Time and tide take their toll on Maryland's skipjacks Thomas Clyde's plight is a symbol

November 03, 1991|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Sun Staff Correspondent

DEAL ISLAND -- For more than 20 years, the Thomas Clyde provided for three generations of the Abbott family.

To Charles Patrick Abbott Sr., the old wooden workboat was the rudder he used to steer out of rough times. To Charles Jr., it was a ticket to a prosperity he had never imagined. And for the grandson, C.P., the sailboat has become a link to the heritage he left behind.

But as the last commercial sailing fleet in North America set sail on the first day of oyster season last week, the Abbotts' 80-year-old beauty sat decaying at the dock on Deal Island.

The time has come for the Abbotts to provide for the Thomas Clyde, but repairs on her would gobble the annual income of both Charles Jr. and his son. So it rocks forlornly, but not forgotten, a dinosaur waiting for extinction.

The answer is obvious. They should sell it. And Charles Abbott Jr. will consider any offer. But the actual letting go would be hard. And the Abbotts seem somehow relieved that there is practically no market for the boat, whose sole purpose is to dredge up oysters from the Chesapeake Bay, which has few healthy ones left.

While several skipjacks in Maryland's fleet have been brought up to near mint condition, the majority of the two dozen remaining boats are full of rotten wood and holey, chafed sails.

Many are kept afloat with pumps bailing them out 24 hours a day. If they are not fixed within the next couple years, some say, a symbol of Maryland history and folk culture will be relegated to museums.

Since a state-funded plan foundered for lack of money, the public restoration effort has been left to the Lady Maryland Foundation, a non-profit group that is launching a drive this weekend to raise $1 million in private donations.

If the money is raised, experienced shipwrights will direct inner-city teen-agers in restoring skipjacks at a 2-acre maritime institute in Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

In the meantime, about 15 captains are struggling to keep their boats working in the face of plummeting oyster harvests and profits.

Charles Abbott Jr. has showered all the affection on the family skipjack that his muscles and pocketbook would allow -- and then some. He replaced its sides, he scraped and greased its mast, and he painted it as his father had each year.

For the moment, he has saved the Thomas Clyde from the mud flats, the place where old workboats go like elephants to die a slow, mournful death.

But the fact remains Mr. Abbott does not need it. It is no longer his means of making a living. For that, he has another boat, appropriately named the Wells Fargo.

Charles Abbott Sr., who died six years ago, bought the boat in 1967 for $5,000 after several lean years when harvests were small. The other skipjack captains thought he must be crazy, but he ignored the talk. He wanted this boat, he told his family, because it had been built on Deal Island. It would bring him luck. He knew the oysters would come back. He was right.

"It was a time of rebirth for him. To him, she was the greatest boat in the world," said his daughter-in-law, Jeannie Abbott.

"He knew there were oysters on the bottom, and he made so much money the rest of his life on it. It was a turning point. I just saw him blossom into a brilliant person that I didn't know was there."

The videotape playing on the television in Jeannie and Charles Jr.'s living room is of Charles Sr. aboard the Thomas Clyde talking about the oyster harvest. He walks his boat with the ease of a homemaker working in a kitchen she has known for decades. His thick mustache and head full of hair give him a surprisingly youthful appearance for a man in his 60s.

"I do it because I really love to do it, to sail these old boats," the voice from the videotape says. Charles Sr. was a shy man who used words sparingly, his family says.

His son remembers his best day on the Thomas Clyde back in 1969 or '70. It was December, and the state had just opened up an oyster bar that hadn't been worked for years. Every boat in the bay was there near Chesapeake Beach. The crew of the Thomas Clyde took on 560 bushels, an astounding amount given that the limit for oysters is now 25 bushels a day. "We could have caught more, but we couldn't get into the harbor with them. We had to make two trips. It was shallow water," said Charles, a man whose hands are swollen and fingernails polished by manual labor. "I was just a crew member then. My father was the captain. I made $1,200 [that day], and that was the most money I had ever seen in my life in one time."

Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, father and son dredged up the bay's bounty.

The father taught the son to maneuver a 40-foot sailboat at just the right speed to drag the dredge -- a square metal rake with netting at tached to catch the oysters. He gave him an instinct for where to catch the best oysters and how bad the weather had to get before taking the boat in.

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