A relic sails out of the bay's past

Schooner: The Kathryn E. Lee was taken from a marsh grave to join the Chesapeake's oystering fleet

January 31, 1999|By HEATHER DEWAR | HEATHER DEWAR,SUN STAFF

In another time and place, Jim McGlincy would surely be aiming his lance at the nearest windmill. But this is modern Maryland.

So McGlincy is at the helm of the Kathryn M. Lee, an aging beauty with oft-mended sails -- the only schooner in the Chesapeake Bay fleet, perhaps the last commercial fishing schooner in North America.

Dodging tree-sized hunks of driftwood and wrestling with a maddening come-and-go breeze, he's dredging for oysters under full sail within sight of the smokestacks of Sparrows Point.

McGlincy isn't the only waterman plying a 19th-century trade as the 20th century races to its turbo-charged end. But he may be the most stubborn.

Wanting a bigger, faster oyster boat than the traditional Chesapeake Bay skipjack, he rescued the rotting hull of a two-masted Delaware Bay schooner from its graveyard in a New Jersey marsh and restored it, without historical society grants or preservationists' tax write-offs. No other waterman has dared to turn a derelict back into a working sailboat, he says, and local marine historians agree.

After seven years of work, McGlincy can't tally the cash he has sunk into his 73-year-old boat -- well over $100,000 and counting, by rough reckoning. On a typical workday under sail, he and his three-man crew will work "half a day" -- 6: 30 a.m. to 5 p.m. They'll rake in a scanty 4 1/2 bushels of oysters. By selling his catch to local restaurants at a premium price, McGlincy will take home about $80.

Most old-boat buffs grew up in sailing families, but not 43-year-old McGlincy. Raised in a South Jersey family of landlubbers, he caught the bug at age 10, at a lakeside resort that rented sailing prams to kids.

After college and an unhappy stint as an accountant, he went to work in a Delaware Bay boatyard, learning shipbuilding, sail-making, cabinetry and engine repair. Then he read about the Maryland oyster fleet, the last sail-powered commercial fishing fleet in North America.

"I thought that was so neat, I wanted to be a part of it," he said. He moved to Cambridge in 1977 and got a job crewing on an oyster dredger. By 1984 he owned his own skipjack, a 34-foot sailboat with a single mast.

But he wanted something bigger, sturdier and one-of-a-kind: an old schooner, a fast, two-masted sailboat like the ones that ran rum and guns to Baltimore during the War of 1812, hauled Eastern Shore produce to market till the dawn of World War II, and dominated commercial fishing throughout the 19th century.

The once-famous Chesapeake Bay schooners were gone, driven out of fashion in the first half of this century by the smaller, cheaper skipjacks. The last Chesapeake Bay schooner disappeared in the early 1980s, says Pete Lesher, curator of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels.

McGlincy pored over repair records in Delaware Bay boatyards, where a few schooners survived. In 1992, he found what he wanted, a 62-foot stripped-down hulk beached amid salt grass in a New Jersey marsh.

Light shone between the planks of the Kathryn M. Lee. Its graceful masts were gone. An ugly wheelhouse marred its sleek lines. Mud filled its spacious cabin.

McGlincy was ecstatic. He tracked down the owner who had abandoned the boat, got title to the hull for free and started shoveling mud.

"One day, an older lady came along and knocked on the side of the boat and said, `My granddaddy built this boat and named it after my grandmother," he said. Soon after, Mary Lee Smith, granddaughter of original owner Capt. Harry Lee, gave McGlincy boxes filled with the boat's original gear: a steel and mahogany wheel, wooden cleats and pulleys and kerosene lanterns. They had been stored in the family's garage for nearly 50 years.

After two years of work, "on July 3, 1994, I sailed a boat that no one thought would ever float again," McGlincy says proudly.

When McGlincy came to Maryland in the 1970s, there were 34 sailboats in the oyster dredging fleet, and a good captain could earn about $50,000 in the four-month season from December through March. Today, there are 13 boats -- 12 skipjacks and one schooner -- and though the price of oysters has doubled, the catch is less than one-fourth what it once was, as diseases have damaged the oyster beds.

To help keep the oystermen in business, Maryland allows the boats to use gasoline- or diesel-powered engines on Mondays and Tuesdays. On those days, a good haul might be 100 bushels. The rest of the week, only sail power is allowed and the catch dwindles to 25 bushels or less.

McGlincy's crew dredges under sail at least once a week -- "not for money, but for fun," said crewman Tiel Arnot, 29.

His definition of fun is what most would call backbreaking work. There's nothing self-tending aboard the Kathryn M. Lee, not even a winch to help hoist the heavy canvas sails with their wooden fittings. It takes three men to haul the mainsail to the top of the 58-foot mast.

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