Recycling old skipjack

Decoys: A carver has turned the old mast of the Rebecca T. Ruark into 82 painted canvasback ducks, which will be sold to finance restoration of the bay workboat.

February 19, 2000|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

Nearly four months after hoisting the bay's oldest working skipjack from 10 feet of water near the mouth of the Choptank River, Capt. Wade H. "Wadey" Murphy Jr. wants to go back to work scraping the bottom of the Chesapeake for oysters and hauling tourists out for educational tours and sunset cruises.

He thinks he's found a way to pay for it.

Strapped for cash to complete the $50,000 to $60,000 restoration of the 114-year-old Rebecca T. Ruark, which sank in a November gale, Murphy is counting on the home-grown marketing know-how that in recent years has helped him use the traditional skills of a waterman to take advantage of a burgeoning tourist trade.

A crew of carpenters was hard at work on the Rebecca (dry-docked at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels) when Murphy hit on an idea that worked well for a fellow skipjack captain a few years ago: selling wooden decoys fashioned from the mast of one of the dozen or so remaining workboats still under sail.

He turned to well-known Havre De Grace carver Charles Jobes, who took a chain saw to the Rebecca's 65-foot mast, cutting chunks of 80-year-old Oregon pine that he has transformed into a line of painted canvasback duck decoys.

Even at $1,000 apiece, Murphy and Jobes expect collectors to snap up all 82 decoys, minus a few that Murphy and Jobes plan to save for their children.

"I had to come up with a way to make enough money to get the Rebecca put right," Murphy says. "I've got common sense, and I think there's people who will buy these decoys because they'll just gain in value over the years. People will get a signed, numbered decoy with a certificate of authenticity."

Profits will be deposited in an account set up at an Easton bank, says Murphy.

"We've set this up as a restoration fund," Murphy says. "I'm not going out and buying a new truck or something. This is not about personal gain. Anything that's left over will go for maintenance and upkeep on her."

Murphy, 57, affable and at ease with the media, drew widespread coverage after the Rebecca sank during a severe storm Nov. 2. The Maryland Port Administration quickly provided a $21,000 grant to pay a Baltimore marine salvage company for raising the 1886 vessel.

"The thinking was that this was clearly a piece of Maryland history that ought to be preserved," says Jack Calahan, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation. "It was strictly a grant. He's under no obligation to repay it."

Jobes, one of a family of carvers that includes his father and two brothers, cut the mast into 8-foot sections, then pared them down to 14-inch blocks before carving. He charged Murphy $55 per decoy.

"This is real good, hard pine," says the 36-year-old part-time waterman who has been carving since he was a child. "We figured we wanted to make them canvasbacks; they're the king of the Chesapeake, the king of ducks."

Murphy, who knew his boat needed an overhaul before the sinking, had bought a new mast three years ago after getting a deal on a 70-foot section of Douglas fir for $2,500 from a California lumber company. By piggybacking on the order of a friend, Murphy paid a fraction of a $5,000 shipping bill.

Built on Taylor's Island in Dorchester County in 1886, the Rebecca was originally a two-masted schooner that was converted to a one-mast gaft sloop. In the 1920s, it was modified as a skipjack.

Now, Murphy says, the boat will be refitted to meet Coast Guard standards that will allow him to carry as many as 30 to 35 passengers during warm months. After 42 years working the water, he's written off this year's oyster season.

Carpenters have pulled the boat's half-deck and deck beams, replacing a dozen frames, Murphy says. This week, side frames were installed. As soon as the Rebecca is refloated, new decking will be in place. And, electronics -- depth finder, navigational equipment and radio -- must be replaced.

If all goes well, the Rebecca will be under sail by April.

Murphy, who lectures about the Chesapeake with slide show and video, maintains a Web site at and promotes his charter business with brochures and Rebecca T. Ruark caps. He was among the first to turn to tourism as oyster and crab harvests diminished. Murphy is convinced charters help win support for continued conservation such as the state's oyster replenishment program he says has produced the best season in a decade.

"It's a way to help make a living, but I really love teaching people about the bay," he says. "I've got people telling me that after a two-hour cruise on the Rebecca they know more about the bay than they ever did. That means as much to me as it does to them."

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