A newly restored replica of a local oyster sharpie
“It was a bold man who first ate an oyster,” English satirist Jonathan Swift wrote.
It is an unlikely-looking food source, but as soon as that “bold man” gave one a try, oysters became a dietary staple in cities built on the great estuaries of the world, including London, New York, San Francisco, Baltimore and Galveston.
These were cities with immediate access to the flats and reefs in shallow waters, within the range of temperature and salinity that oysters require to thrive. Oyster bars were popular and ubiquitous gathering spots in such cities.
“They were the Starbucks of the age,” said Mike Janota, director of Community Sailing at the Sea Star Base Galveston, where the oyster sharpie Rosemary is berthed.
“We were given this boat in 2016,” said David Gaston, adaptive sports coordinator at the base. “She was built in 2000, but she’d been neglected in storage for quite a while, and she was in pretty bad shape when we got her.”
Gaston led a group of dedicated volunteer members to restore the vessel. Their efforts have clearly been successful. Rosemary, renamed in honor of Rosemary Doolin, a founding patron of the Sea Star Base, made her debut at this year’s annual Keels & Wheels antique car and wooden boat show at Lakewood Yacht Club in Seabrook. She was awarded a first in her class. It was quite a distinction for what is at heart a humble, though graceful, workboat.
Oyster fisheries, like other industries in the age of sail, developed specialized boats uniquely suited to the needs of the work. Rosemary is a replica of a sharpie, the boats that evolved to work harvesting oysters during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The design is derived from the oyster fishers of the Chesapeake Bay, but adapted to local conditions. The boats are simple and relatively inexpensive to build, with “cat ketch” sailing rigs — two masts without stays, each with a single triangular sail and boom extending slightly forward of the mast. Rosemary, in fact, is about as simple as a functioning sailboat can be, but that’s the point. She’s designed to do one job well and without fuss.
The boat is 27 feet long, with a flat bottom and a single “hard chine” where the bottom joins the sides. With the centerboard swiveled up into its trunk inside the boat, she draws only about 6 inches of water. The bottom curves up gently fore and aft, so that her forefoot, at the bottom of the stem, rises clear of the water. That might prove useful in working around the shallow reefs, so that groundings would be with minimal impact, the bottom just sliding above the obstruction.
At the stern, the rudder maintains the shallow profile, extending aft rather than down, in the style of a “balance rudder.” There is no transom or stern post for a conventional rudder to hang on; the stern is rounded, in a departure from the simple box-like construction of the rest of the boat. Though more complicated to construct, this rounded design eliminates any sharp corners aft for the tongs to snag on as they are drawn into the boat.
Tongs are the principle tool of this kind of oystering. Pairs of wide-toothed rakes with 12- to 15-foot-long handles hinged together, as the name implies, are lowered by hand to the oyster bed below, closed, and lifted into the boat, where the catch is culled. Undersized, underaged oysters are thrown back onto the reef to continue their life cycle, and the tongs are lowered again.
This might seem an unlikely way to harvest food, and laborious, but it worked. And it was relatively non-destructive to the oyster beds on which the business depended.
A full cargo of oysters aboard, the boat was moved away from the reef into deeper water, and the centerboard lowered. The boat sped to market to deliver her fresh catch. These boats were smart sailors. The name “sharpie” fits her sharp, narrow lines.
Rosemary won’t be headed out to the oyster reefs to make a haul. But even sitting at the dock, she’s a tangible reminder of the history of commercial boating on Galveston Bay, and provides an exhilarating sailing experience for participants of the community sailing program.