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Skipjack: The Story of America's Last Sailing Oystermen

Skipjack: The Story of America's Last Sailing Oystermen

by Christopher White

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In Skipjack, Christopher White spends a pivotal year with three memorable captains as they battle man and nature to control the fate of their island villages and oyster fleet. Through these lively characters, White paints a vivid picture of life on a skipjack, a wooden oystering sailboat. But this last vestige of American sailing culture is rapidly dying. These


In Skipjack, Christopher White spends a pivotal year with three memorable captains as they battle man and nature to control the fate of their island villages and oyster fleet. Through these lively characters, White paints a vivid picture of life on a skipjack, a wooden oystering sailboat. But this last vestige of American sailing culture is rapidly dying. These captains must set aside their rivalry to fight for their very livelihood. With so many obstacles, it is not certain the fleet will survive the season. Hinging on its success, the viability of the nation's premiere estuary and the survival of a classic American town hang dangerously in the balance.

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
[An] evocative portrait of the nation's most beautiful and poignant vocational anachronism. It's an action-packed tale, complete with waterborne grudge matches, on-deck shootouts, fierce winter storms and suspenseful escapes.
Wooden Boat
The author spent a year with the captains of three skipjacks, as they balanced politics and tradition, environmental and economic issues in their struggle to harvest oysters from their wooden sailboats.
National Fisherman
A stunning portrait...(White's) keen eye and lively prose together draw a clear image of a place where work, nature, and a deep connection to regional history are interwoven. Join the author as he rides along with the last vestiges of a great American tradition.
Trevor Corson
The world has almost run out of fish, as modern technology strips our oceans bare. Christopher White’s Skipjack is a compelling story about how the wisdom of the past can help us protect the future of our fisheries. If you savor seafood, White’s chronicle of the gritty life aboard America’s last sailboat fishing fleet is a tale you need to hear.
Gilbert M. Grosvenor
Well written, and carefully researched…. Chris White’s brilliant use of the waterman’s vernacular and his intimate knowledge of multiple generations of watermen combine to make this an excellent treatise on a culture that is clearly disappearing.
George Reiger
At a time when the last great wildernesses are melting or going up in smoke, it’s comforting to know that these watermen still exist-and that a writer as insightful and lyrical as Christopher White is on hand to document their fiercely independent way of life.
Peter Matthiessen
[A] colorful, comprehensive, and valuable piece of Americana.
Bay Journal
Exciting and poignant as a few aging men and boats struggle to keep a remarkable way of life alive just a little longer.
Ken Ringle
…[an] evocative portrait of the nation's most beautiful and poignant vocational anachronism. It's an action-packed tale, complete with waterborne grudge matches, on-deck shootouts, fierce winter storms and suspenseful escapes…White resists any temptation to romanticize his skipjackers as quaint rustics simply overtaken by a modern world. He knows better. He has lived with them, worked aboard with them and listened as they admitted that they were often their own worst enemies. But he's just as clear-eyed when observing their virtues: loyalty and love of family, a relentless work ethic, stubborn independence and a cultural taproot to traditions of surpassing humanity. And he serves them all up for us on the half-shell.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
In late March 1978, biologist and science writer White (Chesapeake Bay) joined the crew of the sailing ship Rebecca T. Ruark, a "skipjack" that was "among the last sailboats still employed in commercial fishing in North America." Renting a cottage in Tilghman, a village then untouched by development and tourism, White spent the next year chronicling the lives and community of the oystermen. In order to preserve the oyster population, an 1865 Maryland law limited the dredging of oysters to sail-powered ships; for over 140 years, this "enforced obsolescence" approach worked; now, however, the oyster population of the Bay (once "king of the American oyster") is plummeting for reasons not entirely clear, though pollution, disease and more efficient fishing methods have all contributed. Naturally, what's at stake is not just an important sea creature but a way of human life; White mines information and testimony on every aspect of community life, from family recipes to skipjack races to oyster wars, in a moving account. Examining the circumstances and difficult decisions of men like the skipper of the Rebecca, a third-generation oysterman, White provides on-the-ground insight into the possibilities and problems of simultaneously sustaining a community and an ecosystem.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
Journalist/naturalist White (Chesapeake Bay: Nature of the Estuary, 1989, etc.) produces a hands-on survey of Chesapeake Bay's dangerous and colorful skipjack shellfishery. A decade ago, when White lived on the Maryland side of the bay, he rented a house on Tilghman's Island, with its holdout community of skipjacks-sailing oystermen. The author does a fine job explaining the activity: A two-masted wooden sailboat pulls a brace of dredges over oyster banks, taking advantage (or not) of the wind's strength and direction to work the beds. Like the bay's two other famous catches, blue crabs and striped bass, oysters are on the wane, prey to overfishing, pollution, habitat destruction, disease and regulatory mismanagement-all topics White ably handles as a skilled naturalist. As the author works the boats with them, the old-time skipjack watermen-even ten years ago but a handful, accounting for less than five percent of the oyster haul-fill the White's ear with stories of the past that give evidence to their enigmatic reputation as part outlaw-they will be the first to admit that watermen are very much players in the overfishing problem-part conservationist. White offers two tales: the history of the skipjack as a lovely boat and a livelihood; and his experience working on a skipjack, with their notoriously thorny captains, the toil and occasional terror, yet also the "all-but-forgotten world of reading the sky and the water, of harnessing the wind to catch your supper," of the "waterman as part of the ecology of the Bay." The author also provides gratifying forays into attendant skipjack activities, such as blacksmithing and oyster shucking. An illuminating, somewhat mournful story of a dyingart form. Agent: Wendy Strothman/Strothman Literary Agency\
Against the Tide: The Fate of New England Fish Richard Adams Carey
Christopher White's Skipjack is not only a powerful elegy for a great American fishery, it's an act of defiance against all that has conspired to empty the dredges of these beautiful boats. White's prose is like the oystermen he portrays: tough, lyrical, and soaked to the bone in the waters of Chesapeake Bay. I've still got a lump in my throat from its last page.
The Secret Life of Lobsters and The Zen of Fish Trevor Corson
The world has almost run out of fish, as modern technology strips our oceans bare. Christopher White's Skipjack is a compelling story about how the wisdom of the past can help us protect the future of our fisheries. If you savor seafood, White's chronicle of the gritty life aboard America's last sailboat fishing fleet is a tale you need to hear.
author of Wanderer on My Native Shore George Reiger
Men who take their livings from the sea have their own language to reinforce kinship and keep strangers at bay. Only rarely is an outsider accepted into their inner circle, and then only when he knows how to listen and is willing to work. Even more rarely does such an adopted son capture the cadenced ebb and flow of watermen's speech. Herman Melville did it for New England whalers: Christopher White has now done it for the oystermen of Maryland's Eastern Shore. Just as Melville documented something greater than a whale hunt, White's account helps us understand how much all our lives will be diminished when the last oyster drudger sailed in from the Chesapeake… Skipjack is a masterpiece.
former editor and Chairman of National Geographic Gilbert M. Grosvenor
Well written, and carefully researched … . Chris White's brilliant use of the waterman's vernacular and his intimate knowledge of multiple generations of watermen combine to make this an excellent treatise on a culture that is clearly disappearing.

