Two Chesapeake Skiffs

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Drawn by Howard I. Chapelle and Reuel Parker Commentary by Mike O'Brien

Chesapeake Bay sailing crab skiffs can, with little alteration, make fast and able daysailers. These skiffs first appeared on the big estuary during the last years of the nineteenth century. The type — perhaps we should say "types" — varied wildly from creek to creek. Depending upon local conditions and prejudices, an observer at the time would have found single- and two-stick rigs, with or without headsails. Deadrise amidships (amount of V to the bottom) ranged from 0 degrees to about 12 degrees. Hulls were double-ended or transom-sterned. In fact, the diversity in skiff design allowed watermen to identify a boat as the product of a particular county, if not a particular builder.

In addition to serving as their name suggests, the skiffs earned their keep in general waterfront transportation and by handling odd jobs. Although these boats went extinct half a century ago (at least as working watercraft), many of their characteristics survive in contemporary Chesapeake outboard-powered skiffs. Cross-planked bottoms, strong sheerlines, and sharp forward sections still can be seen in the working powerboats at public landings along the Bay's convoluted 5,000-mile shoreline.

The 16-foot 8-inch sailing skiff shown here must be one of the most handsome of the old boats. According to Howard Chapelle, who wrote about her in the June 1943 issue of Yachting magazine, this striking deadrise hull was hammered together by a builder named Simmons in 1910 at Cambridge, Maryland. Mr. Chapelle took the lines off the old boat on September 11,1942 in the same town. We're told only that the hull construction was "of the usual Bay deadrise type." This suggests a V-bottom cross-planked in herringbone fashion with little internal framing. Although he might have shaped a "chunk" forefoot from a single timber, Mr. Simmons more likely accomplished the considerable deadrise up forward by staving the forefoot. (That is, he filled the space between the backbone and chines with short, thick planks fashioned to the required twist.)

With its 3%-inchby 3%-inch keelson and 1-inch bottom planking, this is not a light hull. Good, old-fashioned inertia will make the boat steadier to work in the notorious Chesapeake chop and will give it the power to punch through now-ubiquitous powerboat wakes. No matter what miracle goops and goos we might employ in building this skiff today, I'd suggest not taking too much weight out of its structure.

We're told that most of the Cambridge boats shared the springy sheer, considerable deadrise, flared sides, and raking ends seen here. Chapelle suggests that the rough water often found at the mouth of the Choptank River provided ample incentive to build able skiffs. Unlike some flat-bottomed skiffs, these deadrise hulls tend to maintain headway when coming about; they don't pay off excessively before settling in on a new tack. (The habit of falling off before heading up to a new course constitutes a potentially dangerous character flaw in half-decked boats. Unless the sheets are carefully tended, a nearly stationary skiff can be knocked down as the wind fills its tightly strapped sails. Builders sometimes fitted flat-bottomed Bay skiffs with substantial foregripes to lessen the risk.)

This Cambridge skiff's rig is fairly representative of those seen elsewhere on the Bay. Its sprit-boomed leg-o'-mutton sails provide their usual advantages: They are self-vanging (the angled foot of the sail tightens and prevents the boom from lifting). They can live with light booms and simple sheeting arrangements. Draft in the sails can be controlled, to a degree, by adjusting the tension in the snotter (the line that secures

Two Chesapeake Skiffs the boom to the mast). Sail twist can be varied by changing snotter tension and/or by sliding the snotter up or down the mast.

Although the curve drawn into the foot of each sail looks fine, our sailmaker will know to cut the bottoms of the sails dead straight to better handle the tension. While we're at it, let's ask him to cut the mainsail somewhat fuller — and with the point of maximum draft farther forward — than he would for, say, a tautly strung sloop. Because the mizzen often will be sheeted closer than the mainsail, among other reasons, it ought to be sewn relatively flat.

At the size we're discussing, these rigs need no ready-made hardware. Absolutely none. Dumb sheaves (well faired and lined holes worked through the sticks near their heads) will substitute for halyard blocks. The single-part sheets need only a bowline at one end and a figure-of-eight knot at the other. Rope snotters do the work of stainless-steel or bronze gooseneck fittings — and then some.

/h The Sharpie Book (International Marine, Camden, Maine, 1994), Reuel Parker gives us drawings for classic designs that have been adapted for sheet-plywood construction. Here is a fine single-sail skiff, Parker's variation on Figure 115 from Howard Chapelle's American Small Sailing Craft (W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1951). The old boat is believed to have been built on Hoopers Island about 1906. Chapelle took the lines off her at Crisfield, Maryland, in 1943. This hull's shallow, almost flat-bottomed, forefoot allowed Parker to sheathe its virtually unaltered lines with sheet plywood. (The deeper, sharper forefoot of the Cambridge skiff would, most likely, have demanded some fancy on-the-spot laminating in order to mate with a sheet bottom.)

We might note that this skiff and the Cambridge boat have their centerboards located far forward by yacht standards, and the boards are slightly smaller than expected. This arrangement has obvious advantages in working skiffs, and the added cockpit room will be appreciated in the daysailing derivatives. The happy configuration is made feasible by the forward bias of the sail plans' geometrical centers and by the far-aft lateral plane offered by large skegs and rudders.

Before dropping the rig from the old skiff into the new skiff, Parker lopped about 20 inches off the mast. As indicated by the vertical dashed line drawn on the sail, he added a traditional vertical slab-reefing system that was sometimes used for larger sharpies. Details of this arrangement can be found on page 66 of Chapelle's book, Boatbuilding (W.W. Norton & Co,, New York, 1941).

Casual inspection of the contemporary waterfront suggests that too many raceboats masquerade as day-sailers — their shallow cockpits fouled by nests of lines, and nary a seat in sight. Old skiffs from the Chesapeake offer secure and comfortable alternatives.

Plans for the Simmons Cambridge skiff, as drawn by Howard I. Chapelle, can be obtainedfrom Ship Plans, NMAH 5010/MRC 628, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC 20560. Ask for CBCSplan No. 4.

Plans for Reuel Parker's version of the Hoopers Island skiff are available from Parker Marine Enterprises, P.O. Box 4102, Key West, PL 33041. Ask for the 18-foot modified sharpie skiff.

Particulars Cambridge Skiff

LOA 16'8" Beam 4'8" Draft l'l" Sail area 110 sq ft

A sharp forefoot will keep the Cambridge skiff quiet at anchor and help it settle in quickly on a new tack.

A sharp forefoot will keep the Cambridge skiff quiet at anchor and help it settle in quickly on a new tack.

Philip Bolger Boat Plans
Illustration by Kathy Bray

Two Chesapeake Skiffs

Two Chesapeake Skiffs

Parker Marine Enterprises

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    How to cross plank a skiff?
    8 years ago
  • ariam welde
    Where is the 32 ft. chesapeake deadrise boat located now?
    7 years ago
  • yerusalem
    How to plank the forefoot portion of a dead rise work boat?
    6 years ago
  • thomas
    How to make a cheasepeake bay skiff?
    6 years ago
  • nydia
    Where to get chesapeak deadrise plans?
    2 years ago
  • nicole
    How to build a crab skiff?
    1 year ago

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