Nathan of Dorchester


Updated 8 July 2024:
Nathan of Dorchester was built to be a dredge boat, but never dredged commercially. She sails as a Coast Guard inspected passenger vessel out of Cambridge, Maryland, offering public sails and charters. She is owned and operated by the nonprofit Dorchester Skipjack Committee.

Nathan of Dorchester, 22 September 2012

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Nathan of Dorchester was the last skipjack built to be a dredge boat in the 20th century. One new skipjack, Modern Day, has been built since then.

In 1991, the Dorchester Skipjack Committee was formed to build a skipjack as a way to attract tourism to and preserve the maritime heritage of the City of Cambridge, Maryland, and Dorchester County. It had been 40 years since an authentic skipjack had been built on the Eastern Shore.

At first, the volunteers of the nonprofit organization considered rescuing an existing skipjack, but famed local shipwright James B. "Mr. Jim" Richardson advised them that it was easier to build a new boat from scratch.

Nathan is one of the few skipjacks built from plans, copies of which are still available from the organization. She was designed by Harold Ruark, who reportedly modeled her on a previous family-owned skipjack, Oregon. Memories of contemporary discussions with Harold indicate that he also used plans of Skipjack Willie Bennett (about the same size and year built as Oregon) first drawn by Howard Chapelle and then enlarged by Ben Lankford for a model. Harold also designed and built Nathan's pushboat and carved her beautiful trailboards and eagle figurehead. The pushboat later was christened "Miss Eleanor" after Harold's wife.

Harold's cousin, Robert S. "Bobby" Ruark, was the master builder on the project, supervising the volunteers who became known as "The Builders." More than 14,000 volunteer hours went into her construction from 1992 to 1994. She was built at Generation III boat yard at the head of Cambridge Creek, not far from where the first skipjack, Eva, was built in 1883. A video, also available from the Dorchester Skipjack Committee, was made of the construction of the boat in order to document the boat building skills.

Local pine, oak and cedar went into her construction, and some of the metal work was rescued from other skipjacks. Rollers and davits came from Susan May, the windlass from Clarence Crockett, and some of the rigging and blocks from Nellie L. Byrd. The wheel and steering gearbox came from Wilma Lee after one of that boat's renovations, but the gearbox needed to be re-engineered to adapt it from Wilma Lee's spud rudder (below the hull) to Nathan's barn-door rudder (behind the stern).

The cost of building Nathan, not including volunteer time, was more than $200,000, with almost $50,000 of that amount as donated equipment, services and supplies. She was named after the Nathan Foundation, a local philanthropic organization that provided major funding for the construction, and still offers support for some of the boat's activities.

Nathan's hull went into the water 19 November 1993, the mast was stepped 11 March 1994, and her christening took place on the Fourth of July that year.

While built to be a dredge boat, she never did dredge commercially. With the dwindling Chesapeake Bay oyster harvests, it quickly became apparent that Nathan's true mission was going to be in tourism and education. The Builders designed her with this mission in mind, outfitting her with, in addition to her pushboat, an on-deck inboard engine and hydraulic system that powered both her winders and propulsion.

That configuration was changed, however, in 1998 after she capsized during a race off St. Michaels, Maryland. Or rather, "she ran aground on her starboard rail," as her captain described the incident. Once righted and towed back to Cambridge, Nathan underwent a thorough stability review, and had her winders removed and inboard engine put below deck, which is how she is configured today.

Since her launch, she has sailed the Choptank River and throughout the Chesapeake Bay as an ambassador for Dorchester County and the City of Cambridge, offering public sails and charters. While not licensed to dredge commercially, she is licensed to use a small hand-hauled dredge in demonstrations for passengers.

Nathan has participated in the skipjack races, winning the Deal Island race in 2000, and serves as the host vessel for the Choptank Heritage Skipjack Race in Cambridge, which she won in 1998. Numerous captains have served on her through the years, many of them volunteering their time.

Nathan of Dorchester also serves an educational mission, offering extensive training for volunteers who wish to learn how to sail or maintain one of these unique vessels and donate their time to share the experience with others. Except for the paid captains, the organization continues to conduct its activities entirely through the dedication of its volunteers, including crew, docents, administration and maintenance.

During the 2022–2023 and 2023–2024 off seasons, the organization performed extensive maintenance and repair work on the boat, including building a new boom for her at the Ruark Boatworks in Cambridge. Her old boom is not planned to go to waste, though, and will likely end up on Skipjack Han Em Harv. After she received a new set of sails, her old jib went to Skipjack Helen Virginia in 2024, carrying on the tradition of one skipjack's no-longer-used parts being used on another.

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