Of sails and symbols

September 21, 2002

SKIPJACK, the word, conjures images of life on the Chesapeake. Bay lore holds these oyster-dredging boats were named in honor of a water-walking fish. But even without divine capacities, the stylish craft gleams in the mosaic of Maryland.

Now, of course, it's endangered. Only 10 of these elegant workhorses with their brightly colored tailboards were in service during the last dredging season. The fleet declined along with the oysters sent to our tables in numbers so large an end to them never occurred to most of us. Toxic runoff and other hazards pushed the annual take to the brink of futility. And yet the gallant 10 sail on, determined and symbolic. Others remain for largely ceremonial or educational purposes.

Now and then the striking profiles of skipjack sails make their way into this newspaper. The Minnie V. and the City of Crisfield appeared recently. Yachtsmen have been urged to copy some of their qualities since they were built for this bay and have proven their "weatherliness." The whole fleet has landed on the list of endangered treasures put together each year by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The 11 Most Endangered of 2002 includes St. Elizabeths Hospital, the District of Columbia asylum where poet Ezra Pound was once held, and Pompey's pillar, a pile of rocks in Yellowstone County, Mont., where William Clark, co-leader of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, carved his name. Native American burial sites in the Missouri River Valley are on the list, too.

Each of these historic places deserves solemn respect and rescue. No rivalry or gross militancy can be tolerated. And yet, could any of them rival the elegance of the skipjack? Surely not.

The skipjack's characteristics come down to us in romantic terms full of adventure and brave enterprise. One writer tells us they are "a centerboard craft, beamy, with a raking mast, jib and leg-of-mutton mainsail. It is dead-rise or V-bottom and is of shallow draft." Of course it is.

Skipjack place names come down, too, in boat biographies. Each one's history doubles as a mini-glimpse of the bay: When they first became popular, they were known on the lower James River in Virginia as "Crisfield flatties" or "sharpies." One of the largest was the Robert L. Webster, built at Oriole, near Deal Island, in 1915. Its career ended in the late 1970s.

We are urged to think of these quintessentially Maryland boats as symbolic. They are relics but they're still in service, not model boats built in bottles.

When we see a skipjack, we ought to think of Maryland-style American ingenuity and determination, of men and women who built and sailed them, who took a hard-won living from bay waters.

We must also think of the restoration still needed on the bay itself. Oysters and blue crabs and watermen -- all have been at least unofficially endangered, along with the skipjack, because we endanger them. It's a harsh truth we can't hear too often.

Maryland's Millennium Commission, under the direction of Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, wants to raise several million dollars to finance costly restorations the owners can't cover. Tax-deductible donations can be sent to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michael's, where several boats are being repaired now. Skilled shipwrights and their apprentices are doing the work.

So we're blessed if we spot a raking mast or a mutton-chop sail. It's our heritage. It's Maryland. And it's a reminder of all we have to do every day to keep it living and vibrant.

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