Fishing Boats Evolve

People have harvested the bounty of the Chesapeake Bay since before recorded history. Early Virginia Indian people used their traditional dugout canoes to harvest fish, crabs, oysters, and clams. When English colonists arrived in the 1600s,they also began using dugouts and later adapted their boatbuilding skills to create log canoes to travel through the shoals and wetland areas and countless streams and major rivers which make up the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Early canoes were first paddled or poled and were eventually fitted with a sail. As time went on, the need for larger log boats produced the Brogan and the Bugeye.  Then, as wood planks became more available, these fishing boats further evolved into the Skipjack and the Deadrise.  And, as an offshoot of the fishing boat family line, the Buy Boat appeared on the scene to increase the productivity of the fishing fleets.  A key feature of this entire family of boats is intentional design features that enable these boats to operate in the shallows of the Bay while remaining capable of fishing among the sometimes heavy waves of the Chesapeake Bay.

Burning out a Dugout Canoe

Burning out a Dugout Canoe

Dugout Canoes

The Powatan dugout canoes were made of local hardwoods, hollowed out by a combination burning and scraping with shells and rocks.  Most canoes were fairly small in size.  But, some are known to have been as large as four feet deep, fifty feet long, and capable of transporting up to 50 men.  The canoes were used for a variety of transportation tasks, using poles to maneuver in the shallows and paddles to propel the craft across open waters.  The Indians fished from these boats by angling, netting, spearing, or use of weir traps.  The canoes were then used to transport the catch back to the village.

Five Log Canoe (courtesy Getty Images)

Five Log Canoe (courtesy Getty Images)

Log Canoes

The history of the log canoe is closely tied to the development of the oystering industry on the bay. Before the age of boat motors, the log canoe was an inexpensive craft which could be assembled without the need for a shipyard.  Log canoes varied in size from boats made with three logs up to nine-log canoes.  The typical log canoe was built by joining logs  together lengthwise using trunnels (tree nails — long wooden dowels) driven through the adjacent logs.  Then, the joined logs would be carved to form the lower portion of the hull. Additional height is obtained with smaller pieces fitted together and joined to the outermost (or “wing”) logs. The resulting hull is sharp-sterned and shallow.  To provide stability if a sail was added, a centerboard was sometimes added through the center (keel) log.


Brogans are considered to be the boat design that is the ‘missing link’ between the log canoes and the highly effective Bugeyes.  Brogans were double-ended, broad and beamy log boats, of moderate displacement, and shoal-bodied with centerboards. They carried free-standing masts, with the mizzen mast raked markedly more than the main. This rig was adopted by the later bugeyes and skipjacks, with less deviation of rake between the masts.


Because Brogans were too small to haul dredges, Bugeye boats evolved.  The typical Bugeye (named because it could rapidly turn “on a bug’s eye”) was a two-masted, log or planked hull with a ketch rig.  Like the preceding brogans and the log canoes, the masts were sharply raked, although they were set up with stays and shrouds. Unlike the brogan, however, the mainmast was raked only slightly more sharply than the foremast, and a bowsprit with trailboards was inevitably used. The hull was beamy and shallow, with no chine. Initially it was chunked from logs, in the manner of the log canoe; eventually conventional framed construction was introduced as the supply of suitable trees was depleted. The usual form was double-ended, with a sharp stern, and most such boats had a heavy beam called the “duck tail” projecting a short distance from the stern in order to protect the rudder.

Skipjack BoatSkipjacks

The Skipjack is sloop-rigged, with a sharply raked mast and extremely long boom (typically the same length as the deck of the boat). The mainsail is ordinarily triangular, though gaff rigged examples were built. The jib is self-tending and mounted on a bowsprit. This sail plan affords the power needed to pull the dredge, particularly in light winds, while at the same time minimizing the crew required to handle the boat. The hull is wooden and V-shaped, with a hard chine and a square stern. In order to provide a stable platform when dredging, skipjacks have very low freeboard and a wide beam (averaging one third the length on deck). A centerboard is mounted in lieu of a keel. The mast is hewn from a single log, with two stays on either side, without spreaders; it is stepped towards the bow of the boat, with a small cabin. As typical in regional practice, the bow features a curving longhead placard board under the bowsprit, with carved and painted trailboards. A typical skipjack is 40 to 50 feet in length.

The Deadrise Workboat ‘Only Son’ in the Severn River, Achilles VA


The Chesapeake Bay Deadrise, official boat of the Commonwealth of Virginia, is the modern wooden fishing boat used in the Chesapeake Bay. Watermen use these boats year round for everything from crabbing and oystering to catching fish or eels.  Traditionally wooden hulled, the deadrise is characterized by a sharp V bow that quickly becomes a flat V shape moving aft along the bottom of the hull. A small cabin structure lies forward and a large open cockpit and work area aft.  “Deadrise” refers to the line rising upward horizontally from the keel rabbet (the point where the top of the keel connects to the hull) to the chine (or sideboards). It rises on each side of the keel in a straight line, or “dead rise,” creating the flat V shape of the bottom of the hull. The bottom of the hull is planked in a herring bone pattern with planks running diagonally from keel to chine. The sides are planked longitudinally. As a result it is both useful in shallows and very forgiving when the Bay turns rough.  Typically, the hull is 35-45 feet long. Originally equipped with extremely small marine motors, their propulsion systems were replaced with more powerful automobile engines and finally with large, high-torque producing diesel engines.  Nowadays, you’d have a difficult time finding a deadrise commercially built the old way. Most of the boats are fiberglass, a few are cold-molded wood and fewer still are aluminum.


Buy-Boats (Cousins to the fishing boats)

The fully loaded Buy Boat ‘Nellie Crockett’

Buy-boats, also known as deck boats, didn’t evolve from the family line of fishing boats.  But, they quickly became integral to the 20th Century fishing industry.  Approximately 40–90 foot long wooden boats, with large open decks, these boats made the rounds to purchase oysters from tongers (fishermen who used long tongs to pull oysters from the water) and dredgers. Once the oysters were transferred to the buy-boat, they were taken to a wholesaler or oyster processing house where they could be prepared for sale. This service allowed fishermen to be more efficient by sparing them the need to return to shore as often. The buy-boats might also buy seed oysters, or spat, to be planted in oyster beds.  Buy-boats saw their heyday in the first half of the 20th century when most oysters from the Chesapeake Bay were harvested by tongers in small flat bottomed row boats, or dredged by sail powered skipjacks. Interstate highways, bridges and tunnels such as the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, and smaller bridges that span the many tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay were non-existent prior to the 1950s.  Therefore it was much faster to haul seafood to market by boat than by truck. Many buy-boat captains also used their vessels to transport freight such as fresh produce, grain, livestock, and lumber to market during the off-season from May to August when they were not buying oysters.