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Living History -- Sort Of


Havre de Grace. -- As the morning fog lifted from the Susquehanna's mouth last weekend four skipjacks, lovely relics of a time that is past, slid slowly downriver past Concord Point Lighthouse.

They were here to race, but there was little wind, and the big gray sails weren't drawing. On the way to the start the skipjacks were under power, pushed by their yawlboats. But it was still quite a display, and a small crowd, gathered where President Clinton and Vice President Gore had stood less than 24 hours earlier, watched appreciatively. This was living history -- sort of.

The Chesapeake skipjacks are described as the last fleet of commercial vessels working under sail in the United States, and that's probably accurate. Most of those that are still seaworthy dredged for oysters this past winter. But the end of this fishery as a viable commercial activity, if not actually in sight, is at least just over the horizon.

For a skipjack to keep paying the bills, which for an old wooden sailboat can be substantial, she can't spend her summers tied to a dock. She needs off-season revenue. And because a skipjack isn't a practical boat for crabbing, most watermen's preferred summer activity, this tends to mean fishing for tourists.

The recently-restored Martha Lewis, which is based in Havre de Grace and operated by a local foundation, has been doing this with some success since last summer. Crewed mostly by volunteers, she's discovered that there's an active market for short fair-weather cruises on Chesapeake waters aboard a traditional vessel.

These cruises are educational, nostalgic and reassuringly stable. skipjack is a big, beamy craft and doesn't roll around

much. There's room for 30 people or more to mill around on deck, look up at the big mainsail, and watch the water slide by.

The survival of the skipjacks as tourist-haulers, however, highlights some difficult old questions about the relationship between yesterday's trades, when they're preserved in some ongoing form as living history, and today's. There can be friction here.

In town after waterfront town along the waterfront, although maritime traditions are ostensibly venerated, the docks have been gentrified and commercial users pushed aside. Workboats may be colorful, but marinas and condominiums are where the money is.

Only a half-century ago the Chesapeake's chief economic significance was as, in H.L. Mencken's term, a great protein factory. Today its paramount value to the teeming human society living around it is as a playground.

At the same time, there's tremendous support for keeping alive the old traditions, preferably in a sanitized and domesticated way. At one level this is a sentimental and nostalgic desire, but at another it's intensely economic. There's money to be made from history.

Havre de Grace was once one of the great waterfowling towns of the United States. Market hunters and rich New York sports killed ducks by the thousands. Local people worked as guides, pickers and decoy carvers. Those days are gone, along with most of the ducks, but their memory is still marketable. A main local attraction today is a museum with decoys and other waterfowling memorabilia on display.

Naturally, history infects politics, too. In next week's Havre de Grace elections, it will be a defining theme. One leading candidate for mayor is broadly supported by people who think the town's history is the key to its future. Another candidate is perceived -- not necessarily unfavorably -- as favoring commercial development over historical authenticity.

In fact, there's probably not much difference between the two candidates' views. Each surely wants to do the right thing for the town, its commercial life and its heritage. But at election time small differences are magnified, and the campaign has been fairly bitter.

And now back to the skipjacks, nearing the start of their race. The yawlboats come up, the big sails fill as the boats turn downwind. Captain Wade Murphy on the Rebecca T. Ruark, the pride of Tilghman Island, will predictably get away in the lead, with the Martha Lewis, the H.M. Krentz and the Thomas Clyde following closely behind.

But first, commerce briefly intrudes. The tug Nighthawk, pushing a massive though empty barge toward the stone quarry just upriver, is coming up the narrow channel. Tug and skipjacks, communicating by radio, manage to avoid each other, and the race resumes without further incident.

The Rebecca T. Ruark wins, as she usually does in these affairs. The H.M. Krentz and the Martha Lewis finish in that order. The Thomas Clyde, a heavy boat not at its best in light air, gives up. The crews go ashore to receive awards and admiration.

By evening, Captain Murphy is homeward bound. A thunderstorm has come and gone. The Martha Lewis rocks in her berth. Havre de Grace's attention turns away from the river to other things. And the Nighthawk, this time with a barge full of gravel, is once again heading down the channel.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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