Keeping Chesapeake Bay history alive

January 30, 1994|By Karin Remesch | Karin Remesch,Contributing Writer

She's never missed an oyster dredging season in almost 40 years, but for this winter her future seemed uncertain.

With parasitic diseases wiping out the oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay, it looked as if the skipjack Martha Lewis was doomed to follow the fate of others in her fleet -- lying on the muddy banks of a cove, slowly rotting away.

Instead, she's being restored to her original grandeur when she was known as one of the best working boats on the bay.

And when she is returned to the water next month, the Martha Lewis will not only work the bay, trying to do her part catching a few bushels of oysters, but she'll also be a goodwill ambassador for the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum.

"We want her to be a museum ship, but we also want to preserve a lifestyle, and that means actually working her," says Dr. Randolph O. George, an Alabama neurosurgeon who is financing the restoration project to preserve part of the Chesapeake's rich oyster-dredging history.

A recreational sailor for most of his 49 years, Dr. George fell in love with the Chesapeake Bay while completing his medical residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1970s. He owns a house near Crisfield where he plans to retire.

"The Martha Lewis is something precious and special -- she's more than just a boat, she's part of the rich and wonderful history of the Chesapeake Bay . . . a history that's in all of us, one we shouldn't squander," Dr. George says.

But the Martha Lewis needs more than just a fresh coat of paint before she can set sail again to work the oyster beds and let children touch the past, taking them to a time when scores of skipjacks skimmed the bay's horizon and oysters were so abundant they could "purify" the Chesapeake within a few days by cleaning the bay of algae.

Among the boat's many needs are a new stem and bowsprit, new planking, rigging and deck beams, a mast and boom, diesel engines and aluminum fuel tanks.

Before the vessel is allowed to carry passengers, she must meet stringent Coast Guard safety requirements.

"We found her on Tilghman Island and of all the boats for sale, the Martha Lewis was in the best condition and had a good working history," says Allen Rawl, a Kingsville shipbuilder who is in charge of the restoration project.

"Once we started tearing her down, we realized restoring her involved quite a bit more than anticipated in the beginning, but that's always the case in a project like this," he explains.

In a modest, makeshift shipyard adjacent to Concord Point Lighthouse in Havre de Grace, Mr. Rawl leads a crew of six or seven shipwrights, carpenters and welders who are hard at work trying to meet a February launching deadline.

With the head of the Chesapeake as a backdrop and wild ducks, herons and an occasional bald eagle as spectators, restoration crew members didn't let recent sub-freezing temperatures slow their work.

They saw, drill, weld and glue from dawn to dusk, racing against time in the hope of returning the Martha Lewis to the bay for the last few weeks of the oyster season, which is scheduled to end in mid-March.

'Better than new'

Shipwright Sam Jones' large hands, calloused from years of working with wood, almost caress the plane as he glides it skillfully across the centerboard, smoothing and shaping the wood.

Mr. Jones nods toward the Martha Lewis resting on wooden blocks a few feet away and says in his Maine accent: "She'll be better than new."

Mr. Jones should know.

In his 20 years of building and restoring wooden boats he's worked at numerous shipyards across the country. But he's most often at home in Maine, working on wooden lobster boats.

Restoring the Martha Lewis doesn't just preserve a part of the bay's history, but also helps preserve the trade of building wooden boats.

"A craft that otherwise would be dying," Mr. Jones says.

Adds carpenter Richard Keller of Erie, Pa., who joined the crew last week: "I started working on boats right out of high school 14 years ago and I worked with fiberglass, but there's nothing like working with wood -- it's getting back to nature, working with things the way they were."

Mr. Keller was refastening the bottom of the Martha Lewis, but he acknowledges he is anxiously awaiting the next shipment of wood so he can start replacing decking.

Nearby, Mr. Rawl and Barry Bowles, a Baltimore carpenter, were checking a 25-foot long, 600-pound Douglas fir beam that will be shaped into the new bowsprit.

The search continues for a new mast. The crew is hoping to find a donor.

It's difficult finding suitable wood for a mast locally, Mr. Rawl explains. The mast needs to be 64 feet long and about 12 inches in diameter. Masts traditionally were made from quality local pine that is difficult to find. Today's local pine trees lack density and are too knotty.

"I don't know of a piece of wood on the East Coast that is suitable," Mr. Rawl says. "We really have to look on the West Coast for it."

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