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What Is a Bugeye?

By Paul Scott
Updated Feb 26, 2024
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A bugeye was a sailing vessel originally developed as a Chesapeake Bay oyster dredger. It featured a raked, twin mast configuration and typically carried a leg-of-mutton mainsail with a jib and foresail. The hull was of a wide, shallow draft design with no chine. The beamy, flat bottom design of the hull saw bugeyes fitted with a centerboard. Most bugeye hulls were sharp sterned and low waisted with a centrally located windlass for easy dredge handling.

The vessels in the Chesapeake oyster dredging industry went through a fairly interesting evolutionary process during the 1800s and early 1900s which saw designs such as schooners, pungys, log canoes, brogans, bugeyes, and skipjacks dredging the Bay. The bugeye was the first truly definitive design, however, that addressed all the needs of the industry specifically. Introduced in the late 1800s, it was designed from the centerboard up to dredge oysters and showed its purpose in its unique features. Although construction of the vessels ceased in 1918, they continued to see active use until the mid 1960s.

The original name for the vessel appears to have been “buckeye,” a reference to the two large bow anchor ports on early designs which gave it the appearance of having a pair of eyes. How, and when, the name changed to bugeye is uncertain, but it stuck all the same. Among the most distinctive features of the bugeye are the sharply raked, or backward leaning, twin masts. The typical sail set carried by these vessels was known as a leg-of-mutton rig and featured, in early examples, a pair of fore and aft triangular mainsails with the later addition of a jib and foresail.

Bugeye hulls were shallow draft “S” profiles with no chine, or sharply defined angular planes, to suit the shallow waters they worked. No keel was employed, being replaced instead with a centerboard. The hulls were beamy, or wide, typically one third as wide as they were long. This afforded maximum working space for the dredges and made the craft solid and stable even at the high speeds of which they were capable. Typical bugeye designs were of a sharp sterned design, although several were built with square or round sterns or retrofitted with platforms over the stern to increase deck space.

The hulls of the vessels were usually fairly low waisted which made hauling the dredge easier. To this end, they were also often fitted with a windlass or winch in the center of the deck to aid in dredge recovery. Although the bugeye was simple to operate, fast, and efficient, the design fell from favor with the introduction of the skipjack, which was cheaper and equally effective.

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