Saving Skipjacks, Maybe

HELEN CHAPPELL

November 30, 1991|By HELEN CHAPPELL

EASTON — Easton. - In these days of uncertainty and hardship, it's hard to believe that there's anyone out there who isn't looking for an airtight alibi and a foolproof plan, and I have some sympathy for the watermen who are suspicious of Dennis O'Brien of the Lady Maryland Foundation and his Save the Skipjacks agenda.

On the other hand, I've got some sympathy for Dennis O'Brien, too. Since the skipjack Sigsbee went down last year (with fine irony, on Chesapeake Appreciation Day) a lot of people have been wringing their hands over the extinction of the last working sail on the Chesapeake, but if anyone else has been trying to do anything about preserving a living, working way of life, I must have been at the movies that night.

The S.O.S. plan is simple, using the restoration of the skipjacks as a way to teach at-risk kids the boat-building trades. The skipjacks get saved, the kids learn about the bay, sailing and hopefully, about a future that involves hope, self-esteem and an awareness of the Chesapeake environment and history.

Dennis, to his credit, helped salvage the Sigsbee, and she's up on the stands at the Lady Maryland yard in Baltimore, where she serves as a training device for the kids the Lady Maryland Foundation is training in the maritime trades.

''Why the hell would I want to give my money to save a boat for a guy who's got a half-million dollar house?'' one retired Tilghman waterman asked me angrily, naming at least two skipjack captains whose real estate, according to him, bordered on the palatial.

Another waterman, a Deal Islander whose family has been sailing skipjacks for several generations, just shrugged. ''We're just waiting to see what happens,'' he said cautiously.

Other skipjack captains, including, Dennis says, Stanley Larrimore, Dickie Webster and Russell Dize, have decided to go with the S.O.S. project.

''A lot of the watermen didn't like it at first, they really thought we were trying to sell them something,'' Dennis said recently, sitting on my back porch drinking autumn cider. He grins. ''Then they saw what we could do, and they were interested. All we ask is that they keep the skipjacks working the water and that the boats be used to educate the children.'' He leans forward. ''What really matters is the kids,'' he adds firmly. ''If we can save the boats, that's fine, but it's the kids that are important to me.''

Still, it's easy to tell that he's a little puzzled by these Eastern Shore people he's trying to help, for Godsake. You get the feeling the man would prefer to face a board of stone-hearted foundation directors with a fund-raising proposal than the innately cussed Eastern Shore waterman, and it's hard to blame him. We've got characters we haven't even used yet over here, and as the bastard stepchild of the State of Maryland, we've become wary of Things that Come Over the Bridge.

Eastern Shore is Eastern Shore and Western Shore is Western Shore and seldom do the twain meet across the troubled waters of the Chesapeake, even to save the last working sail on the water. We're all united in our love of the idea of the skipjacks and the bay, and we all want our little piece of this marshy paradise, even if it means filling in some wetlands so we can pack a few more souls near a water view.

After some time on the water this fall with the biologists and the watermen, I've seen the results of Chesapeake chic. We're loving the bay right to death.

Maybe, by giving the next generation a chance to be aware of what we've got to lose, in both boats and bay, we can help them to succeed where we seem to be failing, and failing miserably.

It's worth a try.

Helen Chappell is an Eastern Shore writer.

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