Skipjack captains strapped for repairs


January 16, 1991|By Pat Emory | Pat Emory,Special to The Sun

CAMBRIDGE -- Capt. Stan Daniels was dredging oysters off Howell Point in the Choptank River last month when he glanced down into the hold and found his skipjack, the Howard, full of water.

"I like to sink her drudgin' that day," said the Deal Island captain, who headed for shore and pumped the boat out. The bilge pump had failed, and the 82-year-old workhorse leaked so badly that it couldn't stay afloat unless the pump emptied its bilge every three minutes.

Several weeks later, Captain Daniels was not so lucky. Dawn over Cambridge Creek on Dec. 20 found the Howard lying on the bottom -- the third working skipjack to sink in three months.

In each case, it was lack of money to make major repairs that literally sank the old wooden vessels. Maryland's skipjacks, symbol of the state's long and colorful maritime heritage, are the nation's last commercial fishing fleet under sail.

"We need some help -- all we can get. Otherwise, they'll be gone," said Captain Daniels, whose family at one time had four generations dredging oysters on skipjacks.

Two months ago, financial help appeared to be right around the corner. The state was poised to launch a $900,000, five-year package to help keep the fleet afloat.

The skipjack project would have lent $30,000 per boat to skipjack captains, who have been financially strapped since shellfish diseases in the mid-1980s decimated Chesapeake Bay oyster harvests. And if the skipjacks remained in Maryland, were not sold and continued to be used for dredging oysters, the loans would be forgiven in 15 years.

"It was set to go into effect about exactly the time the [state budget] deficit became apparent to everyone," said J. Rodney Little, director of the Department of Housing and Community Development's Division of Historical and Cultural Programs.

Consequently, in November, the state quietly shelved its skipjack project. Captains working on a committee with the Maryland Historical Trust, which spent more than two years devising the plan, said they were not even notified.

Now it's unlikely the funds will be available until the state's economic climate improves, which could take 12 to 18 months or more, Mr. Little said.

That may not be soon enough for the Howard, whose days are numbered, Captain Daniels said.

"If they [the state] don't do something within the next year, year and a half, they don't have to worry about this boat. She'll be gone," he said.

The Howard has the picturesque lines of a skipjack -- sharply raked mast, huge mainsail and long bowsprit -- but the boat is no longer a beauty. Its telephone pole-sized mast and boom are stained dark and greasy. Its keelson, one of the main beams strengthening the keel, leaks badly and needs to be replaced. Its 17-year-old sails are so patched that Captain Daniels won't sail in heavy winds.

"If we get caught in a blow, they're rotten, they'll split," said Ruth Daniels, who culls oysters for her husband on the Howard. "I've begged him to sell her. I know how they feel about these boats, but he's been spending a load on her, and it's just not enough."

Captain Daniels says that he spends up to $13,000 a year -- "all she makes" -- on repairs to the Howard, but that he needs to invest $50,000 to $100,000 to have the skipjack rebuilt from the keel up.

"Can't afford to get things fixed like they should be. You just get things fixed to go drudgin,' ," said Capt. Walton Benton, whose 1949 skipjack, the Somerset, went aground at its mooring in the Magothy River. The grounding opened a leak in the keelson, and the boat sank in late November.

Both the Somerset and the Howard were raised and are working again.

But the 89-year-old Sigsbee, which sprang a plank and sank in the middle of the bay Oct. 27 en route to Chesapeake Appreciation Days at Sandy Point State Park, needs major repairs before it will sail again.

Since the early 1980s, when oysters were plentiful and the fleet numbered 32 skipjacks, almost half the fleet -- 14 skipjacks -- has stopped dredging, often because the boats became unseaworthy.

"A lot of these skipjacks are just sitting up in the marshes, dying," Mrs. Daniels said. "It's a shame because they're proud old boats."

Not all the skipjacks, however, are in danger of rotting away ithe marshes.

Fred Hecklinger, who conducted a marine survey of the skipjacfleet for the state two years ago, said that while half the fleet was in poor shape, many of the boats were in excellent condition. For example, he said, "The Kathyrn looks like a yacht. There's no rot in her."

"Your organized waterman doesn't need any help. He needs for the pollution in the bay to be cleaned up so the oysters can be plentiful and he can make a living," Mr. Hecklinger said.

Capt. Russell Dize, who owns the Kathyrn, agreed.

"As long as there's oysters out there, there's an element that will survive. But we're losing more and more of the marginal boats. The less boats there are, the harder it is for the industry," he said.

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