Chesapeake Bay Skipjacks

My fascination for oysters didn’t kick in until I moved to Hatteras Island. Starting out, times were tough financially, but it was a worthwhile tradeoff for the experiences in store for me. Back then you could walk the shore of the Pamlico Sound and get all the oysters you wanted for great meal. I remember picking them with Larry Midgett and some of the other locals, and it became one of my favorite things to do.


Larry Midgett, Tim Merritt and “Big Leroy” picking some oysters in a creek in 1974. Today this creek on Hatteras Island doesn’t produce much anymore.


In the early 80’s, I began going to Easton, MD to participate in a photography exhibit at the popular Waterfowl Festival. During the show in 1981, an acquaintance that I knew through surfing the Delaware shore told me that he was dredging oysters on the Chesapeake Bay Skipjack, Stanley Norman. He invited me out for a sail, so once the festival was over, I took Trent Palmer up on his offer. The wind was light, and so was the oyster catching, but I knew right then that I wanted to spend some more time photographing the only commercial fishing boats in the United States still using sail power. The next day, I returned to Hatteras to resume my life there, still thinking about the skipjacks.


Trent Palmer out on the bowsprit of Stanley Norman furling the jib in November of 1981.


Later that winter, Trent told me about a couple of boats that had openings for crew members. So I drove to Tilghman Island to see about working on a Chesapeake Bay Skipjack. My intention as a budding photographer was to shoot some of these historical workboats under sail. The only way I could do so, was to seek employment to pay my way. I was a little nervous at first, but once I stepped aboard the Virginia W in the predawn hours, I met Tim Stearns, the owner and captain of the 1902 built skipjack. He didn’t fit the mold of what I expected from a typical sea captain. From the very beginning, he was welcoming, kind, didn’t shout at the crew, and we became very good friends. I was also impressed that this young man of small stature had bought this rotten, derelict boat, and restored it nearly singlehandedly in about a years time. It became a very seaworthy workboat and had a new life once again.



Virginia W in port at Tilghman Island rafted up to the Anna McGarvey as ice flows through Knapps Narrows. According to records at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, she was built in Oriole, Maryland in 1902, and is 44 feet in length.



Captain Tim Stearns is at the helm of Virginia W near the mouth of the Choptank River.



Me the “greenhorn” after a good day of working a muddy bottom. Tim asked me to hand him my camera to take this shot. Then I reciprocated and took his picture amid 120 bushels of oysters. We had a good hard working crew, and I dredged aboard Virginia W for the better part of 2 winters, always with my waterproof Nikonos camera close by to catch those magnificent boats sailing by.




With the Chesapeake Bay Bridge behind us, I jumped out on the bowsprit of the Virginia W to make this photograph while we sailed into Annapolis. We spent the night on board there with 100 bushels on deck.


Leigh Hunteman handles the bow line of  Virginia W to shovel out at the dock on Tilghman Island. Leigh later became the only female captain of a skipjack by running the Sigsbee.  



The Stanley Norman was built in Salisbury, MD in 1902 and is 47 feet long at the waterline. Here owner/captain Ed Farley steers her over an oyster bed.



Sigsbee at 47 feet was built at Deal Island in 1901. Here she pulls dredges under full sail, with Captain Wade Murphy at the helm.



The skipjack Kathryn at 50 feet, was built in Crisfield, Maryland in 1901. Her bottom is planked fore and aft with rounded chines, rather than the typical herring bone, hard chined bottoms of most skipjacks. Here she flies by us pulling both dredges, 4 reefs in the mainsail, with captain and owner Russell Dize at the helm.



After a day out on the water, Captain Darryl Larrimore guides the 42 foot Claude W. Somers back to port powered by the yawl boat. She was built in 1911. Part of the history of this skipjack is tragic. In 1977, she went to the bottom in a storm near Crisfield, taking all of the 6 crew with her.



