Time and tide take their toll on Maryland's skipjacks Thomas Clyde's plight is a symbol

DEAL ISLAND — DEAL ISLAND -- For more than 20 years, the Thomas Clyde provided for three generations of the Abbott family.

To Charles Patrick Abbott Sr., the old wooden workboat was the rudder he used to steer out of rough times. To Charles Jr., it was a ticket to a prosperity he had never imagined. And for the grandson, C.P., the sailboat has become a link to the heritage he left behind.


But as the last commercial sailing fleet in North America set sail on the first day of oyster season last week, the Abbotts' 80-year-old beauty sat decaying at the dock on Deal Island.

The time has come for the Abbotts to provide for the Thomas Clyde, but repairs on her would gobble the annual income of both Charles Jr. and his son. So it rocks forlornly, but not forgotten, a dinosaur waiting for extinction.


The answer is obvious. They should sell it. And Charles Abbott Jr. will consider any offer. But the actual letting go would be hard. And the Abbotts seem somehow relieved that there is practically no market for the boat, whose sole purpose is to dredge up oysters from the Chesapeake Bay, which has few healthy ones left.

While several skipjacks in Maryland's fleet have been brought up to near mint condition, the majority of the two dozen remaining boats are full of rotten wood and holey, chafed sails.

Many are kept afloat with pumps bailing them out 24 hours a day. If they are not fixed within the next couple years, some say, a symbol of Maryland history and folk culture will be relegated to museums.

Since a state-funded plan foundered for lack of money, the public restoration effort has been left to the Lady Maryland Foundation, a non-profit group that is launching a drive this weekend to raise $1 million in private donations.

If the money is raised, experienced shipwrights will direct inner-city teen-agers in restoring skipjacks at a 2-acre maritime institute in Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

In the meantime, about 15 captains are struggling to keep their boats working in the face of plummeting oyster harvests and profits.

Charles Abbott Jr. has showered all the affection on the family skipjack that his muscles and pocketbook would allow -- and then some. He replaced its sides, he scraped and greased its mast, and he painted it as his father had each year.

For the moment, he has saved the Thomas Clyde from the mud flats, the place where old workboats go like elephants to die a slow, mournful death.


But the fact remains Mr. Abbott does not need it. It is no longer his means of making a living. For that, he has another boat, appropriately named the Wells Fargo.

Charles Abbott Sr., who died six years ago, bought the boat in 1967 for $5,000 after several lean years when harvests were small. The other skipjack captains thought he must be crazy, but he ignored the talk. He wanted this boat, he told his family, because it had been built on Deal Island. It would bring him luck. He knew the oysters would come back. He was right.

"It was a time of rebirth for him. To him, she was the greatest boat in the world," said his daughter-in-law, Jeannie Abbott.

"He knew there were oysters on the bottom, and he made so much money the rest of his life on it. It was a turning point. I just saw him blossom into a brilliant person that I didn't know was there."

The videotape playing on the television in Jeannie and Charles Jr.'s living room is of Charles Sr. aboard the Thomas Clyde talking about the oyster harvest. He walks his boat with the ease of a homemaker working in a kitchen she has known for decades. His thick mustache and head full of hair give him a surprisingly youthful appearance for a man in his 60s.

"I do it because I really love to do it, to sail these old boats," the voice from the videotape says. Charles Sr. was a shy man who used words sparingly, his family says.


His son remembers his best day on the Thomas Clyde back in 1969 or '70. It was December, and the state had just opened up an oyster bar that hadn't been worked for years. Every boat in the bay was there near Chesapeake Beach. The crew of the Thomas Clyde took on 560 bushels, an astounding amount given that the limit for oysters is now 25 bushels a day. "We could have caught more, but we couldn't get into the harbor with them. We had to make two trips. It was shallow water," said Charles, a man whose hands are swollen and fingernails polished by manual labor. "I was just a crew member then. My father was the captain. I made $1,200 [that day], and that was the most money I had ever seen in my life in one time."

Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, father and son dredged up the bay's bounty.

The father taught the son to maneuver a 40-foot sailboat at just the right speed to drag the dredge -- a square metal rake with netting at tached to catch the oysters. He gave him an instinct for where to catch the best oysters and how bad the weather had to get before taking the boat in.

