by Jake Solyst
April 29, 2021
The Chesapeake Bay is home to a diverse cast of boats, many of which are so unique to the area that you won’t find them in any other region. For centuries, different vessels have been invented to suit the needs of fisherman, explorers, athletes, scientists and anyone else taking to the water on a regular basis. Though some might be remnants of a bygone era, these 11 iconic watercraft have sealed themselves into the culture and history of the Chesapeake.
Recognized as the Bay’s first workboat, log canoes once filled the estuary as watermen sailed about in search of fish and shellfish. They are usually made from three to five hollowed out logs that are fastened together and shaped into a hull—a simple but effective design based on similar boats built by the Powhatan Indians. One or two large masts jut out from the center of the boat, and sails capture the wind and use it as a propellant. Most log canoes that exist today have been retired from their working lives and are instead sailed in novelty races.
Up until the early 1800’s, oyster dredging was banned in the Bay, so oystermen relied on log canoes to navigate the waters and used oyster tongs to snag the popular bivalve. When bans began to lift, a new type of boat was needed to be powerful enough to haul a dredge but lean enough to navigate shallow waters where oysters are found. Thus spawned the bugeye, a unique Chesapeake Bay invention used in early oyster dredging until it was replaced by the cheaper, but just as effective, skipjack.
In the late 19th century, the skipjack—a popular work boat for watermen—saw a production boom as the Maryland oyster harvest reached an all-time peak of 15 million bushels. But as the Bay’s oyster population steadily declined, so did its skipjack fleet. There are 35 skipjacks left in the Bay region, many of them used for educational purposes (like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s skipjack, Stanley Norman). The skipjack is as unique a Chesapeake boat as you’ll find—so much so that the state of Maryland named the skipjack its official state boat in 1985. All throughout Maryland’s Eastern Shore, you’ll find skipjack races being held.
Skiffs are shallow, flat-bottomed boats recognizable by their sharp bow and square stern. These watercraft are made to move through tight tributaries and along the coastal areas of the Bay. While they can be used as workboats, skiffs are typically used for recreational fishing and other leisurely outings.
The official boat of Virginia, the deadrise is a traditional work boat used by watermen to catch blue crabs, fish and oysters. The vessel is marked by a sharp bow that expands down the hull into a large V shape and a square stern. This was developed to help the boat navigate the Chesapeake’s choppy waters. The deadrise is said to be an evolution of the skipjack, and at times is considered something of an ugly but effective sibling.
Restoring an ecosystem as complex as the one in the Bay watershed requires constant monitoring and assessment. Research vessels like the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s (UMCES) R/V Rachel Carson travels around the Bay collecting data on water quality, flora and fauna to help scientists gain a better understanding about how to improve restoration efforts. The vessel can support up to 28 people, including crew for daily operations, while 13 people can be accommodated for multi-day excursions.
Schooners are sailing ships with two or more masts. They have a long history in the mid-Atlantic as workboats for the watermen who made their living harvesting oysters, blue crabs and fish from the Bay. In October, schooners can be seen racing 146 miles down the Bay from Annapolis, Maryland, to Hampton Roads, Virginia, as a part of the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race. This race was started to draw attention to the Bay’s heritage and to support environmental education and restoration work.
The sport of rowing, often referred to as crew, is a popular pastime for many who live in the watershed. Rowing clubs such as the Eastern Shore Community Rowers, Chester River Rowing Club and the Central PA Rowing Association all exist in the watershed, while many of the region’s colleges and universities support competitive crew teams. While racing, athletes sit with their backs to the bow of the racing shell and face the stern, using oars to propel the boat forward in one unified team.
The shipping industry has been critical to the mid-Atlantic economy since the colonial era when the region first started serving as a bridge between the northern and southern United States. In fact, the Bay is home to two of the country’s five major North Atlantic ports: Baltimore, Maryland, and Hampton Roads, Virginia. Carho ships were created to transport large amounts of commodities and can range in size and capacity from several hundred tons to several hundred thousand tons.
You’d be hard pressed to find any buyboats out on the water today, but there was a time when you couldn’t toss an oyster shell without hitting one. Like the same suggests, buyboats were used to sail out on the water, buy oysters from watermen in the wintertime, and haul them back to shore to sell. During the summer, they were used to haul all kinds of heavy materials used by watermen and merchants.
Menhaden steam ships
Menhaden steam ships have a complicated history. Before we knew how endangered and important to the food chain menhaden were, fishermen harvested them relentlessly, making the menhaden steam ships they piloted a well-known vessel. These ships are no longer used but are fondly remembered by many in the Chesapeake region for their bombastic appearance and the great plumes of smoke that marked their presence.
Want to learn more about the Chesapeake Bay? Visit our History page to read all about the region’s earliest inhabitants.