Skipjack Stanley Norman: Defying the Odds

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CBF's Skipjack the Stanley Norman. Photo by Bill Portlock/CBF Staff.

It is hard to believe a 70-foot wooden boat constructed at the turn of the 20th century is still sailing today. But CBF's Skipjack, Stanley Norman, defies the odds. A treasured piece of Chesapeake Bay history and culture, the Stanley Norman serves today as a "floating classroom," where students of all ages learn about oysters, the life of a Chesapeake Bay waterman, and Bay-related issues of the past, present, and future. 

A Two-Sail Bateau, known colloquially as a "Skipjack," is an oyster dredging wooden boat that reached its peak popularity in the Chesapeake Bay region in the late 1880s. A cheap boat to build and sail, the skipjack was tremendously efficient at dredging oysters due to its strength and power, which was necessary to haul oyster dredges across the Bay floor. While no boat matched its strength in dredging oysters, it was inferior in harvesting other fare found in the Bay. As a result, when oyster populations diminished dramatically in the 1960s, the size of the Chesapeake Bay's skipjack fleet shrunk simultaneously. The dwindling of the skipjack fleet was astounding--of the estimated 2,000 skipjacks in the Chesapeake Bay at their peak, an estimated 13 are left. Virtually none of these skipjacks are used for their original aim of dredging oysters, but instead are used for educational purposes.

Possessing a character only a boat of its age and history can hold, the Stanley Norman provides a unique educational experience. Indeed, when students step aboard the Stanley Norman, they're not only learning more about the Bay, water quality issues, oyster restoration, and the life of a waterman--they're taking a step back in time. More than 3,000 students step aboard the skipjack annually, participating in activities such as raising the sail as a team, with the accompanying call-and-response of "Heave!" "Ho!", exploring Chesapeake Bay geography through pouring over historic and current maps, and dredging and pulling up oysters, to name a few.

"If you want to experience the Chesapeake Bay, there are countless ways to go about it," says Dave Gelenter, Captain of the Stanley Norman since 1998. "You might study the Bay in school. You could read any number of books written about the science, culture, or history of the Bay. You could watch videos of Blue Crabs molting in Eelgrass beds or Bald Eagles feeding their young. All of these experiences would leave you richer for having done them. But to sail aboard the Stanley Norman, a vessel which is an actual part of the culture and history of the Chesapeake, makes you part of the Chesapeake. An experience on the Stanley Norman connects people to the Bay in a way no other experience can."

Aside from the tremendous educational value the Stanley Norman provides, this boat represents something much greater in the evolution of the relationship between the Chesapeake Bay and those who depend on the bounty of its waters. While the steep decline in the Chesapeake Bay's oyster population has several causes, including disease, changes in water quality, and habitat loss, it is undeniable that the overharvesting of the Bay's oysters played a large role. This overharvesting was greatly assisted by the skipjack and its incredible efficiency at dredging oysters. 

It might seem a bit counterintuitive therefore, to celebrate a boat that in some ways represents the overharvesting and accompanying decline of the Chesapeake Bay oyster. A closer examination however reveals our great progress as a society. Where once the skipjack was used to exploit the Bay's oysters, the Stanley Norman is now educating thousands of students on the importance of oyster restoration. And more importantly, the Stanley Norman is helping cultivate in our future leaders a love for nature through exposure to the beauty, history, and culture, of the Bay and its waters.

If the Stanley Norman will make it another 112 years is anyone's guess. But perhaps this old skipjack will continue to defy the odds, not in just mere survival, but in helping to restore the great Chesapeake Bay oyster and the waters which it calls home.

--Drew Robinson, CBF's Digital Media Associate


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Can't get enough of the Stanley Norman? Click here to dive into it's unique history, dimensions, fun facts, and photos.

Drew Robinson

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