DON'T LET Maryland's proud skipjacks sail into the sunset, never to return. Some way must be found to keep them afloat, if not as working craft, then for show and recreation.
Word is that the fleet of some 30 sailing oyster boats is in danger of becoming extinct because most are getting old and dilapidated. Besides, a mysterious disease has decimated the oyster population.
After observing those unique sailboats through heavy lenses and with great reverence from shore for the past 20 or 30 years, I finally got a chance to check one out on the open sea the other day. My wife, Margaret, and I were among 25 guests of Captain Walt Benton and his crew of three on a voyage for ordinary people out of Wenona Harbor on Deal Island. Six other boats, also loaded with passengers, accompanied us.
It was a bare-bones cruise -- no amenities beyond a crude head below the deck in a cramped space that, quite appropriately, required crouching. We came with our lunches, life jackets and cameras. Coats and sweaters were the order of the day. It was chilly.
Winds were from 5 to 15 knots during the five-hour excursion.
The rakish boat, named Somerset, had been in service since 1949 and was definitely frayed around the edges.
The crew showed us the Somerset's capacity for oystering. While under sail, crew members lowered a heavy scoop-like device into the water and shortly cranked it back up with a chugging, grinding derelict motor installed amidships. It contained a couple of dozen oysters -- which the crew proceeded to shuck for the passengers.
With the ship breezing along at about 10 knots, a fantasy of mine became reality. The captain turned the wheel over to me. Suddenly I was handling a 45-footer with a 61-foot mast and a lot of sail, main and jib.
As I stared up at the mast, Benton proudly noted that his was the only skipjack in the fleet with a salt-treated mast. "It's a telephone pole," he said.
The boat handled better than my little 19-foot O'Day -- so simply and easily. The sails swung easily to port or starboard as the boat was turned into the wind to come about (sailor talk for turning). I got a little nervous, however, when Benton went briefly below, especially as another skipjack hove into my path.
Benton spoke of the disease that has killed many of the oysters and that has caused him to devote much of his time to crabbing (in another kind of boat) rather than oystering, his first love.
"They are the studyingest people you ever saw," he said, referring to the state researchers who are trying to find out what's killing the oysters. "They've spent millions of dollars studying and they still don't know anything. And they never bother to talk to us watermen. Think we don't know anything."
His solution is a simple one:
"When it comes right down to it, when the Lord wants the disease to leave, it will leave. Otherwise, we ain't going to get rid of it."
Suddenly Benton noted that the jib was luffing (fluttering). "Not stickin' up right. She's 13 years old and losin' her shape. Thank the Lord I am not in a race!"
The skipjacks are most often seen in races, like those held at Chesapeake Appreciation Days (scheduled this year for Oct. 26-27 off Sandy Point State Park near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge).
Too soon, our day on the bay ended.
Stepping off the Somerset was almost like stepping out of a chapter in Eastern Shore history.
.` I hope it's a long, long book.
William A. Harper is a communications specialist, living near Fenwick Island, who would rather be sailing.