That unexpected initiation fed White’s fascination with the vanishing art of sail-powered oystering, still practiced by a few aging captains in wooden, two-sailed boats called skipjacks. After years of research that filled 72 spiral-bound notebooks, many of them stained by waves washing onto the decks where he scribbled, White’s book, Skipjack: The Story of America’s Last Sailing Oystermen, was published by St. Martin’s Press in November. In the book, White follows several skipjack captains and their families through a season of oyster fishing.
“Most fishing fleets around the world were installing bigger and bigger engines and becoming more efficient,” White says. “And here were these highly inefficient, anachronistic boats out sailing on the Chesapeake Bay. I was just very curious about why.”
Growing up in Baltimore, White often sailed and fished on the Chesapeake with his father, Miles White ’47. After majoring in biology at Princeton, White worked for an environmental organization dedicated to preserving the bay. Eventually, he moved into science journalism.
White spent two years in the 1990s living among the skipjack captains of Tilghman Island, on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake, commuting home to Annapolis on weekends. As he shared meals with the captains’ families and worked aboard their boats, helping to haul up 400-pound dredges and sort through the catch, White came to value the sense of community he found in the close-knit fishing villages.
The skipjack captains have no interest in conventional upward mobility, he writes; they are content to do the same difficult, dangerous work that their families have done for generations. “Sail all day. Pick yer men. No one to tell ya what to do,” one captain tells White. “Being a captain is like ruling the world.”
By the time White began his research, this way of life was under siege: The oyster yield had been shrinking rapidly since the 1960s, the victim of overfishing, pollution, newly emerging oyster diseases — and, White argues, mismanagement by the state officials charged with regulating the industry.
The captains he profiles in Skipjack inherited their livelihoods from their fathers and grandfathers, but, in the course of his narrative, they come to realize that their own sons will have to choose different careers. Of the 50 skipjacks that were sailing in the 1960s, when a 12-year-old White first saw one, only five remain active today.
Deborah Yaffe is a writer in Princeton Junction, N.J.