Skipjack renaissance


HAVRE de GRACE -- Sailboats are common enough off Havre de Grace, even in mid-spring with the water temperature still a chilly 50 degrees. But a passing skipjack usually draws a second look, and five skipjacks together is cause to stop and gawk.

And so there were gawkers aplenty on the banks of the Susquehanna last weekend as five of the big wooden Chesapeake sloops raced two three-mile laps around a triangular course where the river widens out between Concord and Perry Points and becomes the bay.

It's hard to say exactly what drew the specators. It certainly wasn't speed. Even at its fastest, sailboat racing isn't the most heart-stopping spectator sport. The late Red Smith once compared the America's Cup yacht races to watching paint dry, and skipjacks aren't yachts. They're traditional working craft built to pull oyster dredges and carry heavy loads, but not to hurry.

It's a fact as well that while they are wonderful symbols for the entire Chesapeake, their presence in these particular waters isn't entirely authentic. Skipjacks go with oysters, and oysters require water that's at least slightly brackish. As the water of the upper 20 miles or so of the Chesapeake is entirely fresh, working skipjacks aren't generally found above Rock Hall.

No matter. On Saturday, when Capt. Wade Murphy Jr.'s Rebecca T. Ruark, up from Tilghman Island, defeated four challengers by what has come to be considered her usual comfortable margin, nobody around here was worrying about such things. Another winter's dredging season is over, and it was time to have some fun.

What with disease and pollution, the future of Chesapeake oysters may be uncertain, and the future of catching them with big old wooden sailboats downright precarious. But on this blowy April day the mood was one of infectious enthusiasm.

As a brisk southerly breeze scooted the old boats around the markers with a kind of massive grace, pride in the past mixed with hope for the future. After the Rebecca T. Ruark came the Martha Lewis, the H.M. Krentz, the Nellie Byrd and Kent County's beautiful Nathan of Dorchester. Whatever their speed, they provided a great spectacle. We're not museum pieces yet, the skipjacks seemed to declare. We can still do the job for which we were built.

A changing mission

The nature of their job is changing, though. Each year the Bay's little skipjack fleet is dredging fewer oysters but carrying more passengers on educational and recreational outings. Some, like Havre de Grace's 41-year-old Martha Lewis, are now operated year-round by nonprofit organizations, which can use tax-deductible contributions to defray the cost of operations and upkeep.

Purists may complain that hauling school kids and tourists is beneath the dignity of skipjacks, and that it in some way diminishes their heritage. But it's an important new role that they are well suited for. They're stable, with big wide decks, and when their pushboats are out of the water and their big mainsails are drawing, they're soothingly quiet. They make great outdoor classrooms.

And because they give people a chance to see the Chesapeake close up from the deck of a traditional sailing vessel, maybe to pull on a line or take a turn at the wheel as well, they have a great advantage over shorebound museums whose exhibits are all in display cases.

At about 65 feet overall, with a mast more than 50 feet high, a

skipjack looks and feels like a big boat. Yet it's small enough to be sailed by a couple of people, and small enough to become an affordable community project.

With the help of a volunteer crew, plenty of oyster roasts and other local fund-raising functions, and steadily increasing interest in the bay, the Martha Lewis is entering her third summer season in Havre de Grace and appears to be well on her way to becoming a local fixture. Other old skipjacks elsewhere in the Chesapeake are having equally successful second careers.

But Baltimore's poor old Constellation is just too big a money hole. She may be an important piece of naval history, but she's going to need millions of dollars just to keep her safely afloat. And even if she were to be completely restored, nobody's ever going to have the thrill of sailing on her.

After the recent races here, when the five competing skipjacks were all tied up together at the foot of Congress Avenue, it was like having celebrities in town. Scores of people came by to ask questions, take photographs or just stand quietly and look. There's something quite magical about old working sailboats that still sail.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 4/28/96

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