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Kids sail, dredge up bay's future

The Baltimore Sun

Their parents lathered them in sunscreen, snapped their photos and waved as the dozen young sailors boarded the skipjack Martha Lewis at a Havre de Grace marina. They were bound for a Chesapeake Bay cruise.

In less than two hours, they would be back, maybe with a better appreciation of the area's complex ecology.

While aboard the 53-year-old restored sailboat, the children encountered several indigenous bay creatures. As they sailed, they learned that oysters help filter the bay, crabs grow by molting and the length of a turtle's nails provide a hint to its gender - the female's are shorter, allowing her to dig deeper and hide her eggs.

Children who learn early on about the Chesapeake's animal and plant life may become lifelong protectors of the environment, said the skipjack's captain, Greg Shinn. Childhood experiences on the bay can kindle an interest in conservation and preservation, he said.

"You win them early by getting them out on the water and giving them a good experience," Shinn said. "Then you will have them for the long run."

For the skipjack crew, most of whom are volunteers, the numerous children's outings this summer offer an opportunity to raise environmental awareness.

Lisa Marvel of Churchville reserved a spot with the program, "Creatures on the Bay," for her 6-year-old son, Owen, to give him a break from day care, she said. He was eager to get aboard.

"I am gonna see crabs and clams," Owen said.

Youth programs have grown in popularity, prompting the Chesapeake Heritage Conservancy, a Harford County nonprofit group that owns the skipjack, to schedule more child-oriented cruises this summer, said executive director Cindi Beane.

"Creatures on the Bay" will repeat next month, and trips this month include pirate cruises, treasure hunts on the water and a shipboard teddy bear picnic.

"We like to get them out on the water so they can see how much fun it is," Beane said. "It's not like school. It's hands-on, and they learn unintentionally."

Volunteer crew member Peggy Roberts brought along three children from her Bel Air neighborhood. "They hear me talking about the skipjack all the time and wanted to come on board," she said.

Under the mandatory life jacket, Daniel Hersey, 8, sported a T-shirt printed with images of manatees.

"I won't see any manatees today," said the young Havre de Grace resident. "This water is too cold for them, but I want to see other critters."

Millie Feldman, 8, a Chesapeake, Va., resident who was visiting her grandparents, was the first aboard. Others quickly followed. A few children hesitated and clutched a parent's hand, until Shinn promised the skipjack would not tip far to the side, like some sailboats they saw out in deeper waters.

"This boat weighs 30 tons and is solid wood," Shinn said. "It won't tip."

As they motored smoothly to the open waters, the children counted eight ducklings swimming with their mother and spotted a blue heron, dozens of Canada geese and a large plastic bag snagged on a branch.

"That's from polluters," said Matthew Foulk, 8, of Havre de Grace. "You can't do that!"

Daniel added, "An animal might eat that plastic and be in danger."

Shinn assigned the children a few tasks. They tested to determine the water's turbidity and found it clear to a depth of about 4 1/2 feet.

"When Captain John Smith sailed up here in the 1600s, he could see 20 feet down," said Tim McKeever, volunteer crew member.

Once clear of the city's harbor, the children helped hoist the sails and switch to wind power. Roberts demonstrated how to stand and pull hand over hand until the sails were raised. Joe Maples, 10, at the far end of the rope, did the bulk of the pulling.

"You must have done this before," Shinn said to Joe. "You are really working on that end."

Shinn discovered many children knowledgeable about the ship's history, like Adam Berg, 8, of Bel Air, who knew that skipjacks were sturdy work boats used for catching oysters. Martha Lewis still dredges for oysters while under sail.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, skipjacks dredged as many as 15 million bushels of oysters a year. Annual harvests are now about 30,000 bushels, Shinn said.

"We have to keep oysters around," Shinn said. "One adult oyster can filter as much as 150 gallons of water a day."

Nancy Kirk of the Terrapin Institute, who brought three turtles aboard, began her presentation with words such as "indigenous" and "brackish," vocabulary unfamiliar to most passengers.

"Brackish is kind of salty water, and diamondbacks are the only turtles who can live in it," said Kelly Foulk, 10. "I am still not sure, but I think 'indigenous' means 'native.'"

Of the terrapins Kirk displayed, the 1-year-old diamondbacks, an endangered species, proved the most popular.

"Their feet are webbed so they can swim fast," Owen said.

Too fast to qualify for Bel Air's turtle race last weekend, Kirk said. She explained that the squirming critters started life at about the size of a quarter and would eventually mature to the size of a dinner plate. Diamondbacks may be spotted or striped, white, gray or slightly blue, each with its own unique markings. Kirk will tend to the turtles for a while longer and then release them at a location near where they hatched last year.

Shinn brought out two soft crabs and asked how they would grow.

"They molt," said Joe, who hails from Chicago but really likes steamed crabs. "And each time, they get bigger."

Crewman Al Hewing said he enjoys sailing with children.

"This is the future of the bay right here," he said. "They ask really neat questions and what they know already never ceases to amaze me."

Jensen Kase, 7, of Elizabethtown, Pa., said he had acquired some sailing techniques from trips aboard his grandfather's boat. He knew as the sails turned, the ship was heading back to the marina.

"If they had drinks and food on here, I would sleep overnight," he said.

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