This stern view shows the Kathryn as she follows a path cut by a state ice-breaker in order to get back to port. The temperature was 10 degrees and the ice a foot thick. My feet were still cold despite felt-lined work boots and 2 pair of socks. This was one of the last days of my experience on Chesapeake Bay Skipjacks. Thus ended my career as an oysterman.

22 thoughts on “Chesapeake Bay Skipjacks

  1. Ken Smith

    great post
    would love to see more of the skipjack photos
    Claude W Somers is owned by the Reedville fishermen museum now.
    Ken Smith, President
    Virginia State Waterman’s Association

  2. j0jgvm89bj Post author

    Thank you, Ken. It seems I need to correct my spelling of the Claude W Somers. It is my understanding that Virginia W now belongs to a museum in Kinsale, Virginia.
    As for more skipjack photos, I hope to self-publish a book about my experience on Virginia W. So far, the concept is still in the early stages.

    3 weeks ago, I received some very bad news. My close friend, Captain Tim Stearns was killed in a motorcycle accident in Connecticut. He was 55 years old, and had been sailing for the past 10 years throughout Norway and Europe in a schooner that he built at Tilghman Island. He was a modern day adventurer, and is sorely missed.

  3. Margaret Anne

    Beautiful photos, Michael. Looking forward to reading the full story but will pass this one on to a friend here in Arizona who grew up in NC.

  4. Susan West

    Lo and behold – I just returned home to Hatteras Island from a visit to Maryland that included a little time at our family’s summer house on Black Walnut Point on Tilghman Island. When we were kids, about four or five skipjacks anchored up in Barney’s Cove for the summer months – more than once my brothers and I climbed aboard one of the boats and pretended to be pirates.

  5. Lacy

    Pretty good post. I just stumbled upon your site and wanted to say
    that I’ve really liked reading your posts. Any way
    I’ll be subscribing to your blog and I hope you write again soon!

  6. j0jgvm89bj Post author

    Your comment hit me pretty hard. I remember originally hearing the story of the Claud W Somers and her unfortunate crew. It put shivers down my spine, and made me feel very vulnerable, whenever I was out working on that bitter cold water. My heart goes out to you for your loss.

  7. sarah

    The pictures of the Sigsbee are very good. My great great grandfather built the Sigsbee and Geneva May. I would love to see any pics you have taken of the Sigsbee.

  8. ken

    Great to see these old photos..As I understand it and was told by the captain as crew in 1982 and 1983, this boat was built in Oriole, Md and not in Virginia. The boat was purchased off the botton from the widow of the captain and owner, by D.K Bond of Maryland in 1979.

    He served as a colorful and competent captain but was disdained by the Tilghman Island crowd (not an insider). Harrison bought our oysters reluctantly. The crew rented a house on Chicken Pt. Rd for a month or so. Rented it from a rock fisherman who died the next year along with 2 other relatives when he got caught in ice and was swamped. I believe his name was Buck.

    We had limited success traversing the bay from Baltimore to Solomons, off “7 foot knoll” down to “old rock” yet we all returned home safely each night.
    It was a beautiful experience.

    I also remember being shut in with ice for some 3 weeks one winter. The Governor issued an extension to the season. Not happy. I was tired.

  9. edward fairbanks sr

    I am looking for a photo of the “NORMAN T”. she is/was
    a buy boat on the chesepeak bay. I heard she was located at one time in the upper bay.
    Thanks ED

  10. Tom Pahl

    Michael, I was interested in your experience with skipjacks…what do you know of the skipjack history on Pamlico Sound? if you have any info or sources, would you be kind enough to email me? Thanks. Great photos…is there such a thing as a bad photo of a boat?

  11. j0jgvm89bj Post author

    I have not found many accounts of skipjacks in Pamlico Sound, only that they did exist there, especially in the late 1800’s when there was considerable tension concerning oyster dredgers coming in from other states, like Maryland and Virginia.

