Nathan Prepares for a Season of Sailing, Stories and Oysters!

As the Nathan of Dorchester enters the 2024 sailing season, the crew is ready for its 30th year of Sailing, Stories and Oysters! The skipjack, now back at its slip at Long Wharf in Cambridge after a winter of routine maintenance, takes its first passengers out on the Choptank River on May 23. While the USCG vessel will get a big birthday bash in July on its true birthday, the return of its regular cruise schedule is also something to celebrate.

In March, the Nathan splashed down in the water after its routine winter maintenance.

According to Pat Johnson, president of the Dorchester Skipjack Committee, “Our winter was heavily involved with restoration work. We hauled out to Richardson Maritime Center in November and had our USCG inspection. We pulled 18 required fasteners, which are five-inch nails in bottom of boat. Every five years, a percentage of them are required to be pulled for inspection. They were pristine.”

Part of the Nathan’s winter overhaul included a new boom. Pat explained, “Our own inspections of mast and boom, which we do several times a year, led us to concerns with some areas on the boom. So, our maintenance and preservation group took on the challenge of building a new boom. They used Douglas fir and a bird’s mouth technique to construct the 43+-foot mast.”

The boom is hollow except where cleats and eyes are attached for the main sail. Although the boom is hollow, because of the construction, it’s very strong. With the help of John Swain, boat wright and consultant, it took about six weeks (three days a week) to finish the project. The work required about 1,000-man hours (mostly volunteer) to complete the boom and it should last at least another 30 years.

In addition, volunteers rebuilt the diesel engine, replaced pumps and lines for in board propulsion, and completed repairs on the push boat Miss Eleanor where there was any rotting wood.

This diesel engine was totally rehabbed this winter by Richard A. Jones. Getting some parts was a challenge since it’s a 30+ year old marine engine. Originally, the diesel engine was above deck to work the oyster dredge. After a couple of years, the motor was moved below deck to power a hydraulic propulsion system. The Nathan is one of a very few skipjacks, and maybe the only one, with both a pushboat and an inboard motor.

The Nathan crew expects another successful season of sailing. According to Pat, “Our 2023 season was excellent as we carried 1,000 passengers and caught 1,000 oysters during our trips. Of course, because we have a research license from the Department of Natural Resources, none of the oysters were eaten. Our observation was the same as what is being reported in oyster restoration reports from local Bay organizations: low number of boxes [dead oysters] and significant spat set, so that bodes well for the oyster population.”

During the off season, it was agreed that there will be a renewed focus on its messaging. Members of the Skipjack committee hope to communicate how crucial it is to tell the story of the skipjack in tandem with the story of the Chesapeake Bay waterman.

Pat said, “We preserve the Nathan because it’s one of few skipjacks left and it tells the story of the watermen who worked the Bay and its tributaries harvesting oysters. The watermen harvested oysters in rough times without the technology we have today. It’s not only about the boat, but about the waterman’s legacy. It’s about how they lived, worked and how the family coped. People forget that the Bay area didn’t have roads for a long time. People got around by boat. There were insular communities and islands for many years. We decided to share that message with the public because we are afraid that the waterman’s legacy is being lost. The Bay’s legacy is about the people too, not just the boats and oysters.”

In time for the 2024 sailing season, new crew members are finishing up their extensive training. Crew training is a time-consuming process for new volunteers since the Nathan is a USCG vessel. There is a strong focus on safety for passengers, crew and the boat. New crew spend about 12 to 16 weeks, twice a week of two- to four-hour sessions, on the boat with experienced trainers and sail crew before they earn a “red shirt” status. This means they have been trained and vetted to be one of four crew members on any sail.

Public sails begin June 1 every Saturday through October 26. Each sail is two hours and docents tell stories and dredge for oysters. During the heat of summer, sails begin at 10 a.m. in July and August. Otherwise, the sails are at 1 p.m. Each session is different depending on weather, wind and crew.

The Nathan will start the season on Thursday, May 23 with its new Third Thursday “Sip ‘n Sail,” with other evening sails slated for June and July. There will also be a Memorial Day weekend sunset sail on Saturday, May 25. These sails include some snacks. To book a two-hour sail or a Third Thursday Sip ‘n Sail, visit www.skipjack-nathan.org. Custom charters are available as well; email charter@skipjack-nathan.org.

Additionally, the Nathan takes out groups of passengers from the American Cruise Line, which travels the Chesapeake Bay and docks in Cambridge, allowing folks to experience our “home” on the water.

The Nathan was built in 1992 through 1994 at the head of Cambridge Creek at Generation III. It was under the direction of boatwright Harold Ruark and boat builder Bobby Ruark. She actually went in the water in the fall of 1993 but wasn’t christened until July 4, 1994. There will be a celebration on July 4 at 10 a.m. at Long Wharf. In attendance will be a group of other traditional rigged boats, primarily schooners, that will sail in to join the celebration. They will be available for public viewing with more details coming soon.

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