New hands, old techniques


TILGHMAN ISLAND -- The Stanley Norman is a lucky boat.

In other hands, the 98-year-old skipjack might have long since been "run up a gut" -- sailed up a creek, stripped of everything valuable, and left to rot amid the marsh grass when the cost of repairs outstripped the profit its owner could make. But now the Stanley Norman is in the hands of Mike Vlahovich, salmon fisherman turned savior of old wooden boats.

In a cold, high-ceilinged boat shed smelling of pine sap, Vlahovich is undertaking something that has not been done in recent years and might never be done again: He is rebuilding, from the spine up, one of the last remaining skipjacks in the Chesapeake Bay oyster-fishing fleet.

In the process, Vlahovich, 50, hopes to pass along nearly forgotten skills to his crew of four carpenters, ages 28 to 83.

"It's not about the boats," the Tacoma, Wash., native said. "It's about the people. It's about the tradition and the romance of wooden boats, and doing whatever it takes to keep that tradition alive."

A century ago, when 2,000 skipjacks worked the bay's waters, the boatyards of the Eastern Shore were chockablock with craftsmen who could keep the sturdy, single-masted sailboats fit and true, or build a new one cheaply in a matter of weeks.

Today, only 13 vessels, most of them dating from the 1900s and 1910s, make up the last fleet of commercial fishing boats under sail in North America. Their owners are increasingly hard-pressed to find the cash and talent needed to keep them afloat.

Enter Vlahovich, the descendant of men who fished the Adriatic Sea from an island off the coast of Croatia. Raised alongside the wooden salmon boats of the Pacific Northwest, he is a self-described gypsy who for 29 years has traveled the country, from the fishing camps of Alaska to the boatyards of New England, rebuilding old wooden boats. Those who know him well say he has a mysterious gift.

"He's able to look at the place where a piece of wood is going to be, go to a table and cut a new piece, and it'll fit perfectly," said Don Baugh, vice president for education of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which owns the Stanley Norman.

"Maybe he's a genius at puzzles. Maybe he's a genius at making his hands do what his mind tells him. I don't know what kind of genius he has, but I know he has it."

An old wooden sailboat epitomizes the saying that a boat is "a hole in the water into which you pour money." This is the Stanley Norman's second overhaul since the foundation bought it in 1990 for $75,000. Since then, it has been used as a teaching vessel, taking schoolchildren on cruises to learn about bay life and traditions. The budget for the overhaul: nearly $100,000, far more than a less extensive job five years ago, and probably more than 100 times what it cost to build the boat in Salisbury in 1902.

An Alabama timber company donated six logs of long-leaf and short-leaf pine, cut two years ago to give the wood time to dry. A local lumberyard milled it into 12-by-12-inch planks of a rare, fine-grained density. The lumber is now stacked on the floor of an unheated boat shed at Severn Marine Services, next to the bridge that connects Tilghman Island to the rest of the Eastern Shore.

In early December, Vlahovich took a chain saw to the 47-footer's hull, exposing the inside of its keel -- the long, narrow underwater fin that keeps a sailboat upright and on course.

After nine decades' worth of battering waves and running aground in bay muck, the old keel shimmied like a snake, Vlahovich said. It was a hodgepodge of planks and bolts, about one-third original wood and two-thirds newer pieces shoehorned into place in earlier repairs.

"She wasn't going to sink," Vlahovich said, but the old keel wasn't what seamen call "fair" -- graceful and sleek, a pleasure to look at.

Working from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. or later, sometimes on Sundays and on New Year's Day, the carpenters set about changing that. They built a support wall to hold the boat steady, nailed plywood over the existing keel and cut the plywood into templates that perfectly matched what was there. Then Vlahovich sketched, tinkered and cut until he had something better -- a wider, sturdier, more gracefully curved keel.

It took a series of careful alterations to match the old design to the new, and nearly half of the stockpiled lumber to build it. On Thursday, the carpenters carefully hoisted into place a long, sleek oaken plank, and the basic shape of the new keel -- or "skeg," as most bay watermen call it, "scrag" in Tilghman Island watermen's lingo -- was complete.

Vlahovich sighted carefully down its length, then gave it his most effusive praise.

"It's fair," he said.

Using steel spikes that had been custom-made by Earl White, the 83-year-old elder statesman of the Stanley Norman's crew, the carpenters rhythmically pounded the new plank into place.

At least 10 weeks' worth of work remain. A new chine, or support piece that connects the bottom of the boat to its sides, must be designed, cut, steamed into shape and hammered into place. New ribs must be fitted, new planks must form the boat's bottom half, where today there is only air.

Tilghman Island's watermen will be watching, predicts Carl W. Griebel, owner of Severn Marine Services.

At first, the islanders were wary of Vlahovich, an outsider. "Then word got around that something special was going on," Griebel said, and local watermen have been stopping by regularly ever since.

Bart Murphy, 66, a skipjack captain for 50 years, was one of those on hand as the Stanley Norman's keel took shape. Watermen are "happy to see somebody doing it," Murphy said. "Nobody wants to do that heavy work no more."

Today's skipjack captains are growing old, and so are their boats, said Murphy, predicting that the remnants of the working skipjack fleet will be gone in 20 years' time. Baugh is afraid he's right -- that in coming years, the only skipjacks sailing will belong to museums and groups such as the foundation.

Vlahovich is more hopeful. He believes in the tradition of wooden boats and the people who keep it alive. "Misfits," he calls them affectionately, people "looking for something authentic."

"These old wooden boats will survive as long as there's somebody who knows how to take care of them," he said.

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