A dream setting sail

Skipjack: A self-taught carpenter carves out a wooden dreamboat that's been years in the making.

July 12, 2002|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

The skeleton of a skipjack fills up Tom Abercrombie's barn. He sets his coffee cup down on the frame of the boat and runs his hand over the white oak wood.

"I think you'll agree she's a pretty little devil, very salty," said Abercrombie, 71, a self-taught carpenter who is building a skipjack from scratch.

Abercrombie, who for 40 years traveled the world as a reporter and photographer for National Geographic, is smitten with the nearly extinct single-masted workboats that have come to symbolize the Chesapeake Bay and its watermen.

He is captivated by the simple lines and practical beauty of the humble vessel designed to dredge oysters and navigate shallow bay waters.

So over the past five years, he has spent more than 1,000 hours in the barn next to his house on Shady Side's West River in southern Anne Arundel County piecing together a homemade skipjack. It's tedious, painstaking work, and sometimes the frustrations of running a one-man shop force him to abandon ship. But he always returns to the maritime work-in-progress, named the Lady Lynn, after his wife of 50 years.

"I was seduced by the looks of it as much as anything else," said the white-haired and bearded Abercrombie, who often puffs on a pipe. "It's so pretty, as many practical things are. There's no foolishness on this boat, no latest fashion gimmicks. Every part of it has kind of slowly evolved into its reason for being."

Abercrombie, who teaches a geography course at George Washington University, has no plans to embark on a second career as a waterman once the skipjack is finished, but he and his wife are looking forward to leisurely trips on nearby waterways.

"It's going to be a real sweet little boat," said Lynn Abercrombie, the photographer on many of her husband's reporting assignments. "We'll have a lot of fun with it."

Although Abercrombie is doing most of the work on the boat, a string of friends, relatives and neighbors have passed through his barn to lend a hand.

"Sometimes just having some company helps, someone to hold the end of a 30-foot board," he said.

The idea to build a skipjack hit Abercrombie gradually. .

He retired from National Geographic in 1994 - ending a career in which he interviewed Yasser Arafat several times, helicoptered into a Venezuelan rain forest and once amputated the frozen toes of a man on a religious pilgrimage in Tibet because gangrene was setting in and no doctors were on hand at the remote campsite.

Retirement has allowed him to indulge "a pent-up carpentry desire." When an ice storm toppled a 160-year-old white oak tree in his back yard, Abercrombie had a seemingly endless supply of wood.

"I spent a year doing all kinds of crazy stuff," he said, referring to a building spree that included tables, bookcases and a kitchen renovation. Emboldened, he decided to make a boat, and spent more than a year building a small cedar skiff.

"It came out nice and I liked it, and I thought, `Oh hell, I ought to build another boat, something more substantial,'" he said.

He settled on a skipjack. Friends and family weren't sure if he was serious.

"They assumed I was babbling to myself," Abercrombie recalls. "If one of your neighbors says, `I'm going to build me an F-16,' you humor them and say, `OK that'll be interesting.' Then one day, zoom, he takes off."

Abercrombie is building his skipjack as efforts are under way to preserve the 13 remaining oyster dredging skipjacks on the Chesapeake Bay - the last commercial sail fleet in North America. The entire fleet was included last month on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's 11 most endangered historic resources.

"This is all that's left of that time," said John R. Valliant, president of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, which is overseeing a state program to repair the bay's working skipjacks and keep them afloat.

Native to the bay region, the first skipjacks were built in the late 18th century specifically for dredging the local oyster fisheries. More than 1,000 of the utilitarian boats worked bay waters in the early 1900s, the heyday of the skipjack. A declining oyster population and wear and tear on the wooden boats put nearly all of the skipjacks out of business.

Museum officials are impressed with Abercrombie's project.

"Maybe when he's done, he'd want to volunteer down here," said Mike Vlahovich, who oversees the skipjack restoration program. Abercrombie's first step was to find the right wood to do the job, a search that lasted about a year. He went to several local lumberyards before finding one in Deale that was able to supply him with good, quality white oak. And for the planking he went to Maine for some eastern white cedar, a light but strong wood.

In 1997, he found plans for building a small 25-foot skipjack through Wooden Boat Magazine. The boat was designed by Joe Gregory, a naval architect in Yorktown, Va.

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