So there was little surprise when some of the galvanized steel nails that hold together the schooner Lady Maryland failed a Coast Guard inspection two months ago. Or when some of the timbers in the bow showed signs of decay.
The vessel will slide back into the water in mid-March after a $180,000 makeover by shipwrights and eager volunteers.
Lady Maryland is the flagship of the Living Classrooms Foundation, a platform to reach a quarter-million students with lessons about the environment and the region's maritime heritage. The vessel's teaching assignments have sent it up and down the Chesapeake Bay, into the Great Lakes and along the coast from Maine to Virginia.
All that travel can make a gal weary and a little creaky. Wood and water, steel and salt are natural enemies.
"Everything has a shelf life," said Peter Bolster, director of shipboard operations. With that in mind, Living Classrooms hauls the ship out once a year for inspection and maintenance; the Coast Guard keeps its own regular schedule.
When inspectors began their probing, they found rotted wood in the stem, the 14-foot extension of the keel that runs up the bow of the ship. Nails, called fasteners, were deteriorated on the lower starboard side.
"You know what a cigarette looks like and then what it looks like after it burns? That's what the fasteners looked like, a cigarette butt," Bolster said.
Emergency repairs approved by the Coast Guard got Lady Maryland through the final weeks of her sailing season. But Living Classrooms officials knew they had to act this winter.
To prepare, the crew removed the slender white bowsprit and two ornate quarter boards inscribed with the schooner's name. They hand carried 42,000 pounds of iron ballast from the bilge to the deck. Finally, they guided Lady Maryland into a steel and wooden cradle and made it fast to the frame.
Instead of using a commercial dry dock, Living Classrooms opted to make repairs right next to its Thames Street museum, pulling the ship from the water on a marine railway, a short set of train tracks leading from the water up a 100-foot incline to dry land.
At 10:30 under threatening skies, with office workers on coffee break gathering along the waterfront, Bolster stood on the bow, twirled his finger over his head and shouted, "Wind 'er up." On the wharf, project manager Doug Grinath and engineer Hugh Blackburn flipped the switch on an electric winch that began reeling up strands of steel cable.
Lady Maryland eased forward, her red hull rising slowly until the propellers broke the water's surface. The operation halted twice to let the crew make adjustments to the timber blocks under and around the keel. As the ship inched up the ramp, a crack of daylight appeared beneath it. The frame lifted the ship like a pair of cupped hands.
An hour after they began, Grinath whooped and made a slashing motion across his throat and Blackburn cut the power. The crew and onlookers applauded.
"It wasn't slicking your hair back from the breeze, was it?" Grinath shouted to the crew, a big grin on his face.
First, a crew will build a framework above Lady Maryland and drape it in plastic sheets to create a work space protected from the elements. Then, marine craftsmen will go to work, exposing the inner workings of the bow like open-heart surgeons.
Approximately 3,500 nails will be replaced, a new stem will be installed and the seams will be recaulked. The public can watch the restoration work.
Meanwhile, Living Classrooms is raising money to pay for the project. The biggest expense is labor, Bolster said.
"I'm really glad we don't have to do this every year," he said. "But if we do this right, we'll give this boat a new lease on life — another 25 years — to teach children about the Chesapeake Bay and why it's special."