Historic skipjack raised from river

Captain says damaged ship will get repairs and improvements

November 06, 1999|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

TILGHMAN ISLAND -- Battered, but afloat for the first time in three days, the 113-year-old Rebecca T. Ruark was a sight for the sore eyes of Captain Wade H. "Wadey" Murphy Jr., who waited anxiously for hours yesterday as a marine salvage crew gingerly worked to recover the historic vessel from the Choptank River.

"Beautiful, beautiful," said Murphy, biting his lip as the bow of the ship broke the waterline. "My whole life is here. I thought that first night I'd lost her, but she's a strong boat and she's going to be even stronger."

Yesterday's clear and fair weather contrasted with the howling wind and 10-foot waves that swamped the bay's oldest working skipjack Tuesday, dumping its captain and three-man crew into churning 14-foot water about 2 miles from its dock in Tilghman.

The salvage effort for the Rebecca, whose photograph graces the cover of state tourism brochures, was hastily arranged by a team that included the governor's office, state economic development officials, the Department of Natural Resources and others.

The rapid response included a bit of serendipity. Levin "Buddy" Harrison IV, a Talbot County Council member whose family runs fishing charters and operates Tilghman's best-known restaurant, caught the ear of state business and economic development officials at a meeting Wednesday night in Annapolis.

Working with an emergency grant from the Maryland Port Administration, officials quickly lined up Martin G. Imbach Inc., a Curtis Bay marine and salvage company that delivered a 20-man crew, along with a 225-ton crane mounted on a barge, to the sunken ship in less than 24 hours. The operation was expected to cost between $10,000 and $15,000.

"Our company's been around for a long time. My family's on its third generation of sailors," said company President Eamonn McGeady. "We've handled a number of skipjacks in various states of disrepair."

With news helicopters overhead, more than 50 reporters and photographers, local watermen and curious boaters watched as diver Robert Croot and deck foreman Rick Wengert directed the delicate, daylong operation in which cables were attached to the Rebecca's 65-foot mast as Croot slowly worked a nylon sling under the bow of the boat.

Murphy fretted all day that the weight of the swamped boat would snap the mast if the vessel were raised too quickly.

With the Rebecca buried nose-down in black river mud, crew members gradually nudged the stern toward the surface. By late afternoon, Croot was able to slip the sling under the ship's bow. As the giant crane slowly lifted the vessel, water poured from deck hatches and the ship's hold.

The steel dredge Murphy and his crew had used to scrape 70 bushels of oysters from the Choptank near Cambridge on Tuesday lay on the deck, surrounded by a few of the shellfish that had not been washed overboard. Packs of crackers and other items from the cabin floated free.

Even before the Rebecca was righted, Murphy had made plans to tow it to dry dock at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, the first step toward repairing the damaged vessel and letting it dry out. The skipjack had a leak around its center board and a 10- to 15-foot gash that separated the deck from the starboard hull.

In addition, Murphy is vowing to improve his boat by adding features that will bring it up to standards the Coast Guard recommends. After the successful recovery, Murphy towed the Rebecca into Tilghman, where it will remain for a couple of days.

Among the first to turn to tourism when Maryland's oyster harvest began to decline, Murphy has made a name for himself by running sailing charters on the 52-foot boat. With at least 75 percent of his income derived from tourism, Murphy says he has little choice.

"I think now's the time to make some changes to her," Murphy said.

He hopes to borrow a skipjack to finish out the winter oyster season.

While the state grant that will pay for the salvage operation comes with no strings, Murphy is unsure how he'll pay to refit the Rebecca, once it makes dry dock. He had no insurance on the skipjack, but a trust fund has been established that will be handled by Easton Bank and Trust.

"I just never knew how many friends I had," Murphy said. "My phone was ringing at 5 o'clock in the morning with people who wanted to help. I used to be so proud I wouldn't take a handout, but people want to help. I want to get my boat back in the water."

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