Chesapeake Bay - Watermen - The Mariners' Museum
The Mariners' MuseumChesapeake Bay - Our History and Our Future
Native AmericansColonial PeriodOyster Wars20th CenturyEconomyLighthousesWatermenResourcesCreditsSponsorsHome

Chesapeake Bay Workboats
The Development of the Deadrise Workboat
Harvesting the Bounty
Suggested Reading

Chesapeake Bay -
Our History and Our Future
has been made possible
in part by:
Bank of America
The Development of the Deadrise Workboat
Since the early days of the Powhatans, people have been using the Bay as a major source of food. Early natives used dugout canoes to hunt for fish, oysters, clams, and crabs. In the early 1600s, English colonists began to adopt the dugout canoe as a means to navigate the shallow waters of the Bay and its tributaries. These dugout canoes were first paddled or poled and were eventually fitted with a sail. After the Civil War, larger sailing canoes were constructed to accommodate heavy loads of oysters and clams. Planks of wood called washboards were added to increase the boats' capacity and create much-needed work space.

As watermen sought more distant oyster beds, a new style of boat began to develop. Around 1865, larger seven- to nine-log canoes were constructed with full decks and forward cabins. The log-built "bugeye," as the boat became known, ultimately became too expensive to manufacture, and watermen turned to frame-planked boats like the skipjack and deadrise.

Tonging for oysters in a log canoe on the Saint Mary's River, Maryland, 1909
Tonging for oysters in a log canoe on the Saint Mary's River, Maryland, 1909
The Deadrise

The deadrise design was developed around the 1880s. "Deadrise" refers to the V-shaped bottom at the bow and the angle formed from the keel as it levels off to a horizontal line with the rise from the keel upward to the chine (or sideboards). A V-bottom is easier to build than a round bottom. It also has a shallow draft of two to three feet, making it ideal for the shallows of the Bay. The average deadrise workboat is 35 to 45 feet long with a beam of nine to twelve feet. The deadrise can use almost any engine, from an Olds 455 to a John Deere 6-cylinder, but diesel engines are preferred over regular gasoline because of their reliability.

The "Rack of Eye" Method

"Rack of eye" refers to the method of building a deadrise without using drawn plans. This traditional method has been passed down through hands-on training. Since deadrise plans are rarely recorded; construction requires an experienced builder.

Financial considerations and local traditions usually dictate the style of a deadrise. Deadrises built for watermen in the Hampton Roads area need strong planking to withstand the waves of the lower Chesapeake. A Maryland builder might make the boat as shallow as possible to allow him to work up the shallow tributaries in the northern regions. In each case, the owner specifies the size of the forward cabin, the type of engine, and the placement of the tiller.

A Universal Workboat

Deadrise, Sue & Buzz on the James River, 1972
Deadrise, Sue & Buzz on the James River, 1972
Delmas Haddaway and son Chester tonging for oysters on the Choptank River
Delmas Haddaway and son Chester tonging for oysters on the Choptank River
The deadrise workboat is used by most watermen on the Chesapeake Bay. The deadrise accommodates the heavy, bulky equipment used for a variety of tasks. A culling board, and tongs or dredge are used in oystering in the winter months. Crab pots, bushel baskets, and trash cans are used during the summer crabbing season. Nets, stakes, and net tubes are used in setting gill nets year-round. The deadrise's size and capacity allow the waterman to travel farther across the Bay and carry more seafood back to market.

Deadrise fleet iced in at Annapolis, Maryland
Deadrise fleet iced in at Annapolis, Maryland
Deadrises in Cambridge Harbor, Maryland
Deadrises in Cambridge Harbor, Maryland
The deadrise has also become popular with pleasure boaters. These heavy-duty boats withstand long days of fishing and can carry large groups. The romance of the watermen's profession and nostalgia for the traditions of the Chesapeake Bay have created a market for these workhorses of the water.

Fleets of deadrises were a common sight in the late 1800s along the Chesapeake Bay. Sometimes more than three-hundred boats would be moored together at one landing. These fleets would leave early in the morning for oyster beds or crab pots and return late in the evening.


Continue to: Harvesting the Bounty

 

 

Native Americans | Colonial Period | Oyster Wars | 20th Century | Economy
Lighthouses | Watermen | Resources | Credits | Home


Navigation Bar