Project SOS gives sagging skipjack financial lift Workers repair Caleb W. Jones

April 08, 1992|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Staff Writer

The skipjack Caleb W. Jones has seen better days.

The deck looks weathered, but the real damage lays below the waterline. That's where it sprung a leak big enough to sink it in less than 10 feet of water near Smith Island last Wednesday.

Its crew patched it enough to float and it was towed into the Inner Harbor yesterday for a much-needed overhaul. Richard "Dickie" Webster, the owner and captain of the Caleb W. Jones, said he would not have been able to afford the expensive repairs.

"I'd of patched it up the best I could. That's all I could have done," said the waterman from Wenona in Somerset County.

But the Save our Skipjacks project, administered by the Lady Maryland Foundation, a non-profit maritime educational organization, has stepped in and allocated the money for the repairs.

A captain's committee, comprised of four watermen who pilot their own skipjacks, authorized $10,000 in emergency funds last Friday to make the 39-year-old vessel seaworthy again.

The work on the 45-foot-long skipjack, which could take several months, will be done by students enrolled in the foundation's Maritime Institute, a nine-month program for disadvantaged youth that teaches them carpentry and other skills associated with boat making and repair.

The 10 young men, clad in green sweat shirts emblazoned with the program moniker, watched with excitement as the boat was hoisted by a crane from the water onto the institute's dock.

"Essentially what happened is that this is rushing our program," said Dennis O'Brien, president of the foundation's board. The fund has raised $40,000 so far and the committee was in the process of deciding which skipjacks would be restored first. "And in the midst of this, the Caleb Jones goes down," he said.

That day one week ago was a nightmare for Mr. Webster. "It was a day I'll never forget, April Fools Day," he said. The oystering season had ended a week earlier and he was away in North Carolina for a break. But he ended up in a hospital after a piece of beef lodged in his throat. I was laying on a table with a tube down my throat," he said, "and my boat was on the bottom."

His brother, Ted Webster, was the captain that morning as the crew was out seeding oyster beds on contract for the state. The boat began taking on water as it sailed by South Marsh Island, near Smith Island, and the pumps clogged, sinking the boat.

"They couldn't get her bow back up," Richard Webster said. "She couldn't handle it."

The problem was that the boat was literally coming apart. "The bottom was all worked loose on the port side," Mr. Webster said, despite having renailed it just last year. And the sinking just did more damage. "She took a terrible beating when she went down."

The crew brought the boat back up that same day and towed it to Wenona. On Monday, Mr. Webster and a crew of two began the 100-mile trip, towing the skipjack with another boat. They sailed for 13 hours on the first day, and docked at Pier 5 in the Inner Harbor yesterday morning.

The skipjack, one of just 25 left on the Chesapeake, has value beyond just the historical for Mr. Webster. He is a waterman and has been all his life. The Caleb W. Jones is his livelihood.

The boat was built in 1953 for its namesake, Caleb W. Jones, a Smith Island waterman who Mr. Webster said lived to be 99 years old. Mr. Webster bought it in 1969 from a couple in Richmond, Va. "It was in terrible shape," he said. "The sails were rotting."

He fixed the boat and has been plying the waters of the Chesapeake ever since. And he hopes to be doing the same next oyster season in the newly refurbished Caleb W. Jones.

Mr. Webster gazed wistfully at the skipjack yesterday afternoon, taking one last look before he left it on the Maritime Institute dry dock.

"The boat almost sails itself, after you've got the sails trimmed right," he said. "I wouldn't trade it for anything."

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