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Volume XVII, Issue 51 ~ December 17 - December 23, 2009

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between the covers

Christopher White’s Skipjack

Author White burrows so deeply into Bay history, culture and scientific miscellanea
that there isn’t much remaining for other Bay lovers to write about.

reviewed by Dick Wilson

This is a skipjack tale like no other. Of the several books I’ve read about Chesapeake boats and oyster harvesting (or orstering, as its practitioners would say), Skipjack is the one that encompasses just about everything a reader would want to know about life on and in the Bay. Author Christopher White burrows so deeply into Bay history, culture and general scientific miscellanea that there isn’t much remaining for other Bay lovers to write about.

First, the boats: Skipjacks, built specifically for harvesting oysters in shallow waters, are the symbols of the Chesapeake oyster fishery, and those who sailed the skipjacks are the iconic representatives of that breed we call watermen. Watermen have pursued everything the Bay has to offer, and in the process they’ve defined the rich history of the Bay and its culture.

This detailed narrative captures the essence of that unique culture. At the time of writing, White had lived among watermen who still plied the trade (although their economic survival was tenuous). With Skipjack, White puts us in there with the watermen and their families.

The personalities — with their many quirks — are well defined. Not all the watermen are depicted as heroic types. For example, two brothers — both skipjack captains — carry a grudge spanning many years. To this day they don’t speak, although they live and sail in proximity. Then there was that squabble between two captains over dredging rights on a small oyster reef that resulted in one ramming and sinking the other’s boat and leaving the sinkee for dead (he lived, however). The one who did the ramming did jail time, paying his debt to society. Many years have since passed, but the two families are not on speaking terms.

On the whole, however, watermen are shown as people (flawed, like the rest of us) who love the Bay, its history and their work, and they’re determined to hang on, whatever the cost.

Skipjack is full of yarns, related in such a way that you are drawn deeply into the action. White comes by his information honestly; he lived and worked among the Tilghman Island watermen, eventually becoming accepted into their tight community. He isn’t afraid to insert himself into the narrative, clarifying obscure points when necessary, but he takes care to ensure that he is never a major player.

One exciting chapter is devoted entirely to skipjack racing, an annual event fought (and the word fought is appropriate) between two skipjack colonies: Tilghman Island and Deal Island. These two communities compete fiercely for a nominal cash prize, but mostly for prestige. Each captain is trying to win the race, but that’s almost secondary to beating his fellow captains.

The skipjack race frames the book, at a consistent rhythm with occasional tacks in an offset direction, much as the shifting wind drives the course of the boats. One chapter leads cohesively to the next, resulting in a fine book that’s somewhat about boats but more about the Bay and its people.

The history detailed in Skipjack is another major strength; the historical data fit nicely into and informs the present-day settings. The reader gets it all: the violent oyster wars; the decline of oysters over the years because of disease and overfishing; and the many conflicting (and greedy) interests competing in the ongoing legislative wars.

Skipjack (St. Martin’s Press) is a book to be enjoyed for its detail, authenticity and writing style. It’s local lore at its best, a worthy addition to any library.

© COPYRIGHT 2009 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.