Keeping skipjack fleet afloat

Panel's plan seeks repairs, easing curbs on oyster harvests

A dozen wooden survivors

April 18, 2000|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

ST. MICHAELS -- Nearly six months after the bay's oldest working skipjack was salvaged after sinking in a gale off Tilghman Island, a Maryland task force has outlined plans for rescuing the dozen or so wooden survivors of a fleet of sailing oyster dredgers that once dominated the Chesapeake.

Included among a range of recommendations presented yesterday by the 15-member panel appointed by state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer are proposals for easing restrictions on harvesting the shellfish, creating a permanent restoration and maintenance program at Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, and providing insurance and low-interest loans.

At the top of the list, said task force Chairman R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., a former state speaker of the House, is improving the harsh economic realities that have driven out all but a handful of skipjack captains.

The task force is asking state natural resources officials to ease rules that restrict the use of diesel engines for skipjacks. Captains can employ small yawl or push boats equipped with the powerful engines only on Mondays and Tuesdays during the six-month oyster season.

A flexible schedule allowing the captains to use power twice a week on days of their choosing would probably increase profits and enhance safety, Mitchell said.

Allowing sail captains to begin dredging Oct. 1, the start of oyster season for other watermen, also would help. They cannot dredge until November, a regulation that dates to an era when skipjacks harvested most of the bay's oysters. Now their share is about 1 percent of Maryland's oysters each year, making it unlikely the changes would harm the fishery, task force members say.

"Any traditional, old wooden vessel built for commerce has to continue in commerce to survive," said Capt. Ed Farley, who owns the Herman M. Krentz.

"Several of us are running charter trips in the off-season, but that's not the only answer. Oyster dredging is what these boats were built for."

It was on a windy Tuesday in November that the 114-year-old Rebecca T. Ruark, captained by Wade H. Murphy Jr., went down in 50-mph winds near the mouth of Choptank River.

A hastily arranged $20,000 state grant paid for the salvage operation, and Murphy has nearly completed a $60,000 restoration at the St. Michaels maritime museum, financed through the sale of collector's edition decoys carved from the Rebecca T.'s original mast.

But other boats are badly in need of repairs their owners can ill afford, says John Valliant, the museum's executive director.

After watching all winter as carpenters refitted Murphy's boat with water-tight bulkheads, deck beams, a dozen side frames and a mast at the museum's shipyard on Miles River, Valliant devised a plan for establishing a skipjack restoration center that also would serve as an apprentice program for young shipwrights.

The museum will need $250,000 to extend its marine railway, which is necessary for extensive dry dock repairs. However, state lawmakers did not approve the request this year.

The task force is requesting a $150,000 grant from Maryland Historical Trust that would pay apprentice shipwrights and buy materials for restoring the commercial sail fleet. The idea, Valliant said, is to hire graduates of shipbuilding schools from around the country who would get free housing and a stipend for a yearlong apprenticeship.

"We think this is the perfect place for the restoration center, because it wouldn't be a one-way street for skipjack captains," Valliant said.

"I think there would be tremendous benefits in terms of increased tourism and education for our visitors. We'd have skipjack captains taking active part. We can document the history of these vessels, their owners, their histories."

Russell Dize, a task force member who owns the 99-year-old Kathryn and runs a Tilghman Island seafood packing plant, said members intend to continue fund raising, whether from the state or private sources.

"There's a lot of interest in this from the public, and we ought to preserve these boats if we can," Dize said. "To keep a skipjack working as they have for the last couple hundred years is tough. We have a good chance to save these boats."

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