Chesapeake 20s fleet still afloat Old wooden boats make a comeback

August 08, 1991|By Pat Emory | Pat Emory,Special to The Sun

GALESVILLE -- Teri Nilsen was still hooked to the trapeze when the gust hit Gandalf, a sleek Chesapeake 20, as it tacked, forcing the sailboat to heel until it almost dipped its spreader in the water.

Nilsen scrambled to windward to add her human ballast to the battle with the wind to keep from capsizing. Seconds later, she had rehooked her line and was standing somewhat horizontally on the rub strip. Beneath her, Gandalf was surging through the 3-foot chop of West River again like the fast and beautiful lady the late Captain Dick Hartge had meant her to be when he built her back in the mid-1930s.

After more than 50 years, Gandalf and the other old wooden boats that make up most of the fleet of Chesapeake 20s, still run like colts just turned loose.

Some people say that what has kept this fleet of sailboats racing together for so many years is the way old Captain Dick built his boats -- with loving care and attention to detail, all enforced with architectural courses, unusual for boat builders working shortly after the turn of the century.

Others say it was the introduction of fiberglass hulls several years ago that saved the fleet, which had dwindled to four or five racing in weekend regattas, from disappearing altogether, as has happened to almost every other regional wooden boat sailing class in America.

Whatever the reason, Chesapeake 20s are enjoying a comeback almost unheard of for a regional boat design. Last month, when the West River Yacht Club held its "Worlds" regatta -- a tongue-in-cheek title since the boats are only found on the Chesapeake -- 11 boats competed.

Like most small racing boats on the bay, the Chesapeake 20 evolved from a basic waterman's skiff which sailors raced after work. But competition was keen among the blue-collar workers of Galesville, and Captain Dick, who owned Hartge's Boatyard with his older brother, Oscar, was often commissioned to build faster and faster 20-foot sailing skiffs.

The design evolved into an over-canvassed boat, which would fly in the light airs of a typical Chesapeake summer, but capsized easily in a stiff breeze without plenty of sailors aboard to act as ballast. The 20, a traditional sloop, is so over-canvassed that Captain Dick designed a boomkin to hold the backstay 30- to 40-inches off the stern so the rigging, which secures the mast, would be out of the way of the huge mainsail when it jibed.

The introduction of Vanity in 1935, a boat designed by America's Cup designer, Charles D. Mower, and built by Osborne "Oz" Owings, who then lived on the West River, forced Captain Dick and backyard builders of 20s to abandon the traditional flat-bottomed design for a round-bottom boat. Vanity was so fast and won so often that no flat-bottom boat could beat her.

For half a century, dedicated 20s fans, continued to race the boats, despite the introduction of high-tech, fiberglass factory-produced one-designs. Their numbers dwindled, however, and many of the 40 to 50 Chesapeake 20s which Captain Dick built in the 1930s and early '40s, and the dozen-or-so built by weekend fans, were put away in barns or left to rot.

Until recently, the youngest Chesapeake 20 was a vintage 1951. Then several years ago, a builder resurrected the old Hartge design and created a fiberglass mold. Four fiberglass boats were made, three of which race. Fans, like Rob MacAdam, who sold a restored 20 last year, began searching for old boats to rebuild. And for the first time in 40 years, a new wooden boat was under construction.

"As a kid, I used to race a lot of one-designs, and I always wanted a Chesapeake 20," said Randy Watson, who started work on a Chesapeake 20 about 18 months ago and hopes to finish this fall.

The old wooden boats, which have been glassed over, are surprisingly competitive against the new fiberglass versions.

During the weekend, Endeavor, an old wooden hull owned by Bunky Hines of Annapolis, was first in a class of 11 which competed in three races. Resolute, a new fiberglass hull skippered by Alex Schlegel of West River, was a close second.

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