Once-sunken skipjack poised to set sail again

114-year-old vessel the Rebecca T. Ruark is back in commission

June 04, 2000|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

ST. MICHAELS -- It's been half a year since the Rebecca T. Ruark sank in a November gale near Tilghman Island, and Wade H. "Wadey" Murphy Jr. has his boat back -- almost.

Oh, there was a ceremonial launching of the bay's oldest working skipjack last week, marking the 114-year-old boat's overhaul at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. But Murphy won't really believe it until he's got a load of tourists out on the water.

Better yet, there will come a day next fall when the refitted boat will sail on the Choptank River or the open bay and do what it was built for -- dredging oysters.

"I'm hoping I'll be sailing next weekend, but it'll be two or three weeks before the Coast Guard inspection to certify her to carry large groups," said Murphy. "It's been a long time coming; I've already missed the best oyster season in 10 years."

Murphy, who's spent many days pacing anxiously around the historic vessel since repairs began at the maritime museum's boatyard in January, acknowledges a certain irony in the Rebecca's sinking.

It's turned into a good thing not only for him, but appears likely to benefit the rest of a dwindling fleet of sailing work boats that once dominated the bay's seafood industry.

Murphy, who's displayed a flair for marketing since he become one of the first skipjack captains to turn to tourism as oyster harvests declined, has received plenty of help, starting with a $20,000 state grant that paid for raising the Rebecca from 14-feet of water near the mouth of the Choptank.

Murphy has worked out a deal with the McCormick Co., which spent $13,000 on new sails for the Rebecca."Old Bay Seasoning," the ubiquitous symbol of Maryland seafood, is printed on the bottom of the sail.

"Captain Murphy had come to us with some ideas before his trouble," said Art Zito, a marketing manager with McCormick. "After the sinking, it made sense to step in and help out."

Perhaps more important has been the work of the maritime museum's five-man boat shop carpentry staff who've logged more than 200 hours on the boat.

When the Maine boat builder Murphy had hired was unable to complete the job, the museum staff finished it.

"If it weren't for the maritime museum, I don't know where I'd be," said Murphy, who has worked out a barter arrangement with the museum to carry school groups on sailing trips. "I'd never have been able to get her finished."

There are still a few details left, said carpenter Mike Amory: a wheel box, some electrical work, and a new "doghouse" that serves as the cover over the boat's cabin. A new "push boat," which will house the diesel engine captains are allowed to use two days a week to assist sail power during oyster season, is almost ready.

Under Coast Guard scrutiny that will give the Rebecca certification to carry 40 to 45 passengers on charter sailing excursions, the boat was fitted with a 69-foot mast cut from a California pine, a bottom plank, new bulwarks, a new deck, deck beams, water-tight bulkheads and deck hatches, and a center board. Murphy figures he's spent $10,000 to $12,000 on wood.

It's the kind of work that museum executive director John R. Valliant hopes to complete on each of Maryland's remaining 17 skipjacks.

"This boat has been a catalyst; it's enhanced our chances for doing what we do -- preserving the heritage of the bay," Valliant said.

With support from the state's 15-member skipjack task force, which is pushing the General Assembly to approve a package of reforms aimed at making oystering more profitable for the sailing captains, Valliant is seeking a $150,000 grant through the Maryland Historical Trust.

If approved by the organization's board and by the state Board of Public Works, the money will be used to establish a ship-building apprentice program at the museum that will provide the manpower for refurbishing the aging skipjack fleet.

"It would really be a win for all sides," Valliant said.

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