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Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
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Read an Excerpt


The Story of America's Last Sailing Oystermen

By Christopher White

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2009 Christopher White
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-8483-6


A Waterman's Summer

Tilghman Island in summer, like John Steinbeck's Cannery Row, is a "stink." Walking along the wharves of Knapps Narrows or the other moorage, Dogwood Harbor, one is overwhelmed by the oily odor of rotting fish. Which is not to say sweet-sounding, eponymous names don't hold their meaning. They do. Dogwood Cove still has flowering trees along the shore. In late spring the aroma of magnolia and dogwood is simply overpowered by the smell of ripe bait. Come June, more than a dozen charter fishermen and fifty crabbers work out of Dogwood Cove, harvesting seafood from the "protein factory" of the Bay. Even more tie up in the narrows. The crab potters scent their traps with "alewives" (menhaden), a noisome odor next to the rank bull lips and pig tongues employed by the trotliners, the old-fashioned watermen who crab with a baited line. Not just fishermen are to blame. Rancid crabs and fish, discarded by the tide, bake along the wrack line of the shore. All this carrion, gamy as it is, is a mild stench compared to the thick musk of salted eel, when it is available — my favorite, and the preferred bait of trotliners, one and all.

I had not yet grown to love these smells when I moved to the island in May. It was no longer spring on Tilghman Island; the month had merged into summer. In fact, for most Chesapeake watermen, there are only two seasons. Oystering is restricted, more or less, to the cooler months — an extended winter. Summer begins when the crabs crawl or, for charter-boat captains, when game fish start to bite. The biting and crawling had just begun when I arrived on the island, U-Haul in tow, looking for Gibsontown Road, my new address.

