City of Crisfield dredge license #33. Photograph by author.
There is much that is iconic about Chesapeake skipjacks- their long, wide-bellied form, their single masts and double sails, the weathered men who sail them to unseen oyster bars deep below the Bay’s surface. They have come to represent so much about the halcyon days of the Chesapeake’s past, when the water was the source of life and livelihood, and harbor towns hummed on the seasonal harvests: fish, crabs, and oysters.
But skipjacks have a whole visual language of tools and traditions associated with them, as well. As much as their towering cargo of shellfish, skipjacks are defined by the rusted dredges, white galoshes, and trailboards that encrust them like barnacles. Dredge licenses, those large, metal plates seen below the starboard and port lights on the skipjack’s rigging, are a part of that immediately-recognizable motley assortment of working objects.
Image of Martha Lewis, CBMM archives
These 24" x 24" metal licenses are now assigned to skipjacks for their entire life. But that is a recent development. Prior to 1971, captains had to reapply every year for a new set of dredging license plates. And the issuing of metal licenses was started in 1958. Earlier licenses were paper, and skipjack captains had to sew their license number onto their sails. It’s helpful tool for dating photographs here at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum- any skipjack photos that include sewn-on license numbers have to be earlier than 1958.
Oyster sloop J.T. Leonard displaying a pre-1958 dredge license. CBMM archives.
Modern metal dredge licenses are rare- just as rare as the few skipjacks that still sail on the Chesapeake Bay. Their maintenance is part of the annual spiffing-up that captains undertake to prepare their vessels for the working months. Decks and hulls are freshly painted with a new coat of white that hides the rust stains and oyster grit of last season, and their licenses are often given a brush-up too. Layers of paint on the licenses, thick as cake frosting, are a symbol of pride in continuing this diminishing way of life.
Dredging license, Rebecca T Ruark. CBMM archives.
Dredge licenses are not obviously beautiful adornments to the skipjacks they permit, but on closer thought, perhaps they are just right. Skipjacks are working girls, hardy, rough, and made for hauling, dredging, and sailing into headwinds. Flashy varnish or brilliant burgees wouldn’t suit these ladies. Their big frames are better set off by simpler things. Proudly painted and bright against a blue sky, dredge licenses are a skipjack’s crowning jewel, representing a working Chesapeake past that still defines our modern Bay.
Fannie Daugherty relaunch after restoration work at CBMM. CBMM archives.