Nothing says Chesapeake Bay like a skipjack, with its distinctive profile and raked rig. These days skipjacks are romanticized, but for a long time they were simply hardworking boats linked to watermen’s traditional way of life. Minnie V. is among the last of the breed, a regional treasure with a quirky history.
The waterman’s life always had plenty of allure. Pretty morning light and the slap of gentle waves on the hull were just the beginning. Making a satisfying lick, as men called each pass with the oyster dredge, paid the bills. In close quarters, with skipjacks tacking and gybing to stay over productive bottom, dredging could be downright exciting. Skilled watermen were rightfully proud of their local knowledge. And they were part of something bigger: a universe of watermen and their kin, connected to their quarry of oysters, crabs and fish. But it was never easy.
Almost 2,000 skipjacks may have been built on the Bay, nearly all for dredging oysters under sail. No one knows exactly how many are left, though Cyndy Carrington Miller, who runs The Last Skipjacks Project, believes there are about 45. Some are wrecks, others museum exhibits, yet others recently built pleasure boats, and 15 or so are dredging. Skipjacks have a lot of sail. Pay out the mainsheet, put the breeze on the quarter, and those old boats will really move. But they weren’t designed for speed. They spent their days scraping iron dredges across oyster bars, propelled by sail alone. Stout teeth on the dredge dislodged the oysters, which fell into a chain bag. It was heavy work. Skipjacks’ distinctive rig on a hard-chine vee-bottom was designed for power.
Minnie V. has done a little bit of everything. John B. Vetra built Minnie in Wenona, on Maryland’s Deal Island, in 1906, naming her after his wife. Today, Minnie is dredging each winter from Deal Island. Capt. Stoney Whitelock is the most recent in a long chain of individuals who have cast their lot with Minnie V.
“I was born and raised in this area,” he says, describing himself as a fifth-generation waterman. “And my sons are sixth generation,” he says. “It’s in our blood.”
Whitelock recently brought Minnie home from Baltimore, where she had been since the early 1970s, running harbor tours and school programs. “We put it back to oystering,” he says proudly. “We got it in right good shape.”
On Minnie’s best day this season, Whitelock’s crew harvested 34 bushels. That helped compensate for the winter’s nasty weather, when they lost four weeks on account of ice. The bottom line, he says, is that “she is paying her way, and I am tickled about that.”
Minnie V.’s career began with Capt. Charles Middleton of Smith Island. He commenced dredging oysters with her in 1907, when oystering was big business on the Bay. He operated her until 1944, selling her to his son, Willie, who ran Minnie V. for 10 more years. In those days, the boats had a gasoline engine on deck, powering a winch called a winder, and one dredge on each side. They dredged from the windward side. Interviewed in 1996 at age 90, Willie said that Minnie’s record haul of oysters totaled 250 bushels in one day, taken off Poplar Island in the upper Bay. She would have staggered under the load.
No skipjacks had engines. For decades they could legally dredge only under sail. Yet most carried a motorized push boat. The push boat’s prow fit into a jig on the skipjacks’s transom, and it pivoted there on a short tether. Skippers could legally push out to the grounds if the breeze was not fair. They could push home. To dredge, however, the push boat had to be hauled. Maryland changed the law in 1967, allowing boats to dredge under power two days a week. After that, many captains dredged while pushing two days a week, and sail-dredged the other three.
As time passed, oysters got scarce, and crews aged. Fewer captains bothered to dredge on sailing days. Today, no sail dredging takes place. Ironically, skipjacks are the last fleet of working sailboats in America, but none of the working boats are sailing. Some don’t even have sails anymore. A handful of captains would like the state to designate some bottom for sail-dredging only. Minny V. has sails, and Captain Whitelock would like to sail dredge, if he can.
For 64 years, Minnie V. worked under owner-operators from Smith Island and Deal Island. Primarily a dredge boat, she made occasional off-season forays, carrying cargo or fishing. Skipjacks like Minnie were central to the Bay’s 20th century maritime culture, linking contemporary watermen to the ways of the past.
Things changed in 1970. The city of Baltimore purchased Minnie V. for $8,200 to berth the old skipjack in the new Inner Harbor as a floating exhibit during the summer. Heritage tourism was growing. Each fall, she would return to the Eastern Shore to dredge, managed by Capt. Irwin Drummer, who lived near Kent Island. That worked until 1975, when Minnie caught fire. It looked like the end. Drummer towed her into a marsh to die, the historic destiny of most wooden workboats once they had outlived their usefulness.
