ESTIMATES ON the number of years the 50-something-foot Unknown Sailboat lay at the bottom of its slip at the seedy and weedy Baltimore Yacht Basin, on the southern edge of the city by the Hanover Street bridge, run from eight to 12. All anybody saw of the craft in that time was mast and rigging. The boat sank in about 10 feet of water, perhaps during the end of the last Bush administration, and stayed there. The marina's previous management didn't seem to mind.
But now a group of optimists has taken over, with money and ambitions to clean up the place and create some excitement along Middle Branch. Yesterday, they set about raising the Unknown Sailboat.
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A crane barge pulled into place along the slip, and a big steel claw dropped into the icy green water and came up with broken timbers so black they appeared to have been burned. The mast, the keel, the guts - the Unknown Sailboat was nothing but a heap of nautical mulch with a keel through it. I resist getting sentimental about these things, but the thought of how this fine, old, handcrafted sailboat once brought pleasure and maybe even adventure to some long-gone Chesapeake sailing family did cross my mind --- for about a nanosecond.
It's time to move on.
The Baltimore Yacht Basin has been sitting there, brimming with potential, for years, and it's been neglected too long. The hard-drinking and irascible fellow who ran the place and its attached Dead Eye Saloon, Captain Dan Davis, departed these waters in 1998. The city ended up with the bar and the marina, and while some customers continue to rent slips and even live on their boats there, the place looks like a marine hobo jungle.
No offense to the fine people who use the place. They know what it is, and it is what it is. (As Popeye said: "I yam what I yam.") But it could be much more - a happy destination full of good food, live music and party animals.
Even with the changes the new investors have in mind, the marina will probably keep its blue-collar funkiness. Middle Branch is lovely, but it's not the Inner Harbor, and the "yacht basin" sits hard by a long, scruffy sheet metal building used by Locke Insulator. So there's always going to be a bit of - how should one put this? - industrial ambience to the place, in the way of Locust Point or Fells Point before the yuppie onslaught.
Tom Chagouris, of modest fame as proprietor of Nick's Inner Harbor Seafood in the Cross Street Market, has had his eye on the Dead Eye and the marina for a number of years. He and his partners got the place from the city in a deal last fall. They want to have a casual seafood restaurant and a thriving marina. I bet they will.
But they've got a lot of work to do - more sinkers to remove, along with many abandoned boats scattered around the fringes of the marina and under Hanover Street, collected by Captain Dan when his customers didn't pay their rent. What a mess.
There are a lot of places like this along the postindustrial Baltimore waterfront, little coves and peninsulas of potential. Chagouris gets downright dreamy about what he wants to see there - big seasonal festivals on his docks, boaters slipping in to catch dinner or a shuttle to a Ravens or Orioles game, evening parties on a restaurant-owned boat. He'd like to have a produce and seafood market, fashioned after one of the city's farmers' markets, under the Hanover Street bridge. I told Chagouris he ought to run fishing parties out of the marina, too, and I'll tell you why ...
Martin Gary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service reports that winter anglers recently have made "phenomenal catches" of rockfish - he calls them striped bass - in Middle Branch.
"They launch their boats at the Hanover Street bridge and use artificial lures on light and medium spinning gear," Gary says. "It is a winter fishery, and the next few weeks could provide great action before water temperatures warm and the fish scatter. ... I've had a chance to fish [the area], and the action is outstanding. Some of the stripers are huge."
As a newspaper editor said: "If your mother says she loves ya, check it out." Looks like I'm going to have to make another trip to Middle Branch.