Directions were easy enough. I simply followed my nose to Dogwood Harbor, then turned left. My road was in sight of three-quarters of the island's skipjack fleet. As I drove along, masts appeared intermittently between houses and over vacant lots, flashing like cards shuffled in a Player's deck. One waterman stood at the edge of his lawn as if penned in, the balance of the turf taken up by stack upon stack, row upon row, of crab pots being prepped for the summer. Farther along, an old captain fixed his pots with galvanized repair wire. His grandchildren were painting Styrofoam buoys with stripes and colors (yellows and blues) emblematic of the family. In another yard, a woman and her daughter painted a small workboat with bright white paint while a man looked on. All told, the street had half a dozen families pitching in, as if it were a barn raising. No one is more industrious in pursuit of the edible than the waterman and his clan.

I was relieved to see the rumored development of the island hadn't yet begun. Tilghman was still a workingman's community: Detroit pickups, baseball caps, and Budweiser beer. Oxford and St. Michaels up the road had already become havens for tourists; they were enchanting, quaint, sedate. Hardly anyone made the extra pilgrimage to Tilghman, unless one was a serious sport fisherman. It was too remote, too coarse, too alien. A blue-collar town.

And yet it had a certain serenity, a quiet charm of its own. More than thirty genial houses, mostly dressed in white, bordered my new street. Magnificent trees — silver maples, hickories, walnuts, holly, tulip poplar, and magnolia — had survived the recent harsh winters and flourished. Still, two features stood in contrast: one supporting my preconceptions of the island, the other shattering them. First, the entire street lacked fences or hedges. Everyone was free to wander into his neighbor's yard. Doors were unlocked. The community was open and safe. On the other hand, while most houses were shipshape, every fifth dwelling or so was dilapidated. Down the street, seafood plants were boarded up. The disrepair reflected a community frayed at the edges. And aging. On Gibsontown Road, houses built in the 1940s still dominated the street, mostly one-story saltboxes and cottages. But one or two barns spoke of a time before the automobile — the first on the island being a 1910 Studebaker. On Tilghman, history was visible. The old was woven in with the new, like a mended net.

Finding a house had not been easy. On Tilghman, resident watermen owned and occupied most of the homes. In those days only a few houses were part-time residences or rentals — typically weekend retreats for "chicken-neckers." That is the local name for Washingtonians or others from the western shore of the Bay, derided for their amateur crabbing technique of tying raw chicken parts to the end of a string. Even these weekend homes were infrequently rented, and if so, only for a short term. So I was pleased to hear about a rare rental — the tip passed on to me by one of the dredge-boat captains — with a year's lease on Gibsontown Road.

I drove to the end of the street. Here, along a wide hook of land between the harbor and the Choptank River, the master shipwright, John B. Harrison (1865–1940) built his boats, his name, and by necessity houses for his five children and his sister. Mister John B., as he was known far and wide, was "the best damn boat builder on the Chesapeake Bay." He built at least three skipjacks, including Emily (1901), but was best known for his log canoes and bugeyes. His six houses — mine being the second — hugged the outside corner of the big turn on Gibsontown Road.

Realizing I was about to move into one of the Harrison houses, I felt as if I was trespassing. Nonetheless, I parked my rig and began unloading furniture and boxes onto the front lawn. After an hour or two, I had placed everything inside the front porch, a screened portal with a roof abutting the second floor — that is, everything except the bedroom furniture. Inside the house, I discovered a narrow winding staircase to the second floor, tight and awkward as a lighthouse. Neither bed nor bureau nor chair would fit up that stairway; everything had to come through the window. I borrowed a ladder from my landlord.

Perched on the roof, I was negotiating the mattress through the second-story window when a sweet, if wavering, voice called me from below.

"Hello, neighbor!" she shouted, as if hard of hearing. "I'm Pauline Jenkins. This is Max." She pointed to her dog, a shepherd mix. "And this is Cat." She was walking Cat, a white tabby, on a long white leash.

I descended the ladder to greet her properly. She had cloud-white hair and an angelic face, wrinkled from smile lines. She giggled at my handshake and offered to brew me a glass of iced tea, then turned and walked Cat back to her house. Max stayed with me.

Halfway to her cottage, she turned and hollered, "Don't hurt yourself on top of that porch roof, young man. I dare think my father built it good and strong, but it's a long drop to the deck." Miss Pauline, recently widowed and without children, still went by the name she held as a schoolteacher on the island for fifty years. In fact, older island women were always called "Miss," regardless of marital status, as a token of respect, in the same manner that men were called "Mister." My landlord had already informed me that Miss Pauline, eighty-four, was the middle daughter of Mister John B. and unofficial historian of the island. Her husband, Wesley, had been a dredge-boat captain. Scratch any family on Tilghman and you come up with a skipjack.

