A mast for an old skipjack is not an easy thing HEART PINE

March 27, 1994|By Tom Horton

This is the story of a historic wooden sailing boat and a majestic tree that was growing tall before the American Revolution. It's also about anenvironmentalist whose decisions will affect the fate of both.

It began last summer when a worker on the oyster skipjack

Stanley Norman called Don Baugh out of a meeting in Annapolis. For the education director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the worker had the worst sort of news:

Rot had eaten deep into the Stanley's huge old pine mast.

The skipjack, which dredged the bay from 1902 until its captain sold it in 1989, was among the fewer than two dozen survivors in North America's last fleet of working sailcraft. It is the pride of the foundation's nationally acclaimed environmental education program, a floating classroom whose very presence rivets students' interest on restoring the bay's health.

FOR THE RECORD - PLEASE READ MEMO.

But for all its merit, the skipjack program is never farther from cancellation than its next major Coast Guard inspection -- and one loomed even as Mr. Baugh headed for the bayside boatyard where the Stanley was under repair.

The Coast Guard had cast a wary eye at old wooden vessels carrying passengers on bay waters long before loose planks sank the fishing boat El Toro last year. Passing a safety inspection can be arduous even for modern fiberglass and steel craft. The foundation might be pushing the limits of both time and money to ready the old skipjack for approval in time for spring sailing -- education programs were set to begin April 15.

And now, probing the rotting mast, Mr. Baugh knew it was not going to be a repair job at all.

The Stanley Norman, for the first time in about 40 years, was going to need a new mast.

A MIGHTY TREE

Now a mast for a skipjack, in this day and age, is not an eas thing to come by.

The boats are designed to carry a huge mainsail, one that can generate power from even light breeze to plow twin, iron dredges through the hard oyster rocks. It takes a mighty tree to make a mast that can handle the load.

Such a tree, usually a pine in these parts, should grow arrow straight and not branch for its first 65 feet, so as to leave the mast free of large knots where rot can start. For strength, the tree must also be big -- at a minimum, close to 2 feet in diameter near the base and a foot in diameter nearly to its top.

A mast tree must not have achieved its stature too quickly or easily, said oldtime skipjack builders consulted by Mr. Baugh. The best trees always came from the poor soils of Dorchester County, rather than the better growing conditions of adjacent Talbot, said skipjack builder Bobby Ruark, who was searching ++ for a mast of his own.

The tree's trunk should be hard and tough, composed of dense, resinous, rot-resistant heartwood, which comes from adding new wood so slowly the annual growth rings are packed at least 12 or 13 to the inch. A pine like that, said Mr. Ruark, will "sound like steel when she falls . . . have a deep color when you cut into 'er and smell like you stuck your nose in a can of turpentine."

But such trees scarcely exist anymore in the forests of loblollys, the predominant large pine in the Chesapeake region. And even those may be as iron is to steel when compared to the old-growth specimens available to mast makers of earlier generations.

Consider the white pine forests of the northestern United States, where trees soaring as high as 240 feet dazzled early British explorers. The Royal Navy constructed special mast ships just to haul the great trunks back to English boatyards, Donald Culross Peattie wrote in "A Natural History of Trees" in 1948. As the original white pine forests were clear-cut and the rich, undisturbed soils that grew them eroded, woodsmen and boat builders came to think there were two distinct species -- "pumpkin pine," acclaimed worldwide for its fine, smooth grain and perfect mast shape; and "sapling pine," which was coarser grained, less shapely and less rot-resistant. Botanists eventually realized, he wrote, "that the only difference was a matter of age; that in our day of second-growth Pine, Pumpkin is almost unobtainable; it was a product of centuries of undisturbed virgin timber growth."

A GNAWING CONCERN

All this and much more, about the qualities and scarcities o mast trees, Mr. Baugh had learned by last fall.

It was typical of him to turn the foundation's dilemma into a learning experience. Tall and athletic, a consummate outdoorsman who often commutes to work by kayak on the Severn River, he has been running foundation education programs for 16 of his 40 years, influencing young environmental educators for nearly a generation.

And he is a man who loves wood.

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