New Haven and North Carolina Sharpies

New Haven Sharpie

The New Haven Sharpie [p 136]

The sharpie was so distinctive in form, proportion, and appearance that her movements from area to area can be traced with confidence. This boat type was particularly well suited to oyster fishing, and during the last four decades of the 19th century its use spread along the Atlantic coast of North America as new oyster fisheries and markets opened. The refinements that distinguished the sharpie from other flat-bottomed skiffs first appeared in some boats that were built at New Haven, Connecticut, in the late 1840's. These craft were built to be used in the then-important New Haven oyster fishery that was carried on, for the most part, by tonging in shallow water.

The claims for the "invention" of a boat type are usually without the support of contemporary testimony. In the case of the New Haven sharpie two claims were made, both of which appeared in the sporting magazine Forest and Stream. The first of these claims, undated, attributed the invention of the New Haven sharpie to a boat carpenter named Taylor, a native of Vermont[1]. In the January 30, 1879, issue of Forest and Stream there appeared a letter from Mr. M. Goodsell stating that the boat built by Taylor, which was named Trotter, was not the first sharpie[2]. Mr. Goodsell claimed that he and his brother had built the first New Haven sharpie in 1848 and that, because of her speed, she had been named Telegraph. The Goodsell claim was never contested in Forest and Stream, and it is reasonable to suppose, in the circumstances, that had there been any question concerning the authenticity of this claim it would have been challenged.

No contemporary description of these early New Haven sharpies seems to be available. However, judging by records made in the 1870s, we may assume that the first boats of this type were long, rather narrow, open, flat-bottomed skiffs with a square stern and a centerboard; they were rigged with two masts and two leg-of-mutton sails. Until the appearance of the early sharpies, dugout canoes built of a single white pine log had been used at New Haven tongmg. The pine logs used for these canoes came mostly from inland Connecticut, but they were obtainable also in northern New England and New York. The canoes ranged from 28 to 35 feet in length, 15 to 20 inches in depth, and 3 feet to 3 feet 6 inches in beam. They were built to float on about 3 or 4 inches of water. The bottoms of these canoes were about 3 inches thick, giving a low center of gravity and the power to carry sail in a breeze. The canoes were rigged with one or two pole masts with legof- mutton sails stepped in thwarts. A single leeboard was fitted and secured to the hull with a short piece of line made fast to the centerline of the boat. With this arrangement the leeboard could be raised and lowered and also shifted to the lee side on each tack. This took the strain off the sides of the canoe that would have been created by the usual leeboard fitting [3]. Construction of such canoes ceased in the 1870's, but some remained in use into the present century.

new haven sharpie

The first New Haven sharpies were 28 to 30 feet long - about the same length as most of the log canoes. Although the early sharpie probably resembled the flatiron skiff in her hull shape, she was primarily a sailing boat rather than a rowing or combination rowing-sailing craft. The New Haven sharpie's development[4] was rapid, and by 1880 her ultimate form had been taken as to shape of hull, rig, construction fittings, and size. Some changes were made afterwards, but they were in minor details, such as finish and small fittings.

The New Haven sharpie was built in two sizes for the oyster fishery. One carried 75 to 100 bushels of oysters and was 26 to 28 feet in length; the other carried 150 to 175 bushels and was 35 to 36 feet in length. The smaller sharpie was usually rigged with a single mast and sail, though some small boats were fitted for two sails. The larger boat was always fitted to carry two masts, but by shifting the foremast to a second step more nearly amidships she could be worked with one mast and sail. The New Haven sharpie retained its original proportions. It was long, narrow, and low in freeboard and was fitted with a centerboard. In its development it became halfdecked. There was enough fore-and-aft camber in the flat bottom so that, if the boat was not carrying much weight, the heel of her straight and upright stem was an inch or two above the water. The stern, usually round, was planked with vertical staving that produced a thin counter. The sheer was usually marked and well proportioned. The New Haven sharpie was a handsome and graceful craft, her straight-line sections being hidden to some extent by the flare of her sides and the longitudinal curves of her hull.

[1] Forest and Stream, January 23, 1879, vol. 11, no. 25, p. 504.

[2] Forest and Stream, January 30, 1879, vol. 11, no. 26, p. 500.

[3] Henry Hall, Special Agent, 10th U.S. Census, Report on the Shibuilding Industry of the United States, Washington, 1880-1885, pp. 29-32.

[4] Howard I. Chapelle, American Small Sailing Craft, New York, 1951, pp. 100-133, figs. 38-48

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