Sailing aboard the skipjack Claud W. Somers
by Larry Chowning
Chesapeake Bay skipjacks are the last commercial working sail-powered vessels in the United States. The skipjack Claud W. Somers is owned by the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum and used by the museum for charters.
The deadrise/V-bottom skipjack design came along in the 1880s as a result of a law passed by the State of Maryland restricting the dredging of oysters to sail-powered vessels.
When the law was passed, sailing craft such as schooners, sloops and bugeyes were abundant. The need, however, for a new type of vessel came about when the Bay’s deep-water oyster beds became depleted because of over harvesting.
The round-bilge, deep water draft schooners, sloops and bugeyes were unable to get in close enough to shore to work in shallow oyster grounds. The smaller, shallow draft skipjack was the answer to that dilemma and the skipjack style eventually took the place of schooners, sloops and bugeyes.
Hundreds of skipjacks were built and worked in Maryland’s oyster dredge fishery. Most were built on the Eastern Shore of Maryland but several were built in Reedville. The late C.H. (Herbert) Rice of Reedville built the City of Crisfield (1948); Somerset (1949); and Caleb W. Jones (1953). All three vessels are still going and the owners have commercial dredge licenses.
Realizing the areas cultural ties to the skipjack, the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum in Reedville in 2000 accepted the skipjack Claud W. Somers as a gift from the children of Alfred Garey Lambert of Towson, Maryland. Lambert had purchased the vessel in 1983 and labored for the next 17 years restoring and maintaining the vessel.
The Claud W. Somers was built in 1911 in Young’s Creek on Virginia’s Eastern Shore by boatbuilder W. Thomas Young of Parksley, Virginia. She was listed in 1985 on the National Register of Historic Places in Maryland and on Virginia Register of Historic Places in 2005.
The museum restored the vessel to meet U.S. Coast Guard requirements for a passenger vessel so visitors to the museum can experience sailing on a historic working sailing vessel.
In addition to her crew, the Somers is Coast Guard certified to carry 20 passengers. It is captained by Captain Gerhard J. Straub, a licensed master and it has a four-member volunteer crew trained to sail and in CPR and first aid.
A short trip
On Saturday June 2, Captain Straub and his crew took the Claud W. Somers out for a “shake down sail,” getting her ready for the upcoming cruising season.
Straub learned to sail as a student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he was on the sailing team. He has owned a sailboat ever since and, before becoming skipper of the Claud W. Somers, he was captain of the skipjack Dee of St. Mary’s that belongs to the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, Maryland.
It was a beautiful day with a little breeze as the boat left Cockrell’s Creek under power of a push boat. After reaching the mouth of the creek, the engine on the push boat suddenly overheated and was cut off. “Well I guess we are going to have to sail home,” said the captain.
The yawl or push boat is auxiliary power for maneuvering in tight places and getting out of the creek. Museum volunteers built the push boat in 2002 and it is powered by a Perkins 4-104 diesel engine.
The push boat information panel on the museum dock said the engine is much too large for the push boat itself, but the 40 h.p. engine is required to move the large boat at a modest speed.
Captain Straub encouraged the crew by saying this will be a good shake down sail as they will have to sail the vessel back to the museum within the tight space in the creek.
He gave his commands and like clockwork the crew raised the jib for the sail home, raised the heavy centerboard when approaching shallow water, and effortlessly made the slow sail back to the dock.
The push boat engine had cooled down and was started up for the mooring process, which entailed approaching the dock bow forward and then turning the boat around so the bow would be pointed out toward the mouth of the creek.
“Well that was a short sail,” said Captain Straub. “Actually, this is a good emergency practice drill for the crew. Usually things run very smoothly but if we are going to have an issue, a shake down sail is the time to iron out the problems.”
A new push boat is under construction in the museum’s boat shop and a new engine will be part of the changeover, he said.
Standing on the dock, Captain Straub said some people take their cruise for pleasure while others for education. Students in the marine science program at James Madison University went out with us last year, he said. “They really enjoyed the day and we enjoyed having them.”
“For many who come this is an opportunity of a lifetime to go out on the Claud W. Somers and experience a part of the maritime history of our area and Chesapeake Bay. You need to come back soon too,” he said to me. “And we will take a good, long sail.”
Book a sailing trip on the Claud W. Somers
From June through October, Claud W. Somers conducts regular scheduled sails, leaving from the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum dock. It is also available for charter for special occasions or educational trips.
The sail starts on Cockrell’s Creek and goes to the Great Wicomico River and Chesapeake Bay. Observe firsthand the wildlife, watermen, and the beautiful shorelines and waters while learning about the history of the area, skipjacks, oysters, and the environment.
The 2018 charter rates for chartered sails are $30 for adults; $25 for museum members; and $15 for children under 12 years of age. Children weighing less than 50 pounds are not permitted without prior arrangement due to USCG approved life jacket availability.
The public morning tours are from 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m. and there will be one on July 7. Two sails in a day are on July 21, August 4, August 8, September 22, October 13, and October 27. The afternoon sails on these days are from 1-3 p.m.
The museum is also looking for volunteer crew members. Volunteers are needed for sailing, rigging, woodworking, administration or maintaining the engine and mechanical system. If you are interested in becoming a member of the crew, contact the museum office at 453-6529.