Skipjack Sigsbee sinks in bay before start of race


remaining skipjacks sank in the Chesapeake Bay yesterday at the start of an annual two-day festival whose proceeds are intended to help save the dwindling fleet.

PD The skipjack's two-man crew, suffering only from shivers, was im

mediately lifted to safety, according to Maryland Natural Resources Police, which assisted the U.S. Coast Guard in the rescue.

Yesterday's accident occurred about 10:35 a.m. as the boat's owner, Douglas Darby West of Chestertown, was getting into position for the start of the annual skipjack races at the Chesapeake Appreciation Days festival, held at Sandy Point State Park.

The boat, named the Sigsbee, was about two miles north of the Sandy Point Lighthouse in about 57 feet of water.

Mr. West, 29, said the boat was heeled over to make a turn when his friend, John Leader, spotted water inside. They immediately threw on the bilge pumps but couldn't keep up with the incoming water.

"I think a seam must have opened up on the side," said Mr. West. "Probably it was high on the side, so when we tacked it just came in."

Mr. West said he considered dropping the Sigsbee's motorized push boat into the water and trying to nudge the Sigsbee to shallow water. But before he could begin, he said, "it keeled over to one side. It sank in maybe two or three minutes."

Only the top of its mast was visible above the water.

Before the Sigsbee sank, Mr. Leader sent out a mayday call. Because Coast Guard and DNR boats were on hand to patrol the race, rescuers arrived immediately.

The sinking took place a few hundred yards off the race course and just out of sight of Sandy Point State Park, where spectators with binoculars happily watched the races unaware of the mishap until word began circulating on shore.

At 89 years old, the 47-foot Sigsbee is one of the oldest in the skipjack fleet, which numbers only about two dozen active boats.

Skipjacks, which are used to dredge oysters in the bay, are the last remaining commercial sailing vessels in the nation.

Apart from its age, the Sigsbee was notable as the first skipjack captained by a woman, Leigh Hunteman of St. Michaels, in the early 1980s.

Mr. West said he bought the Sigsbee a year and a half ago for $24,000, made some improvements, and had counted on the boat -- which was not insured -- for the beginning of the oyster dredging season this week.

Now those plans are uncertain. Salvage workers towed the boat closer to shore, leaving it overnight standing upright in 7 to 8 feet of water. Efforts to save the Sigsbee were to resume at first light today, the Coast Guard reported.

"I don't think it's gone," Mr. West said. "I probably won't know for a couple of weeks."

The sinking of the skipjack got Chesapeake Appreciation Days off to a somber beginning.

The festival was begun 26 years ago to draw attention to the skipjacks, and in recent years its organizers have tried to use it to raise money to maintain the fleet.

The wooden boats are old, and upkeep is expensive.

"There probably isn't one of them that doesn't have some pieces of wood that are 40 or 50 years old," said Glen Thomas, vice president of Chesapeake Appreciation Inc., the organizer of the festival.

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