Downrigging Weekend in Chestertown MD began as a sailor’s party for the end of the sailing season… it grew.
Now the waterfront is a forest of masts for the weekend as historic boats, wooden boat reproductions, and tall ships descend on this colonial town, once a thriving port.
I set sail on skipjack Elsworth, part of Echo Hill Outdoor School. Skippies were the iconic oyster dredging boat of the Chesapeake Bay, their huge, long, low mainsail geared for power not speed, their flattish hulls designed to go over shallows and sandbars (there is a centerboard that drops down when needed).
As the fleet set sail on Saturday afternoon, the tide had gone out. We are many miles up the Chester River from the Bay, but still in tidal waters. Elsworth found herself on a sandbar, her push boat unable to push her off. (Skipjacks have no internal engines, they use a push boat, mounted on the stern. this proved to the “oyster police” that they were, in fact, oyster dredging under sail, not power).
The rule of the sea seems to be that if you are in trouble on the water, someone will come and help. Water is a great equalizer, and you may need help someday too. Helpful folk on the dock shoved on our hull and spars, helpful sailors came up in a small boat and offered us a towline, someone suggested putting up the jib so the wind would help push us off. After a parted line, a second attempt, some chugging and churning, we got off the sandbar and into the waves of the mighty Chester.
And our little skipjack, one of the smallest and slowest boats in the fleet, caught up to the magnificent vessels downstream.
Skipjacks were of a simple design that could pretty much be built in your backyard. they have been the working boat (like a John Deere tractor) of the Bay. Only a few ply the waves anymore for oysters (efforts are being made to restore the Bay and its tasty oyster population). Several, like the restored Elsworth (her keel was laid in 1903) do public education.
photo below of Elsworth under sail from above webpage. Rest of pics are mine.