Skipjack Nathan of Dorchester
The Skipjack Nathan of Dorchester was built, and is maintained and operated, by volunteers of the nonprofit Dorchester Skipjack Committee in Cambridge, Dorchester County, Maryland, on the Choptank River. A Coast Guard licensed commercial passenger vessel, the Nathan sails as a goodwill ambassador to ports throughout the Chesapeake Bay, a symbol of the region’s maritime history and watermen’s way of life.
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Capt. Bobby Ruark
Built in Cambridge to be a Dredge Boat
Commissioned on the Fourth of July, 1994, she is the youngest—and very likely the last—skipjack built to be an oyster dredge boat. Designed by Harold Ruark along the lines of a previous family-built and -operated skipjack, Oregon, she is a medium-sized dredge boat capable of harvesting and carrying about 200 bushels of oysters.
Harold also built Miss Eleanor, the Nathan’s pushboat, which was later named after his wife, and carved the boat’s exquisite trailboards and eagle figurehead.
Captain Robert “Bobby” Ruark, a lifelong Dorchester County waterman and boatwright, directed the construction of Nathan at Generation III marina at the head of Cambridge Creek. She was built only a few hundred yards from where the first Dorchester skipjack, Eva, was built more than ninety years earlier. The Nathan Foundation, a prominent philanthropic organization, provided funding for the construction of the vessel, hence the name, Nathan of Dorchester.
Nathan was built between 1992 and 1994 by a dozen volunteer "Builders" who we continue to recognize and honor today. More than 14,000 volunteer hours went into her construction, not including the countless additional hours provided by wives and friends, bringing meals, supplies and enthusiastic support to the Builders' endeavors.
Old Boats Live On In Her
The original idea had been to restore an historic skipjack. After making a search of some of the old skipjack ports, many old derelicts were found. None seemed worthy of reconstruction, and the better maintained boats were not for sale.
A decision was made to build a new skipjack, using whatever hardware could be salvaged from older boats. The winders that were originally on the Nathan’s deck were from Nellie Byrd, built in 1911, as were some of the rigging blocks. The davits and dredge rollers came from Susan May, built at Oriole, Maryland, in 1901. The windlass is from Clarence Crockett, built at Deep Creek, Virginia, in 1908. The wheel and gear box came from Wilma Lee, built at Wingate, Maryland, in 1940.
of Parts & Materials
for the Nathan's
Trees for Mast & Boom:
Generation III Marina
Pushboat Engine Donation:
Inboard Engine Donation:
Cummins Chesapeake, Inc.
Labor for Making Sails:
The Nathan was constructed with Dorchester County yellow pine and white oak timbers. The mast and boom are loblolly pine, also from Dorchester County. Traditional skipjack parameters are for the length on deck to equal the boom length, the bowsprit to equal the beam, and the mast height to equal the length on deck plus beam. While the actual numbers vary somewhat, the Nathan generally follows these traditional specifications.
- Length on deck - 45 ft.
- Length overall - 63 ft.
- Beam - 16 ft.
- Bowsprit - 15 ft. forward of the bow, 19 ft. 3 in. overall
- Mast height - 61 ft.
- Sail area - 1500 sq. ft.
Skipjacks are centerboard boats. The Nathan draws 3 feet in depth with her centerboard (4 feet by 16 feet) up and 7 feet with her centerboard all the way down, allowing her access to many shallow-depth areas when necessary.
She has a Cummins diesel engine inboard and her pushboat holds a Mercruiser gasoline-powered engine. Fully equipped, with the pushboat in the davits, all equipment on board, sails on and fuel tanks full, the Nathan displaces about 25 tons.
With a 42-foot waterline, the Nathan can sail at about 10 knots with the main and jib full up on a beam reach in a stiff breeze of 18 to 20 knots. The Coast Guard requires us to sail with one reef in the main sail when passengers are on board, meaning that passengers should expect no more than about 8 knots with a good wind. The Nathan carries 20 passengers comfortably in addition to its Coast Guard licensed captain, four trained crew and docent.
While the Nathan was built to be a dredge boat, it quickly became clear that her true mission was in carrying passengers, not oysters. Originally, her inboard diesel engine was on deck with the winders, hydraulic connections powering both the dredging apparatus and the vessel's propellor. In 1998, her winders were removed and the engine moved below deck on the port side of the centerboard case, allowing greater vessel stability and a more comfortable ride for passengers.
While the Nathan never dredged commercially for oysters, she carries a small hand-hauled dredge, about a fifth the size of full-scale commercial dredges.
She has a Maryland Department of Natural Resources permit to dredge oysters for research and public demonstration purposes. The permit authorizes the Nathan to dredge oysters at any time of year throughout the Bay and tributaries to show passengers a glimpse of the fast-disappearing oysterman’s way of life. The results of the oyster counts (good oysters vs. "boxes"–recently dead ones) are provided to the Department of Natural Resources for statistical purposes to help track the health of the Bay’s dwindling oyster population.