Miss Pauline returned with the tea, and after I cleared two porch chairs of pots and pans, we sat to enjoy our cold drinks. I thanked her (and Max and Cat) for the welcome party to Tilghman.

"Tilghman's," she corrected me. "This is Tilghman's Island. Maps say 'Tilghman,' but they're wrong. Mathew Tilghman inherited the island in 1741; his predecessors stole it from the Indians. All my children get it right now, but I'm still correcting their 'tookens' and 'ain'ts.'" By her "children," Miss Pauline meant all the pupils she had trained over fifty years, essentially the entire island population over thirty — some six hundred people.

I drained my glass, ready to get back to work; however, Miss Pauline was not letting go.

"You're moving into my Aunt Vesta's house," she said. "I'm happy for it; the house has been empty too long. Of course, everyone now calls it 'Lawrence Tyler's house,' but he only lived in it for thirty years." So it will be known long after my landlord and I and a dozen more chicken-neckers have come and gone.

With a sweep of her hand, Miss Pauline pointed out my neighbors: "Over there is my sister Emily's house — she kept boarders for years; she's ninety-four. Your landlord has it now, but I don't like the cut of his jib. Across from me is Miss Ethel — she was born on Poplar Island. She's ninety-four, too. Born two days before my sister. Across from you is Miss Mary. She's just a kid" — meaning, I think, that she was under eighty. "Behind her is Pete Sweitzer — he's the skipjack Hilda Willing, I guess you know." Beyond the houses lay Dogwood Harbor. From my bedroom window, I would be able to watch the skipjacks come and go.

"Pete was one of my boys," said Miss Pauline. "I taught just about all the boys on this island." By "boys" she meant her favorites: the captains of the skipjack fleet — for the most part, sons of other captains, the island elite. "I had my hands full, keeping them from climbing trees, pretending they were up the mast of some drudge boat," she scoffed. "And now you are up on the roof!" Miss Pauline asked me if I had been sailing with Pete, but I told her my crewing had been limited to the Murphys and Larrimores.

"Wadey," she jumped in, "was a shy child. We couldn't keep him in school. He ran away so that he wouldn't have to attend first grade. By noon, the darling returned home. His mother took him in, but he cried and cried. Next day I took him to the head of the class and held him in my lap while he wept in front of all the other children. He just about stopped bawling, when I said, 'Now, Wadey, don't you want to cry some more for the other children?' And that made him cry all over again, until all his tears were gone. He came into school each day after that."

Miss Pauline completed her circle and her commentary on the neighborhood. "And my little house," she said, turning around, "was built in Aunt Vesta's vegetable garden in 1928 by my father." The white bungalow cost $500, she told me — $100 to Aunt Vesta for the lot and $400 for the lumber, which her father had left over from a bugeye to build his daughter and her husband, Wes, a home.

"Now remember all that," she said. "There will be a quiz. And stay off that roof." Suddenly, she stood up and announced she would go home and bake me an apple cobbler, the first of many. I'd be working up an appetite with all this heavy lifting, she said, so I'd better not balk. In forty minutes I had been chastised, informed, and adopted as a surrogate grandson, and been told, in gestures universal and maternal, it was pointless to resist.

LATE THAT EVENING, while I was unpacking a box of books, there was a sharp rap on the windowpane of the back door. Wadey Murphy stepped into the kitchen, then straddled the open door of the living room where I sat. He filled the space, his white hat tilted far back on his head, nearly touching the top of the doorframe. His broad shoulders were clad in a white T-shirt, which was tucked neatly around his thin waist. He leaned forward on the balls of his feet, as if permanently braced against the wind. Wadey looked awkward without a deck under his feet.

"Honey, welcome to Tilghman's," he said. This traditional salutation between men on the island was a little disconcerting the first time I heard it. Murphy surveyed the room, stepping over a box on his way to the northwest window. He looked out. "Honey, you know Miss Pauline?" he asked, turning around. "She loved me so much that she kept me back in first grade twice." He smiled. "She didn't want to see me graduate to the next teacher."

I told him Miss Pauline had already promised me an apple cobbler. "Did you bring her some apples?" he laughed. I didn't yet get the joke.

