Featured Tour

Eastern Shore Boatbuilding (Driving Tour)

The Bay’s own diverse character helped create its array of indigenous craft. Native Americans hewed and burned dugout canoes. Oystermen at the turn of the century needed boats that could hold tons of oysters and still fly to market to get the best price, so the sailing log canoe came into being. Bugeyes and then skipjacks evolved to dredge oysters, and buyboats were built to buy the catch on the spot, then carry it to market.

Crabbers developed the Chesapeake Bay deadrise for their task while other builders created boats just for the fun of racing. Crab scrapes, pungy schooners, Potomac River dories, Hooper Island draketails, Smith Island netting skiffs are just some other examples of Bay vessels. The list is long, revealing the Bay’s own astonishing breadth. Boats are the Bay’s workhorses. Without them, there would be no watermen, no crabs on the table, no log canoes spreading sails against a bright blue sky.

This tour lets visitors see traditional log canoes under sail, watch shipwrights teach boatbuilding skills, and take a cruise on a skipjack.

Total mileage: 26 (one way)
Total travel time: 35 minutes

Stop 1: A Fleet of Bay Boats

Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum

Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum
St. Michaels, MD 21663

When this museum opened in May 1965, one of the guests of honor was the oyster schooner J.T. Leonard. Built in 1882 on nearby Taylors Island, the Leonard was an oyster dredging boat whose owner loaned her to the museum during the off season. This museum’s founding goal was to preserve traditional Bay boats. Its collection today of more than 80 boats thoroughly illustrates Bay boatbuilders’ diversity and ingenuity. Perhaps its most lovely boat is the Edna F. Lockwood, a National Historic Landmark that is the last sailing log-bottom bugeye. The museum also has two racing log canoes, distant cousins of the Edna F. Lockwood. Originally built to sail oysters quickly to market, racing these boats was probably inevitable. Today, a fleet of about a dozen log canoes, some of them over 100 years old, continues this tradition. You can watch their spectacular passage on the racecourse from the museum’s waterfront.

The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum is one of the premier museums focusing on the history and traditions of the Chesapeake Bay. Located on 18 acres fronting the Miles River, the complex houses examples of historic bay working boats, numerous exhibits, guns, decoys, ship models and the 1879 Hooper Strait Lighthouse. An array of interactive programs, workshops and lectures are offered throughout the year.

Stop 2: A Bay Boatbuilding School

Richardson Maritime Museum

401 High Street
Cambridge, MD 21613

Passing on the Bay’s traditional boatbuilding methods remains a challenge. This museum recently christened its new waterfront building, named for a local shipwright, the late “Mr. Jim” Richardson. The new building houses the museum’s collection of models, boatbuilding tools and dredging equipment, and tells the story of the builders who thrived in Dorchester County.

It’s also home to Ruark Boatworks, where master builders and shipwrights will teach apprentices traditional boatbuilding skills. A sail-training program will explain the intricacies of how to sail traditional Bay boats. Coming here you will be able to watch builders as they work on the unique horizontal planking of a Bay deadrise, or carefully restore an indigenous Bay sailing skiff. The results of their efforts will be new boats, as well as restorations of the older boats that once worked the Bay.

Stop 3: Building a New Skipjack

Nathan of Dorchester

Long Wharf
Docks at Cambridge, MD 21613

In the skipjacks’ heydey, when it seemed the oysters would never run out, hundreds of boats sailed daily from Cambridge. At the turn of the century you could nearly walk across Cambridge Creek on the skipjacks and buyboats tied up to offload oysters and take on supplies.

This is part of the story that a group of Cambridge residents wanted to tell when they asked local boatbuilder Harold Ruark to design a new skipjack. Ruark’s family has been building boats in Dorchester County for generations. He based the Nathan of Dorchester on a skipjack his great-grandfather had built. Using traditional methods, volunteers built the skipjack on the waterfront and launched her in 1994. She may well be the last of her type to be built from scratch on the Bay. It’s about a 40-minute drive from St. Michaels to a cruise on the Choptank River aboard the Nathan.

Kate Marks Hardy

Kate is a visual information specialist at the National Park Service Chesapeake Bay office in Annapolis.

December 5, 2016

Main image: Nathan of Dorchester
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