Soundings - - Contents - STORY AND PHO­TOS BY JAY FLEM­ING

Skip­jacks and buy­boats have been the quin­tes­sen­tial work­boats of Ch­e­sa­peake Bay wa­ter­men for decades.



T he skip­jack work­boat was de­vel­oped in the late 1800s as the suc­ces­sor to the larger schooner- style bugeyes that were used to har­vest oys­ters un­der sail in the 19th cen­tury. Skip­jacks are smaller, more ma­neu­ver­able and are able to work in shal­lower water than their pre­de­ces­sors.

Skip­jacks were only per­mit­ted to dredge for oys­ters un­der sail in Mary­land wa­ters un­til the law was changed in the 1960s. The change in leg­is­la­tion al­lowed Mary­land boats to dredge un­der power with the as­sis­tance of a “yawl,” or push boat, two days a week. Skip­jacks are per­mit­ted to sail-dredge the other three days of the week. To­day, it is rare that cap­tains want to sail-dredge with crews that are un­fa­mil­iar with sail­ing.

Cur­rently skip­jacks are per­mit­ted to har­vest 150 bushels per day off pub­lic oys­ter grounds, more than any other method of har­vest. There are roughly 15 work­ing skip­jacks left on the Bay, with the num­ber slowly in­creas­ing, as more wa­ter­men are restor­ing the iconic sail­ing ves­sels. Skip­jacks were des­ig­nated as the state boat of Mary­land in 1985.


I n the past, buy­boats were the main con­nec­tion be­tween oys­ter har­vesters and shuck­ing houses. Buy­boats pur­chased oys­ters on the water from the work­boats and trans­ported them to the shuck­ing houses. The de­vel­op­ment of ef­fi­cient truck­ing and trans­porta­tion made buy­boats some­what ob­so­lete. Trucks were less ex­pen­sive to op­er­ate and main­tain than 60-plus-foot wooden boats. Now most wa­ter­men un­load their oys­ters di­rectly into trucks that are sent to buy prod­uct by the shuck­ing houses.

Many Ch­e­sa­peake buy­boats have been con­verted to crab-dredg­ing boats that work Delaware Bay, to plea­sure craft and to shell-mov­ing boats. How­ever, there is still one buy­boat on the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay that lives up to its name.

The Delvin K, owned and op­er­ated by Tang­ier Is­land water­man Jerry Pruitt, is still work­ing as a tra­di­tional buy­boat. Jerry and his crew un­load oys­ters from the Tang­ier power dredge fleet onto the deck of the Delvin K. The boat can safely hold 400 to 500 bushels of oys­ters.

Jerry then hauls the oys­ters across the Bay to Reedville, Vir­ginia — a 10-mile trip one way. In Reedville, a buyer from a shuck­ing house meets the buy­boat, and the oys­ters are un­loaded to a truck. It takes six to 10 la­bor­ers the bet­ter part of an hour to un­load the oys­ters. Jerry col­lects pay­ment from the shuck­ing houses for the oys­ters and charges the wa­ter­men $4 per bushel for haul­ing and sell­ing the oys­ters. The re­mote lo­ca­tion of Tang­ier is keep­ing the tra­di­tion of the buy­boat alive on the Ch­e­sa­peake.


B oats work­ing on the Bay are sub­jected to harsh weather con­di­tions and abuse from fish­ing gear. Proper main­te­nance will help wa­ter­men keep their boats safe and re­li­able. As with any piece of equip­ment used for work, con­tin­u­ous main­te­nance can be costly, and in some cases, re­place­ment is the most cost-ef­fec­tive op­tion.

Mod­ern work­boats are con­structed from a mix of wood, fiber­glass and epoxy resin. The de­vel­op­ment of hulls built of fiber­glass caused more wa­ter­men to opt out of us­ing 100 per- cent wooden boats. Wooden boats are more prone to de­te­ri­o­ra­tion and re­quire more main­te­nance. Fiber­glass boats, too, will re­quire main­te­nance but will out­last a wooden boat.

New con­struc­tion of a 38-plus-foot work­boat, fiber­glass over wood plank­ing, will range in cost from $ 30,000 to $ 100,000, de­pend­ing on the rig­ging. A new en­gine costs an av­er­age of $ 25,000. Con­struct­ing and main­tain­ing a work­boat is an ex­pen­sive part of seafood pro­duc­tion that is in­vis­i­ble to many con­sumers.

Start of the an­nual skip­jack race held on La­bor Day week­end, Deal Is­land, Mary­land.

Crewmem­bers load the Delvin K with oys­ters from work­boats that power-dredge in Tang­ier Sound.

Lu­cas Lit­tlepage puts a top­coat on Last One, the boat his fa­ther, Mil­lard (be­low), built for him.

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