Skipjack is hauled to beach Captain hopes to fix Sigsbee for oystering


SANDY POINT STATE PARK -- Its mast held high but sails drooping down on deck, the skipjack Sigsbee was towed onto the beach at Sandy Point State Park yesterday -- rescued by salvors after it sank Saturday during the annual Chesapeake Appreciation Days races.

Two powerful tow boats -- the Popeye and the Hornet -- used their 750-horsepower engines to pull the 91-year-old skipjack two miles through the cool bay waters to the red sand beach above the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

When the skipjack finally reached the shallow waters at Sandy Point about 3:45 p.m., a crowd of about 100 spectators -- among several thousand enjoying the second and final day of the annual celebration of the bay's food and culture -- broke into applause.

Off to one side on the beach, hands jammed in his pockets and a nervous smile on his face, was Douglas Darby West of Chestertown, the 29-year-old owner and captain of the Sigsbee -- one of only about two dozen skipjacks left that ply the waters of the bay, dredging for oysters.

Mr. West said he had purchased the boat two years ago for $24,000 and had pumped additional money into it to make it ready for the oystering season that starts this week.

The 47-foot boat, which was not insured, suddenly sank Saturday morning during the annual skipjack races -- a highlight of the festival.

The Sigsbee went down so fast Mr. West wasn't even able to get his small pushboat off the skipjack's stern and attempt to motor to shallower waters. The pushboat broke free and was retrieved yesterday.

Mr. West theorized that some old nails holding the starboard planking together crumbled, allowing several of the 9-foot-long boards to loosen and ultimately come out.

Tarek Sirry, a diver who was on the salvage team, said he saw a grapefruit-sized hole on the left side of the boat that might have let in enough water to cause the other structural problems.

Workers from Sea Tow Inc. of Annapolis got the boat out of the deep channel Saturday afternoon.

Yesterday, by affixing ropes to the main mast, they were able to right the boat, balancing it between the two tugs. The powerful engines of the tow boats pulled the heavy wooden skipjack in close to shore, where it was hitched to a waiting heavy-duty earthmover.

As the boat rested on the beach, its deck awash, Mr. West said his next step would be to try to patch the holes, pump out the hold and then float the boat across the Chesapeake to repair facilities at Rock Hall.

The towing operation alone will likely end up costing several thousand dollars, and the repairs even more, Mr. West said. But he held out hopes of being on the bay, dredging for oysters this season.

"It feels good to get it out of the water. We're getting there," he said, adding that his fellow watermen had been very supportive.

"I'll be back, one way or the other," Mr. West said.

"Everyone's been great; they've all offered help," he said, referring to the skipjack captains, police officers from the state Department of Natural Resources and the tow workers.

The mishap lent some drama to the annual Chesapeake festival, which featured local artisans and musicians, as well as exhibits on the bay's ecology. It is sponsored by the Maryland Watermen's Association.

The festival is also the annual gathering of the steadily shrinking skipjack fleet, which swings into real action each Nov. 1 when oyster dredging begins.

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