On July 4, the skipjack Nathan of Dorchester turns 29, the youngest skipjack in the fleet. Cambridge had always been the center of the skipjack building industry with more skipjacks built in Cambridge than anywhere else along the Bay. A dedicated group of volunteers from the nonprofit Dorchester Skipjack Committee spent over 14,000 hours building Nathan and this past winter volunteers spent over 2,200 hours repairing, scraping and painting Nathan so she looks like she did when first commissioned in 1994.
Nathan is unique in part due to her age…or in this case, youth. Before building the Nathan, no skipjack had been built for 40 years. And only one other skipjack has been completed since then. While originally built to be a sail powered oyster dredge boat, Nathan’s true mission has been in tourism and education. For the past 29 years, the Nathan has been true to her mission, sailing and educating visitors far and wide on the waters of the Choptank River and Chesapeake Bay. During her 29 years of service, Nathan has carried over 41,000 passengers, made over 2,600 voyages and is underway 80 to 100 times each sailing season training sail crew, and carrying passengers on a unique voyage back in time.
Oysters were first harvested by hand in shallow waters around the Bay. Then schooners, pungies, and later bugeyes, were built to dredge oysters in deeper waters of the Chesapeake Bay. When the oyster bars in the deeper waters of the Bay were depleted due to over harvesting, a shallow draft boat was needed to access the rich oyster bars closer to shore.
A shallow draft boat with a hard chin, retractable centerboard and dead rise hull became known as a two-sail bateau, later commonly called a skipjack. Skipjacks are easily recognized by their sharp clipper bow, bowsprit, and large main sail, which is used to generate the power necessary to pull heavy oyster laden dredges across the oyster bars.
Quickly replacing older, deeper draft oyster dredge boats, about 800 skipjacks worked the Bay dredging under sail harvesting oysters during the winter months. Skipjacks were less expensive and relatively easy to construct and were made to last about 20 years. At the end of her life, a skipjack was traditionally stripped of its metal and left to rot in a creek or marsh and return to nature. Today the skipjack fleet is holding steady at about 25 to 30, some in varying degrees of restoration or decay.
For the past 29 years, the Nathan has taken groups of people out on the Choptank River and Chesapeake Bay teaching visitors of all ages about the ecology of the river and Bay, the oysters and a way of life on the Eastern Shore that is quickly vanishing. The Nathan has also been a floating ambassador for Cambridge, visiting ports of call up and down the Chesapeake Bay. May she continue to do so for many decades to come.
The Nathan of Dorchester offers a unique opportunity for folks to experience oyster dredging under sail. Four crew members, a Coast Guard certified captain and a docent take people out every Saturday. To beat the heat in July and August, sails depart Long Wharf at the end of High Street in Cambridge at 10 a.m. for a two-hour sail. During May, June, September, October and early November, Nathan carries passengers Saturday afternoons from 1 to 3 p.m.
Visit www.skipjack-nathan.org to purchase tickets and for more information.
Did You Know?
Nathan is a wooden vessel built using traditional boat building techniques.
The mast is 61 feet tall and made from locally sourced 112-year-old loblolly pine. To get a mast that tall, an old growth tree must measure 80 feet and have no knots.
The mast is too tall to sail under the Choptank River Bridge.
When racing, the Nathan’s maximum speed is between 12 and 15 mph with enough wind.
Skipjacks were built for power, not speed. Skipjacks had to drag two dredges under sail, which is like dragging an anchor.
The Nathan underwent extensive repairs last winter, requiring 2,200 volunteer hours.
The mainsail weighs about 400 pounds. It takes three crew members to raise it.
The mainsail is 1,500 square feet, or the size of an apartment.
The Nathan’s push boat is named Miss Eleanor after the shipwright’s wife, Eleanor Ruark.
It takes four people to raise and lower Miss Eleanor.
The Nathan is owned and operated by the Dorchester Skipjack Committee, a small, all-volunteer nonprofit organization. It hosts a skipjack race every September. The Choptank Heritage Skipjack Race will be held September 23 in Cambridge. It is one of two remaining skipjack races on the Chesapeake Bay today.
As is tradition, new skipjacks were outfitted with parts of retired skipjacks, as is the case with the Nathan.
The Nathan Prayer
On June 4, 1992, in Cambridge, the keelson was laid, initiating the formal building of the skipjack, Nathan of Dorchester. Reverend Richard Hubbard gave the invocation and blessed the keelson that would become the backbone of the skipjack – the first one to be built along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay in 40 years. Twenty-nine years later, at the start of this year’s sailing season, Reverend Daniel Dunlap wrote the following prayer.
THE NATHAN PRAYER
As we embark this season on the Nathan of Dorchester
We ask you to guide us on each great adventure
May our work be dedicated to preserving the Bay
For generations to come, to learn and to play
Bless our captains, our crew, and docents with grace
May you lead them through waters and steady their pace
Bless our new recruits, as they learn and they grow
To become redshirt crew who make our beloved Nathan glow
May we work as a team together with trust
Hauling in halyards and sheets, as we must
May our dedication to hard work never cease
To ensure Nathan sails with elegance and peace
As we witness the fading of the waterman’s life
May we honor their work, their heritage, their strife
May we keep the history of the Chesapeake Bay
Alive for all to see and appreciate each day
And when the day ends, with sunset on horizon
May we be grateful for memories and bonds that have risen
May we continue to serve and volunteer in your Name
For the glory of your kingdom, and for the love of the Bay
The Reverend Daniel Dunlap is a member of the Nathan Red Shirt Crew and Rector of Old Trinity Church in Church Creek.
Captain Kermit Travers, the last surviving black skipjack captain recently visited with the crew of the skipjack Nathan of Dorchester. Captain Kermit occasionally sails with the crew and shares some of his wisdom and experiences with volunteers. He is shown here talking with yellow shirt docent Anne Robinson, whose father Bobby Ruark supervised construction of the Nathan from 1992 to 1994.
The crew was getting ready to take Atlantic Cruise Lines passengers sailing on the Nathan. Atlantic Cruise Lines features sailing on the Nathan as a feature on their Chesapeake Bay cruises in the spring and fall.
Maintaining relationships with watermen like Captain Kermit helps us preserve the vanishing culture of people who are part of our rich maritime tradition that is disappearing as sea levels rise, watermen die and their boats with too many repairs needed, are scrapped.