    The Mariners Museum in Beaufort may have more information on that topic. The last time I visited the museum, they had a nice exhibit with a picture of a dredge boat deckloaded with what appeared to be a few hundred bushels. I think the boat in the picture was a bugeye, rather than a skipjack.

    Let me know if you find any information, and I would be grateful.

  12. Jack Brown

    Great photos of the skipjacks at work only 6 went out this past season. I am currently tracking and photographing the remaing skipjacks, afloat and as on-shore exhibits. The Virginia W remains elusive but I think I will find her on the Northern Neck of VA this weekend. All of the boats in your photos are still afloat except the Anna McGarvey and she is on-shore at a museum on Kent Island

    As for North Carolina boats the skipjack Ida Mae, built in NC, is owned by Carolina Class Rooms and is a float.
    501 East Front Street
    New Bern, NC 28560
    (252) 638-7862


  13. j0jgvm89bj Post author

    I’ve often wondered how many boats still dredge from Tilghman. Some day I’ll go back to visit the area and see for myself.
    I did find out that Virginia W is owned by a preservation group in Kinsale, Virginia. Evidently they have done some hefty restoration work on it.
    Good luck in your skipjack quest. I am somewhat envious.
    Thanks for the info.

  14. Linda Benton

    Hello: Captain Paul Benton, Jr. (Junior Benton) was the owner and captain of the Geneva Mae back in the early 70s; in fact Mr. Benton died of a heart attack aboard the Geneva Mae. My goal is to find a photograph or drawing of this Skipjack for my children who are Mr. Benton’s grandchildren that unfortunately he never saw. He died at the age of 51. If you have any information or any photographs, please answer my email. I appreciate your assistance, Linda Benton

  15. Renee

    My Grandfather (Benjamin Eugene Rippons) owned the Virginia W. in the 50’s.. My mom seen this site and was so excited to call me about it. The man that first owned the boat gave my grandfather a model of the Skipjack (My mom has the model now).Her name is Marie R. Ashton. (Elizabeth City, N.C.)

  16. Dick Barnard

    Great pictures and wonderful dialogue. The Stanley Norman is owned by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and is generally at the City Dock in Annapolis for all to appreciate. In the winter she’s docked in Eastport at the Annapolis Meritime Museum on 2nd street.

  17. Claudia

    Just a correction – the Ida Mae is owned by the Gladden Brothers (Gordon & Elbert) She belonged to their father before that. She resides in the Deal Island Harbor, Maryland. The Ida Mae was restored at Scotts Cove Marina by the Gladden brothers over a period of three years. However, she was launched from Scotts Cove the end of summer 2011 and participated in the annual Skipjack Race held on Labor Day every year at the Deal Island-Chance Harbor.

  18. Dan Cox


    So glad I found your pictures just today it brings up so many good memories of the Virginia W. I was the first mate in her from 1983 to 1990 when Bobby Marshall bought the boat from Tim. Many stories were told about Tim that were very entertaining, he was one tough guy. It was a sad day when Bobby had sold the boat, hated to see it go but with the decline of the oysters Bobby had no choice than to sell her. Hit me on email if you would like to know anything else.

  19. Katarina Ennerfelt

    Thank you for interesting pictures and reading.

    The Kathryn is today owned by Captain “Stoney” Whitelock. She started leaking badly last year during the skipjack race at Deal Island. She is now in drydock at Scotts Cove marina and in the process of getting renovated. The project is estimated to take 2 years due to the unique structure.

    On the other hand, the Whitelock family bought another skipjack that is dredging oysters this season. She is called Hilda M Willing and built in 1905. She is owned and worked by Captain David Whitelock out of Deal Island.

    If you are interested in following the process on the Kathryn just let us know. We are trying to get the word out there to find support and volonteers.

    Katarina Ennerfelt

  20. Glenn Davis

    I’m looking for information on the “A. B. Benton” from Deale, Maryland. I have a sketch of a sailboat, whose frame was made from the deckhouse of this skipjack.
    Appreciate any help you could provide.

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