Oyster wholesalers were paying good prices and the supply seemed endless. Charles Jr. liked the money, which brought his family a prosperity they never had before -- television sets, vacations, vans and new cars for each of his three children when they turned 16.

Some days, the grandson, C.P., would skip school to work on the Thomas Clyde. "I used to take off school -- take off sick and go work on the boat, mainly around Christmas time to make money to buy everyone presents," he said. "I have seen [my grandfather] get ice all on his face. It would get so cold he would put rock salt down on the deck so ice wouldn't form and, of course, we wouldn't fall overboard."

For a century, Maryland laws allowed anyone to work the bay but tried to limit the oyster harvest by only permitting the most inefficient collection systems -- the single-masted skipjacks and hand tongs, the long-handled rakes.


The outmoded sailing fleet became an anomaly among fishing fleets around the nation, but one that Marylanders grew increasingly attached to. The captains got used to the public's attention and one weekend each summer on Deal Island, they invited the public to catch a ride on a skipjack for races.

But even so, the Abbotts were a bit surprised when one loyal visitor entrusted his ashes into their care. The man, who had been out with them once every year for several seasons, asked that his ashes be thrown from the Thomas Clyde into the Chesapeake Bay at the spot the skipjack races begin every Labor Day.

Charles Jr. inherited the dredge boat from his father, just as the oyster beds around the bay were devastated by overfishing and a disease that is lethal to oysters but harmless to people. The prosperity he knew dissolved as the harvests declined and competition increased.

"I averaged four dollars less a bushel last year than I did the year before," he said. "Expenses keep increasing and you aren't catching any more oysters."

The Thomas Clyde was built to carry as much as 1,000 bushels of oysters, but the legal limit for skipjacks is now 150 bushels, a joke to Charles Jr. who said he averaged 40 bushels a day the last year he worked it.

"The days of the skipjack are numbered. I just don't see any way out for them," he said. "There is no young people at all taking up the trade of being a skipjack captain . . .


"And even if you repair the old boats, you can't repair a 70-year-old skipjack captain."

Younger people might come back to the water, however, if they could make money. So a revival of the fleet depends as much as anything on a healthy oyster population.

Mrs. Abbott calls her son a dreamer, but even in his late 20s, he has chosen a practical route that provides a steady income, health insurance and a pension. C.P. works in the state prison in Salisbury.

"The seafood industry has gotten so bad that you are encouraging your children to go to college if they possibly can or go into another trade or get another job. It was the hardest thing in the world to tell my son that. I wanted him to go on the water, but, my God, what could he do? He wanted to live. He wanted to buy a home. He wanted a Corvette. You don't get Corvettes on the water, C.P.," said Mrs. Abbott.

C.P. is not sorry about his choice. "I think I get to enjoy life a little bit more. I actually have days off," said C.P., who inherited the straight nose, slight build and endearing shyness of his father and grandfather.

But the pull of the water is too strong for him to completely deny. So each morning he still goes out on the water for a few hours to do a little oystering or crabbing before work.


And late this summer, he began to think about giving up the money he has saved for a new Trans Am to fix the Thomas Clyde. He just can't see her being sold.

His parents share his ambivalence about selling. "I am going to try, yeah, I am going to try, I think," Mr. Abbott said. "We aren't 100 percent sure." But Mrs. Abbott, quickly adds, "We are 99 percent sure."

They have taken out ads in The Sun, the Washington Post and a magazine about Maryland history. They got a flock of responses, but most were from people interested in riding down to Deal Island from the city to take a picture of an old boat. None was a serious buyer.

The most logical buyers -- other watermen -- aren't interested in owning a hulk they can't make much of a living on.

So for the time being, they will put a little bit of money in her each year to keep her afloat and hope that the Maryland Lady Foundation will raise the money needed to repair the Thomas Clyde and the rest of the fleet. As much as anything, the boat has come to symbolize Charles Sr. And his heirs aren't ready to let go yet. "It is not just a piece of wood, it is a man's life," Mrs. Abbott said. "It is just like it is him, and it is keeping him alive."