An overcast sky wept misty tears on me as I idled a 15-foot garvey out of a private dock in Grasonville, Maryland. I planned to explore parts of Prospect Bay’s shoreline, but a waterman’s Chesapeake Bay deadrise workboat rounded the point just north of Parsons Island and glided across my course, dry stacks barking the patois of a big-block V-8. All thoughts of exploration vanished.
About 40 feet long, narrow for her length and finished in flat white, the boat’s forefoot, sharp as a meat slicer, carved a clean trough into the bay’s choppy waters (see our extra photo gallery here). The bow wave curled like a slice of bologna, tumbled back to the surface and vanished into one of the flattest wakes I’d ever seen. She made 10 knots, maybe 12, and the bay quickly absorbed all record of her passing. A tall, angular deckhouse sprouted from the forward third of the boat, and the open cockpit stretched from the house to the transom, interrupted by only the engine box and the culling board. The freeboard seemed impossibly low by the standards of ordinary pleasure boats, but this characteristic allows the waterman to work his tongs by hand from the wide washboards. A successful day of tonging would have filled a lot of this open space with a mound of oysters, but today she was empty. The owner relaxed at the starboard-side helm console, his fingers loosely wrapped around the fore-and-aft tiller.
Deadrise motor-workboats and their modern recreational descendants evolved directly from the sailing skipjacks of the late 19th century. Skipjacks are remarkably elegant, V-bottom, shallow-draft workboats, rigged with a leg-o-mutton (triangular) mainsail and small jib. Watermen developed the skipjack in response to the forces of supply and demand in the businesses of oystering and crabbing. These boats were relatively easy and economical to build, could carry a great load and were powerful enough to tow a dredge — characteristics that addressed the inadequacies of the log canoes, log-bottom brogans and bugeyes that watermen employed earlier in the century.
A great many watermen built boats for themselves, and when one of them produced a particularly handsome and able craft, his cronies often asked that he duplicate the model for them. That’s how oyster fishermen and crabbers became boatbuilders. These watermen/boatbuilders didn’t know how to draw plans and make offsets. They simply built boats by eye, maybe carving a model before laying the keel.