Heritage is often a powerful hook. In this case Baltimore officials decided Minnie V. was too precious to lose. Grant writers secured funding from the National Trust for Historic Preservation for a total rebuild. Melbourne Smith, who had built the clipper schooner Pride of Baltimore, got the job. Smith’s crew rebuilt Minnie V. in a shipyard near the Maryland Science Center, and in a t wo-for-one move, they simultaneously built a sister ship, the Anna McGarvey.
Rebuilt, repainted and ready to go, Minnie V. was certified in 1983 by the Coast Guard to carry passengers for hire. By then the old boat was more valuable promoting the Bay’s heritage than harvesting its seafood. The city turned over the vessel to the Maryland Historical Society under a long-term charter agreement, with the understanding that Minnie would carry tourists in the harbor during summers but return to Harrison’s Chesapeake House at Tilghman Island in the winters to dredge. Maybe she could do it all.
The historical society turned to retired editor Bob Keith to manage the boat. It seemed an unlikely choice. Though Keith had an affinity for old wooden vessels, which he called “historic treasures of Maryland,” he was not a mariner and had never run a boat business. Never mind: He cared about historic skipjacks, and he knew Baltimore
Harbor’s history inside and out. His timing was perfect. The market for heritage tourism kept growing. Keith created Ocean World Institute in 1983 to offer public tours and programs for the historical society aboard
Minnie V. His enthusiasm was contagious. For the first time, large numbers of people could experience her charms under sail.
For four summers beginning in 1986, I skippered Minnie V. for Ocean World Institute. At the end of each winter, the dredge gear and engine would be stripped off, the boat cleaned and painted, park benches for tourists bolted down, and life jacket boxes secured on deck. We tucked the first reef into the mainsail to conform to Coast Guard stability requirements, and we were ready to go.
Minnie had an authenticity that no other tour boat could match, and we ran her seven days a week. Berthed in the Inner Harbor, we rarely got beyond the Francis Scott Key Bridge, but there was always something to see and stories to tell about the changing nature of the waterfront and watermen.
I was new to push boats but quickly grasped how they could increase maneuverability in tight quarters compared to a conventional single-screw inboard. The push boat never steered. We steered with the skipjack’s rudder. But the push boat had a line from each quarter cleat back to Minnie. To get off the face of a dock, for instance, I could haul one of those lines to pull the boat away from the skipjack and then go astern with the push boat engine. It was a cranky old V-8 car engine converted to marine use, with horsepower to spare. Oriented like that, it would pull us smartly away from the dock.
Chesapeake Appreciation Days, with skipjack races at Sandy Point State Park, were a high point each fall. The event attracted “family boats” (skipjacks built as pleasure craft), workboats and hybrids like Minnie V. The rivalry was intense but friendly. Later each fall, we sailed Minnie back to Tilghman Island, where Capt. John Motovidliac was dredging her. Gross revenues from dredging in the 1985-86 season were $81,400, a tidy sum. But by 1992-93, revenues had fallen to $18,228, and dredging was no longer worthwhile. Disease had ravaged oyster beds, already depleted by overfishing, and watermen were having a hard time making ends meet. It looked like Minnie V. would spend the rest of her days as a tour boat.
In 1996, the Ocean World Institute transferred management and care of Minnie V. to the Living Classrooms Foundation in Baltimore. It oversaw replacing the transom. Within a year, my brother, Pete Bolster, was the foundation’s fleet captain. As relief skipper on Minnie, he ran school trips and harbor tours. Like watermen of old, he found that rot never sleeps. He replaced much of Minnie’s deck and rebuilt the cabins, the pushboat and the centerboard trunk. Minnie V. is 112 years old and scrupulously accurate, but there’s not much original material left in her.
The Living Classrooms Foundation ran Minnie V. for 20 years. On weekends and holidays, she continued to carry tourists out of the Inner Harbor. The foundation’s primary focus, however, was hands-on marine education programs for schoolchildren, with an emphasis on at-risk youth. Lisa Jones, director of shipboard education, says a five-hour trip consisted of environmental science and Bay history, “with a good dose of practical navigation and seamanship.”
Students took turns steering. They helped set and strike sail. Once each trip, they deployed a bottom trawl to sample benthic marine life — though in Baltimore Harbor, oozy black mud was more prominent than squirming creatures. Kids also towed a plankton net and used microscopes to examine plankton. Minnie had become a school ship.
Ultimately, the foundation recognized that Minnie V. was too small to carry the large classes that have become prevalent on field trips today. Luckily, Whitelock wanted to buy the old boat in 2016 and put her back to work. He thinks oysters are making a comeback.
It seemed fitting that Minnie V. would be dredging once again at Deal Island, where she began. In 2017, her builder’s great-great granddaughter, Carlie Bozman, won the Miss Skipjack pageant on Deal Island. She says she is proud to be descended from the man who built what she calls “the beautiful skipjack” Minnie V.
This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue.