A skipjack's extreme makeover

The Baltimore Sun

ST. MICHAELS - The deck of the Caleb W. Jones gleams with a fresh coat of white paint, as does the new cabin aft. Down below, though, the 55-year-old skipjack is showing its age - and even some daylight. You can poke three fingers through a hole in its rotted wooden hull.

Built in 1953, this remnant of the Chesapeake Bay's fading fleet of sail-powered oyster dredging boats is getting an extreme makeover at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. On dry ground for now, the Caleb's hull is being taken apart and put back together again, a timber and plank at a time.

"The boat was partially sunk when I got it," explains Mike Vlahovich, a veteran boat builder and founder of the Coastal Heritage Alliance, a nonprofit that works to preserve the vessels and culture of fishing communities. "It was pretty clear that no one really cared too much about it."

With the help of apprentices and volunteers, Vlahovich spent more than a year rehabbing the topside of the 44-foot skipjack while it sat in the water, its leaks controlled by pumping. A few weeks ago, he had it hoisted out of the water with a crane at the museum so he and his helpers could restore the hull on land.

"It has to be done in careful fashion, and braced up, so we don't lose shape," Vlahovich said. It's painstaking work, pulling the hull apart a bit at a time to replace the rotten wood. Like a jigsaw puzzle, no two pieces are exactly alike; each replacement piece must be carefully measured to fit the gap it must fill.

The restoration is being underwritten by the boat's owner, Michael Sullivan, a developer from Charles County. Sullivan, 53, grew up in Charles and has supported land-based historic preservation projects there. Though not a sailor himself, Sullivan said he was drawn to restore the Caleb W. Jones because his great-grandfather had worked on the water and had a skipjack.

"I just wanted to help preserve the heritage of Maryland," he says. "There are so few of them left."

Indeed, there are only five still dredging the bay bottom for oysters - three based in Somerset County, one that sails from Tilghman Island and one from Baltimore. In the late 1800s, more than a thousand reportedly plied the bay.

Named for its original owner, a Smith Island waterman, it was built at a commercial boatyard in Reedville, Va. It's one of the last skipjacks ever built but, Vlahovich notes, "like many of the newer ones, very cheaply built and just not made to last as long as they have."

Skipjacks were developed in the 1890s. They were relatively inexpensive to build, and their shallow draft enabled them to dredge oysters closer in to shore. Watermen often built the craft themselves in their backyards.

The Caleb's fortunes mirror those of the bay's oyster industry. Harvests topped 2 million bushels a year when the old Smith Islander took his namesake out dredging. He sold it after about a decade to a man in Virginia who intended to convert it to a pleasure sailboat, according to a book about the Caleb by Doug Stephens of Sharptown. The skipjack returned to work after a few years, with Richard "Dickie" Webster of Wenona, on Deal Island, as its captain.

Deal Island is one of the last bastions of oyster dredging, and still holds a skipjack race every Labor Day. Webster, whose family owned three skipjacks at one time, recalls boom times when they could catch 400 or 500 bushels a day. It was grueling work, though, sailing through all kinds of weather in fall and winter.

"I've caught some bad storms, but she took care of me," Webster, 67, says of the Caleb. "She brought me back."

But oyster harvests plummeted in the late 1980s, as diseases devastated the bay's once-abundant shellfish. The statewide catch is a fraction of what it was before - just 83,000 bushels last season.

As oysters hit bottom, so did the Caleb W. Jones. It sank in 1992 - fortunately in just 10 feet of water near Smith Island. It was patched and towed to Baltimore for repairs. Students at what later became the Living Classrooms Foundation provided the labor. The overhaul lasted barely a decade, though.

"I couldn't make enough money to keep the boat up," says Webster. "It just needed a lot of things."

So Webster sold the boat, and the new owner commissioned Vlahovich to restore it. A descendant of Croatian immigrants who fished Puget Sound, Vlahovich has been around fishermen and boats almost all his life. He started out salmon fishing, then shifted to building boats. For the past decade or so, he's worked on preserving fishing vessels, first on the West Coast and since the late 1990s here in Maryland, where he has focused on restoring the commercial skipjack fleet.

But keeping the old boats shipshape isn't really enough, he acknowledges.

"There's not enough money in dredging oysters to keep the boats alive. You need to find alternate sources of revenue. Ideally, there wouldn't need to be a Coastal Heritage Alliance. There would be sustainable fisheries."

Until there are, Vlahovich says, skipjacks like the Caleb W. Jones must take on new roles, as vessels for experiencing the bay the way generations of watermen once did. The Caleb's owner wants to use it to offer educational cruises for groups of youngsters, taking them from Charles County down the Potomac River and over to Smith Island. A few of the old skipjacks are in similar service, owned by museums or nonprofit groups such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

"The sea's the teacher," Vlahovich says. Passengers at least will get a taste of the way watermen once worked the bay and an appreciation for how it is now.

In reworking the Caleb W. Jones, Vlahovich is deviating from historical purity, replacing more of the vessel's wood than if it were a strict restoration. He says that's being done to meet Coast Guard standards for certification to carry passengers. Among other things, he plans to use thicker pine planks on the hull, which will make the skipjack heavier but more durable than it was.

"If you can't save the fabric, you try to save the construction detail," Vlahovich says. To the untrained eye, the only obvious departure from the original design is the cabin, which he says has been rebuilt larger and plusher than before, using oak and Douglas fir to trim.

"A little bit yacht-y, perhaps, for a skipjack," he acknowledges, but he wanted to provide comfortable shelter from the elements for any passengers the skipjack may carry in its new role as an educational charter.

One recent workday, sawdust and the whine of electric tools filled the air as Vlahovich and his helpers fashioned new wood for the Caleb's hull.

Working at a large band saw in the museum's workshop, apprentice Simon Tomko cut planks for the transom, or rear, of the boat. Tomko, 27, grew up in Towson and had been second mate on a research vessel based in Bermuda before signing on with Vlahovich. It's his first real boat-building job, but he and his wife, Nellie, who is also apprenticing, were looking to settle down, he said.

Inside the partially deconstructed hull, volunteer Tom Falvey took measurements so he could create "blanks" or patterns for cutting new pieces of framing. A retired federal worker and Coast Guard reservist, Falvey drives over from Arlington, Va., once a week to help out.

"It gets me out of the house, and gets me my water fix," he explains.

It's painstaking work, and - though relying on donated labor and materials wherever possible - costly. Sullivan says he hasn't kept track of what it's cost him so far.

"I've been around enough historical preservation [to know] that the best thing is not to think about it and just keep moving forward," he says. "I didn't kid myself - I knew it would be a major undertaking."

Barring unforeseen problems, Vlahovich says he expects to have the Caleb W. Jones back in the water in time for the annual Deal Island skipjack race on Labor Day.

Webster says he'd like a chance to race his old skipjack again, but he's not too keen on taking it out oystering anymore. The market for oysters isn't what it used to be, he says, and it's too hard to find a good crew these days.

"The boat will be rigged to dredge again, if there's any dredging to be done," Vlahovich says. "The boats in a way are easy to save, but the culture itself is a much bigger question."

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