Amid scramble to paint, plug holes, volunteers unveil costly damage to historic oyster skipjack

`Martha' fix isn't smooth sailing

February 23, 2007|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

In December, Capt. Greg Shinn piloted the Martha Lewis on a 30-mile cruise from Havre de Grace to a Baltimore marina for routine repairs.

The trip on the 52-year-old skipjack, the last on the Chesapeake Bay that dredges for oysters under sail, went well.

"Wood boats always leak a little, but there was nothing untoward going on," Shinn said.

Volunteer workers planned to paint, plug holes and replace a few boards on the historic boat, which is used for bay education programs. But while removing worn boards from the hull, they found serious structural damage. The projected cost of repairs tripled to $60,000, leaving the 8-ton, 83-foot vessel stranded in dry dock at Port Covington Marina with a gaping hole in its starboard side.

"We knew we were facing repair work, but not as much as we found," said Cindi Beane, executive director of the Chesapeake Heritage Conservancy, a Harford County nonprofit that owns the skipjack. "Looking at her, you would not have known the depth of the problems. The more wood we took off, the more we knew we had to replace."

In addition to proceeding with repairs, the conservancy is scrambling to raise the extra money needed to fix the Martha Lewis, which is listed on the Maryland Historic Trust and is one of the few skipjacks operating on the Chesapeake.

"Martha is a real treasure that must keep working," said A. Michael Vlahovich, a shipbuilder hired to oversee the restoration. "You have to look at the programs this boat provides and the cultural heritage that doesn't get taught anywhere else. These boats are among the things we take for granted, but they are vanishing every day."

2,000 once sailed

Designed expressly for oyster dredging on the Chesapeake, skipjacks first appeared on the bay in the late 1800s, Vlahovich said. In the heyday of dredging, about 2,000 were in operation.

For decades, oystermen built skipjacks in their backyards out of whatever materials were available.

"It was the same kind of wood we have today, but of course there were better, older trees then," said Vlahovich, a master builder and boat restorer based in St. Michaels. "As far as beauty of shape, these boats have it."

With a top mast that towered 70 feet above the keel and about 2,000 square feet of canvas sails, a skipjack could cut through the water at up to 8 knots. The boats have traversed the Chesapeake for more than a century, a classic symbol of bay life and history that has inspired artists and photographers.

But oystermen were not after beauty or grace. They worked their skipjacks vigorously, often in harsh weather, until the timbers rotted and the sails wore ragged.

"Skipjacks were not yachts, and they weren't supposed to look like they were in the America's Cup," Shinn said. "They were work boats, designed especially to work on the Chesapeake."

About two dozen remain today, he said. A few still dredge for oysters, but the Martha Lewis is the only one that does so under sail, according to the conservancy.

Built on the Eastern Shore in 1955, the Martha Lewis has been transformed into a living classroom for bay ecology, Maryland history and watermen lore programs run by the conservancy out of the Maritime Museum in Havre de Grace. Proceeds from summer programs pay for the maintenance and upkeep of the ship, which is appraised at about $375,000. It can carry 28 passengers and four crew members.

"She makes enough to keep herself going," Beane said.

In the most difficult phase of the restoration, volunteer workers replaced the chine log, a 50-foot piece of oak that runs the length of the starboard side. Unable to find a single piece as long as the original chine, workers coupled two oak boards - each 8 inches wide and 2 inches thick - at a slanted joint that spreads the stress over a longer distance, Shinn said.

"It's functionally stronger than one long piece, and we should get another 52 years out of it," he said.

As weather permits, workers are replacing about 80 percent of the boards on the damaged side and about half of the planks on the bottom.

The conservancy has purchased materials that are in keeping with the ship's history, including longleaf pine from Virginia and Connecticut, and steel-cut nails made in Massachusetts.

"We are doing the way it was done years ago, with some limitations," Shinn said.

The Martha Lewis has years of sailing left, Vlahovich said.

`A matter of age'

"That big hole in her side is not from neglect. ... This is just a matter of age," he said. "These ships were never built to last this long, but as long as they are maintained, they can last."

Years ago, a skipjack in such disrepair would have been abandoned, Shinn said.

"Sometimes, you will find the bones of a skipjack on the edges of a remote marina or rotting in a salt marsh," he said.

When the conservancy acquired the Martha Lewis, the agreement required at least one under-sail oyster dredging trip each year, though the catch now is a small fraction of the thousands of bushels caught in the heyday of oystering.

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