The Last Voyage of the Skipjack Sigsbee


March 09, 1991|By HELEN CHAPPELL

EASTON, MARYLAND — Just about the last thing Doug West wanted was the 15 minutes of Warholian fame he got when his skipjack, the Sigsbee, sank last fall on Chesapeake Appreciation Day. Although even that seems like a touch of irony, when you think about the plight of the skipjacks in general.

''We hadn't raced her the year before.'' Doug said a few weeks later, when he was still recovering from the incident, as well as the attendant glare of publicity it brought to him and his family. ''So we decided we'd bring her around to Sandy Point and race her. We brought her down from Chestertown under power, and then when we caught the wind, we pulled up the boat and put up the sail. After about ten minutes, I noticed she was heeling. I looked down and saw about a quarter-inch of water seeping through the cabin floor. I knew then that there was more water where that came from.''

It took the 70-odd-year-old Sigsbee about three minutes to sink.

Doug and his crew, John Leader, were rescued by the Coast Guard, under the eyes of TV cameras and print journalists from the Western Shore. For the next few weeks, Doug, a quiet, easy-going man from near Chestertown, his determined wife Sue and their two small children were in the spotlight while the plight of the last skipjacks on the Bay was given passing attention.

TC With the sinking of the Sigsbee, less than two dozen of the old wooden boats, used as they were a hundred years ago, to dredge oysters, remained as working sail on the Bay. The broad-beamed, heavy-masted skipjacks still retain their rugged Bay aura of a rougher and more isolated time. They have become the unofficial symbol of Maryland, an attraction to Chesapeake tourists and pleasure sailors -- so long as the skipjacks' crews stayed a safe distance downwind from the women and children.

While everybody wanted to shake their heads over the sad plight of the skipjacks, dying and disappearing into up-creek guts and maritime museums, few seemed anxious to do much about it. A towing outfit from the Western Shore (popularly called Sea Leech on the Eastern Shore for the company's ravenous and frequently intrusive efforts to beat out the watermen in their workboats from answering each other's distress calls) managed to tow the Sigsbee onto the beach at Sand's Point, where she was left to the mercy of battering waves and wind.

To see the working fleets come into Tilghman or Winona under sail is to experience something of what the Bay's heritage and tradition is all about. In the great heyday of the oyster boom of the 1880s, the Chesapeake Bay was filled with these sturdy working sail; over 300 of them made up the working fleets of tidewater Maryland and Virginia. Towns like Crisfield, which rose from nothing on the great antebellum oyster boom, are built on the oystershell middens from the skipjacks' harvest.

Age, hard weather and prohibitive insurance costs all have contributed something to the gradual disintegration of the skipjack fleet. Few, if any, watermen can afford to insure wooden boats, and declining oyster harvests along with the peculiar Maryland laws which allow the fleet to operate under power only two days a week and the venerability of the skipjacks themselves, many built in the last century, all contribute to their status as an endangered Bay icon.

Last summer, Captain Bart Murphy had trouble with his skipjack, the Esther F. during the Deal Island races, and this winter, the Homer sank at the dock in Cambridge, adding to the casualty lists.

Perhaps because he is only 29, and he represents a last hopeful generation, Doug West's plight has garnered him some assistance. A proud man, he was a little embarrassed, but grateful when Spanky Barth organized a fund-raiser for the Sigsbee at the McDaniel Country Store in the late fall, and he appreciated the shotgun raffle held to benefit the Sigsbee at the Waterman's Convention in Ocean City in January.

Interestingly enough, those who make their living extolling the virtues of the colorful Chesapeake region have been the least forthcoming with offers of assistance. A local ''folk'' group with a repertoire of songs limning the bay's working sailcraft never returned Spanky's calls about playing the benefit, and a maritime museum, with a large endowment for the restoration and preservation of old boats, grudgingly offered to allow Doug to keep the skipjack on their property ''for a little while.''

A bill, the Skipjack Preservation Plan, prepared by the Maryland Historical Trust, proposes to aid these endangered boats by providing for restoration and repair work. The proposal most popular with skipjack captains calls for up to $10,000 dollars to be available for each skipjack each year, if the boats are used for dredging and educational purposes. The bill has been on Governor Schaefer's desk for well over three years.

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