"What're ya doing tomorrow?" Wadey said next. He took off his hat briefly and wiped his brow. I felt a proposition coming on. The hat went back on, even farther back on his head than before. "Got any plans?"

I offered that I was pretty free.

"You want to come dragging with me? I need a man. It pays seventy-five dollars for the day."

I said that would be fine, but I didn't know what dragging was.

"Bagless drudging," Wadey explained. "It's like orstering, except we carry no chain bag in the drudge. We drag over the orster bars to clean 'em up — scrape the silt off — so the new orster spat can attach to the bar after spawning. If you don't use it, you lose it. We have to work these bars to keep 'em living. With all those farms upstream washing their topsoil into the Bay, we have plenty of sediment to scour from the rock."

That silt and other pollutants, such as an overdose of nutrients, bring on stress for the oyster and other Bay species. Nitrates and phosphates from fertilizers, agricultural waste, and sewage treatment plants stimulate algal blooms that prevent sunlight from reaching submerged aquatic vegetation, a valuable habitat for blue crabs. While phytoplankton is the main food source for oysters, not all isconsumed. A surfeit of dead algae chokes deep-channel oyster beds, turning the surrounding waters anoxic — devoid of oxygen. These deepwater reefs, in turn, die off. The onslaught of pollution is staggering. Nearly 5 million tons of sediment wash into the basin each year, an assault three times precolonial levels, thanks to the clear-cutting of forests. Over 303 million pounds of nitrogen and 20 million pounds of phosphorus are also introduced, mostly from human activity. When the wastewater streams from the Bay's three hundred sewage treatment plants and power plants are summed, their combined flow makes up the fourth largest tributary to the Chesapeake, just short of the Susquehanna, Potomac, and James. The result is a cloudy, oxygen-deprived estuary — abused and neglected and begging for rescue.

Thanks to a startling statistic, oysters may offer one of the best remedies to nutrient and sediment overload: Each oyster pumps up to two gallons of water through its gills every hour. Before the 1870s, the enormous colonies of oysters recycled the entire 18 trillion gallons of the Bay in just a few days, filtering out sediments, consuming algae, and depositing nutrient-rich waste on the bottom. The clean water of those years sponsored prodigious growth of submerged grasses and deepwater reefs. Today, however, with diminished oyster stocks, it takes more than a year to filter and recycle the water of the Bay. The expected benefits of a renewed oyster population — as filters and habitat — gave Wadey and the other watermen an added incentive for replenishing the reefs.

To this end, oyster renewal requires a three-pronged effort. Besides spatting and dragging, the third prong in the forty-plus-year replenishment initiative has been the planting of old oyster shells — 2 to 5 million bushels a year — on seed areas and commercial beds, to give oyster larvae even more hard substrate, or "cultch," on which to better bond and grow. Oysters spawn at least three times over the summer; each time the resulting free-floating larvae wander for up to sixteen days until they encounter suitable oyster grounds, at which point they adhere in a matter of hours to either the natural bed or to cultch placed by resource managers. In years past, freshly shucked shell from oyster packers had been used as cultch, but with Maryland shucking houses closing down and canning shifting to Virginia, the state now planted mostly fossil oyster shell dug from deposits in the northern Bay. Now, here in May, a month before the first spawning, shell plantings should already be under way to lay the groundwork for spat, but the barges were empty. The state was consistently late, usually spreading shell around July Fourth and sometimes burying seed. The watermen looked to bagless dredging as the only guarantee that a few bars would offer a clean surface for larvae in June.

"Meet me at Gary's at six A.M.," Wadey said. "We'll go from thar. And pack some sandwiches. We're not cooking anymore aboard Rebecca." He started for the front door, then caught himself and turned around to exit through the kitchen. It's an island superstition, I would learn later, that you must exit a house through the same door you enter. And there was nobody more superstitious than Wade Murphy. I wondered how many other doors he had passed through twice in search of crew that evening — before settling on mine, the greenest door on the island.

GARY'S STORE WAS brightly lit well before dawn the next morning. Known as Fairbank Tackle to outsiders, the store sat next to Tongers Basin, a cove off of Knapps Narrows, providing gas and merchandise to watermen. When I arrived, over two dozen pickup trucks were parked in double rows in front. Gary's was the local gathering place. It opened at 5:00 A.M. all year long, when men crowded into the store for coffee and conversation, to hire crews, and to argue over politics, perceived slights, and the price of seafood.


Excerpted from Skipjack by Christopher White. Copyright © 2009 Christopher White. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Christopher White has written several books and has had articles appear in National Geographic, Exploration, and many other publications.

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