it is oyster farming that brings oysters back, though, there won't be much oyster dredging for the skipjacks to do.
Then again, it's a lot of fun to take a cruise on a skipjack, even one powered by a push boat, so maybe they can sail into the tourist trade full time.