Checking on the Rebecca

Skipjack: A diver says the 113-year-old Rebecca T. Ruark looks intact after it sank near the mouth of the Choptank River.

November 04, 1999|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

TILGHMAN ISLAND -- The Chesapeake Bay's oldest working skipjack is lying beneath 14 feet of water near the mouth of the Choptank River.

A portion of the mast and the outline of the 113-year-old Rebecca T. Ruark are visible above the heaving waves on Harris Creek. The bow is buried in sand and muck. Loaded with nearly three tons of lead ballast that shifted to the starboard side, the ship will remain pinned to the bottom until calmer winds allow an Annapolis marine salvage company to retrieve the 52-foot sailing vessel for repairs.

Yesterday, Capt. Wade H. Murphy. Jr. peered over the deck of a 50-foot charter boat at his stricken vessel, one of about 10 skipjacks in the bay's fleet of workboats. A diver worked below the surface, inspecting the wood hull about two miles offshore from its Tilghman Island berth.

Any hope for quickly raising the boat ended in the face of 25-mph northwest winds and choppy waters that prevented workers from Geisler Marine from floating a crane on a barge across the bay from Annapolis.

"It breaks my heart; it's been my whole life," Murphy said. "But I feel better seeing her. The diver says she's intact. I thought she was gone for sure."

Murphy, "Wadey" to all who know him, is still shaking his head at the unexpected fury of 45- to 60-mph winds that churned 12-foot waves and sank the historic boat. More than 20 years of dredging oysters and hauling tourists on it have made Murphy one of the bay's best-known characters.

"I've worked the water for all my life, and I've never seen it that bad," Murphy said, jamming his hands into the pockets of his winter overalls. "I've made that trip hundreds of times. I've never seen it that bad in the bay, much less on the river. It was a freak thing."

Levin "Buddy" Harrison IV, a Talbot County commissioner whose family runs charter boats and operates Tilghman's best-known restaurant, provided two boats yesterday for the media and salvage operators who wanted to get a look at the Rebecca. He says the close-knit community will do all it can to help Murphy.

"Wadey has always been a giver," Harrison said. "He's worked with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and others to show people the way of life we have on the bay. We're going to give him whatever help he needs to get his boat right."

A day after Murphy and three crewmen were pulled from the churning water by watermen and volunteers from Tilghman's fire company who answered the distress call, the 58-year-old island native replayed the harrowing trip over and over.

An entertaining storyteller who was among the first to turn to tourism and charter work as the state's oyster harvest declined, Murphy has been featured in dozens of television documentaries, magazine and newspaper articles.

"I just never for a minute thought she would go down," Murphy said. "She rolled and went under and we were in the water and I still couldn't believe it."

After a good day of oystering produced about 70 bushels in the Choptank and in La Trappe Creek near Cambridge, Murphy said, he headed home around 3 p.m., hoping to make it to Tilghman before dark.

As they sailed toward Tilghman, winds clocked at nearly 60 mph shredded the sails, leaving Murphy little choice but to anchor his boat and call his wife on his cell phone for help.

"Once the sails blowed off, there wasn't anything we could do," he said. "I've been out in higher wind that that, but never for that long without letting up. It wasn't nothing wrong with the boat; she was just overcome by water coming over the deck. It was more than she could take."

Murphy's wife, Jackie, summoned Jason L. Wilson, his father, Robbie Wilson, and Tilghman Volunteer Fire Chief Billy Lednum, who set out to find the crippled ship. They found Murphy and his crew vainly bailing with buckets as the ship floundered in high seas that washed over the deck.

Robbie Wilson spent several hours yesterday repairing the windshield of his 46-foot work boat after the plastic pane was blown out by powerful waves that buffeted his boat.

"We were a lot more scared for Wadey and his crew than for ourselves," Wilson said. "It was right at the edge of dark when we found them. It's a good bunch of people on this island. We jump to help when somebody needs it."

The ship was being towed by Jason Wilson's 42-foot Island Girl when the skipjack turned on its side and went under. Murphy and his crew, wearing boots and oilskins, clung to a life-saving ring for about five to 10 minutes before being rescued.

"I was worried about my crew out there," Murphy said. "I know we can always fix the Rebecca, but you can't replace good men. We owe a lot to the boys who came out to get us. They risked a lot."

In Tilghman, folks know about risk. A memorial to watermen "who have lost their lives in the Chesapeake Bay and surrounding waters" dominates the park in the center of town. Murphy's grandfather James, who died in 1913, is among those remembered there.

Retired skipjack Capt. Stanley Larrimore, who dredged for oysters aboard the Lady Katie for nearly 40 years, remembers only one storm that produced 10- to 12-foot waves.

"It was in November 1992, and we had the same kind of wind in about that same spot," Larrimore said. "We were coming into [Knapps Narrows], and I thought we were going to lose her right there. When you're working the water, it's not hard to get into trouble."

Murphy, who says 80 percent of his income comes from tourists who book his boat for crabbing trips or an evening sail, worries that news of the sinking will scare off would-be clients. With no insurance on his $100,000 boat, he isn't sure how he'll pay for the salvage operation, but he's hoping to be back dredging for oysters in three to four weeks.

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