Sunday, July 08, 2007

Them Extreme Oyster Sailboats

A story in the New York Times about the commercial fishermen of eastern Long Island inspired me to write about "them extreme oyster sailboats." It's a very good story about the Bonackers who were of Dutch ancestry and worked the fields, oyster beds, and pound traps of the area for centuries. Since the bays were shallow they needed skiffs that could carry a lot of weight, and until the invention of the motorboat all were powered by oar and sail. The most famous was a boat called a "Sandbagger" named Annie, which is now at Mystic Seaport.

Given the light winds of summertime, these craft were often ridiculously over-powered with huge sails. The boats literally raced to the market ... the practice later evolving into yacht racing as we know it today. The formula for today's outrageous 12-meter racing boats were based on exactly this model of the Sandbagger.

Some history references note that Sandbaggers originated near New Haven, Connecticut so as to supply oysters to the New York market. The New England Sharpie was its roots in design, a simple workboat often powered by sails on two masts as a "cat" rig. For some reason, a single mast replaced the two small ones and the sails got bigger and bigger.

The Sandbagger design quickly spread out Long Island Sound and then the coast of the US to Florida and the Bahamas. It is one of the few real American inventions as far as sailing technology. Their distinguishing characteristic was a very long boom, the horizontal wood on the bottom of the main sail. When working the oyster beds the sails were "scandalized" so as to reduce sail area, but when it came time to race, up went all the sails. Thus the sails could be worked by one or two oystermen but raced with up the 12 or 15.

The name is rather misleading, with many sources saying that bags of sand or gravel were used to help weigh down the windward side to prevent from tipping over and capsizing. I suspect oysters were used instead, but the interesting aspect was when raced they used hiking boards, sometimes stuck out as far as 12 feet. Thus you might have two or three boards on the windward side to keep the boat level, and maybe two or three men or women on each board - really nothing but a stout 2-by-twelve. My thinking is that the captains called these folks "sandbaggers" because their only function was for their weight!

As the technology spread southward, each area developed it's own take on the sandbagger. Here's an interesting resemblance from a Pamlico Sound sailing skiff:

The above picture is possibly a working oysterboat configuration rather than as a racer, but the resemblance of the bluff bows, wine-glass stern, and center-board for shallow water is there, along with the gaff-top rigging. For racing, these boats could be easily fitted with topsails above the mainsail and a flying jib with a bowsprit extension. A few can still be found in the Pamlico and Amerle sounds of the Carolinas. Some sailing configurations were sprit-sailed and loose-footed as well (meaning no swinging gaff or boom). All were very fast.

The design headed down the coast, as farmers and watermen looked for other fisheries. The Florida Mullet Boat is another example that survives even today. The most interesting adaptation is found today in the outer islands of the Bahamas such as the Abacos, Exumas, and Turks and Caicos. They are quite extreme and share the very long boom that can be longer then the boat itself:

Number 11 there is The Rage, a restored Abaco Racing Sloop (click picture for larger detail). Gone is the bowsprit but the mast was lengthened with a Marconi (triangular) rig; the wine-glass stern is still evident since the roots of the Sandbagger of the early 1800's. As a concession to the slightly deeper waters of the local waters, a modest keel replaced the centerboard as well. But they still race these historical sloops on Regatta days and even use those outlandish hiking boards.

Many yacht clubs and regattas still race the Sandbagger designs even today, thanks to some very good boat builders who could restore them. All these boats are built from wood although some today are fiberglassed on the outside. When I say these boats are "extreme," folks who sail them will tell you that the forces from those sails are so great that boards could pop right off the hull.

All because of a few oysters on Long Island Sound.


Everett said...

Did you ever get to see a picture of a Block Island double ender? This was another strictly American invention, and it started right here! The reason for the 'double pointy end" was because there were no harbors here back in the 16 an 17 hundreds and the boats were landed right on the beach. The stern was pointy so as not present a wide area to the oncoming waves while riding the wind and waves up on to the beach. Then there was usually a team of oxen standing by to pull them up past the high water mark. It was a hell of a tough way to make a living!

papabeare said...

Another american oyster boat...somewhat similar design,would be the Skipjack. Found mostly around Maryland/Virginia/Chesapeake Bay area. Very shallow draft ! A few are restored. Hmmm with the price of fuel maybe its time for some of these boats to make a comeback...probably in fiberglass. Was wondering the other much would be saved if a shrimp boat only used a generator to maintain the freezer and the boat itself was sailed? Idle summer time thoughts

Tom Andersen said...

Interesting stuff, Sammie. I read a lot about oystering for my book but never came upon the term Sandbagger, at least that I remember. Sharpies yes, and I remember taking a look at a couple of skipjacks when I went to Maryland's eastern shore 20 years ago to learn about the Chesapeake's situation. Sandbaggers is a new one to me.

Sam said...

Thanks Everett, Beare, and Tom. I should have known I'd leave off some favorites! But hey, it sure beats politics and other depressing stuff.

Hey Ev, did they ever raise enough money to restore the double-ender on Block Island? I forget her name.


Sam said...

Oh and thanks for the link, Tom! Awesome!

JEE said...

These boats are beautiful! If anyone has more links to these boats it would be great. As a hobby I build fast, radical sailboats (foilers, cats...). My next project is to make a sandbagger "tribute" boat that will have modern technology but look somewhat like an old sandbagger. I think it would be really fun to overtake all the high tech stuff out there (including the best cats in light air)in a 19th century looking boat. Please let me know where there are more pictures. Thanks

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Sildenafil Citrate said...

what a coincidence! I read the same story in the New York Times about the commercial fishermen of eastern Long Island and it also inspired me to write a poem on oysters

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