Chesapeake Flyer back in business Catamaran ferry trips from the Inner Harbor resumed.

August 12, 1991|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

Jim Williamson casts off the mooring lines, Sam Ringgold retires to set up his snack bar, and Capt. Manson Chisholm backs the Chesapeake Flyer away from the Constellation Pier as gingerly as a waterman plucking live crabs from a bushel basket.

The Rock Hall-Annapolis-St. Michaels catamaran ferry is back in action.

Chisholm brought a dozen passengers to Baltimore from Rock Hall one recent morning, including a couple of moms who are going to spend the day with their kids at the National Aquarium and the Inner Harbor and at least one real commuter, a Rock Hall woman going to school in the city.

Now he's going back with 44 day-trippers to Rock Hall and St. Michaels. The Constellation Pier's a little tight for the 50-foot Flyer, but at least at 9:30 a.m. Chisholm doesn't have to dodge pedal boats. Coming back this evening he will. He was eyeball-to-eyeball with a pedal-boater a week or so ago.

"I knew exactly what he was thinking," Chisholm says. "He was thinking about going between my hulls."

The Chesapeake Flyer rides on twin side-by-side hulls, far enough apart to tempt daredevil pedal-boaters. Chisholm managed to stare down his pedaler. But the Inner Harbor is often packed with goofy boaters of all sizes.

"Were you here on the Fourth of July?" Chisholm asks. "It was a zoo."

While Chisholm brings the Flyer up to speed, Jim Williamson points out harbor landmarks for the passengers:

Domino Sugar, Proctor and Gamble, the various new marinas propagating in the harbor like algae on a pond, the Liberty Ship J.W. Brown, Fort McHenry, the red-white-and-blue buoy that marks the alleged spot where Francis Scott Key wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner," and many, many other sights too exciting to mention in a family newspaper.

Williamson -- James Williamson the Fourth -- is a Rock Hall native. Sam Ringgold, now an affable barman on the Flyer, is from Chestertown. He worked for years at the Great Oak Yacht Club when nabobs of industry and entertainment drank there.

Chisholm lives in Centreville, but he's not a native-born Eastern Shoreman. He grew up near Boston. He went to Washington College and married a Shore woman. He's been a captain up and down the East Coast.

The passengers on the current trip include Mrs. Doris Richards, a jolly gray-haired woman from Morrell Park, and her Glasgow-born friend who still speaks with a wee bit of a Scottish burr after 50 years in Baltimore; Don Blatchley, a Jerseyite who grew up on Sue Creek in Middle River; and Karla and Howard Heartsfield, who live in Bermuda and love to vacation in Baltimore.

"The amazing thing is you have so many things to do here," Karla Heartsfield says. "We had to extend our stay five days. We couldn't get everything done."

Rock Hall is more or less directly across the bay from the mouth of the Patapsco River, through the Brewerton Channel and its extension. The Flyer cruises at about 18.5 knots, something like 21 mph. The trip takes about 75 minutes. It's peacefully uneventful on the bright, sunny day.

The Flyer went out of service for a while soon after it started last year when it hit a half-submerged tank-like float. A floating log also jammed up the Flyer's prop briefly.

The ferry ran on a weekend schedule this spring. Now it runs six days a week: Tuesdays and Sundays on the Rock Hall and St. Michael's run; Wednesday through Saturday round trip between Baltimore, Rock Hall and Annapolis. There's also a cruise to Rock Hall for dinner Wednesday to Saturday.

About 20 minutes out of Baltimore Harbor, Rock Hall appears ahead as a thin line of green under a very high hazy midday sky.

"It looks a lot like Bermuda," Karla Heartsfield says. "This is the same feeling you have pulling into the harbor at Bermuda."

A watermen's village on the Chesapeake for more than 250 years, Rock Hall is said to have gotten its name from huge hauls of rockfish pulled from the bay by its fishermen. Once 650 oyster boats worked out of Rock Hall harbor, harvesting up to 3,000 bushels a day.

Now maybe 50 commercial boats sail from Rock hall. The rockfish catch is severely limited, oysters endangered, and the watermen crab and "drudge" for soft shell clams which they market mainly in New England. On this day, the clammers are taking only a bushel or a half bushel of clams.

And Rock Hall teeters on the edge of gentrification like a novice at the high dive.

Harry Bissell, a partner in the ferry company, owns the Waterman's Crab House and Restaurant at the landing where the Flyer docks.

Bissell is developing a "resort villa" complex across the road from the landing, with two- and three-bedroom units running from $175,000 to $240,000. Another luxury development has been completed on the other side of the harbor.

Sailing yachts and other pleasure boats far outnumber work boats at Rock Hall and a half dozen marinas provide slips and services for them. Bissell leveled the old Hubbard's wholesale seafood house last year and dredged a 40-slip marina next to his crab house.

Mayor Rosalie Kuechler, whose family has worked the water for four generations, seems nicely attuned to keeping a balance between the old and the new in her town.

"I wouldn't want to be mayor if it were filled with condos," she says. "I'd move out of Rock Hall."

Tom Buttion, the operating partner of the Flyer company, just wants to run a good ferry line. He's a former airline pilot who retired a few years ago as senior vice president for flight operations at Eastern Airlines.

He says running the ferry's a lot like running an airline: only instead of worrying about hundreds of jets he now operates one ferry.

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