Sarles Boatyard & Marina, the oldest in Annapolis, to mark anniversary with a bash

Setting sail into a century

April 13, 2007|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,Sun reporter

Rambling and rugged, the Sarles Boatyard & Marina in Eastport on the banks of Spa Creek has a 1924 bleached wood pier and oyster tongs to match.

Even with expensive yachts docked outside, the humming workshop inside seems a period piece with a potbellied stove. The glowing stove radiates the era when Sarles served Chesapeake watermen - the first chapter in a century's worth of history.

Debra Ann Smith, who acquired the four-generation family business a year and a half ago, says she's keeping the weatherbeaten charm intact while making top-to-toe improvements.

The quietly poised woman in her 50s is giving a 100th birthday bash tomorrow for the city's oldest boatyard, a celebration that also marks the second spring season for the "maritime village" she pictured in her mind's eye.

Sepia photographs of Eastport mariners and boats on display show when caulking was an art and a bushel of oysters was a way to pay. A classic Sarles handcrafted mahogany skiff will stand on dry land, a figment from before the fiberglass age. Perhaps most reminiscent is the area's only remaining marine railway, a way to haul powerboats, especially good for wooden boats in and out of the water.

Ben O. Sarles is sure to bring his storehouse of clear memories to the party.

As he says, the line between Annapolis and its salty neighbor across the bridge was sharply drawn not so long ago.

"I was born on (Annapolis') Green Street in 1932. I didn't come to Eastport until 1939. I was raised on this creek right here," Sarles said.

He was the last of the Benjamin Sarleses to run the boatyard founded in an oyster shack. It moved to its present site on Boucher Avenue in the 1920s.

For his part, Sarles, 74, said the time had come to let go of a daily work life that started at 5 a.m. and ended at 5 p.m. Spa Creek has utterly changed since he watched his cherished grandfather design and build boats - and as years passed, he has seen watermen mostly vanish from the horizon, he said.

"When I made my mind up, I was ready. It was time to get out of the trade," Sarles said. "Debra lived here on the hillside, and she's a sight better-looking than I was. I thought, `I'll go that way, she's a good businesswoman.'"

Also, Smith recalled, Sarles told her she had "heart."

Tomorrow's fete also turns a page in overcoming a personal loss. Smith's eyes cloud over as she explained that her fiance, Donald H. Ogilvie, died suddenly at 58 in 2003, just months before they planned to buy the Sarles boatyard and embark on a more serene phase.

The couple had spent time in Annapolis on weekends as a haven from their hectic schedules.

The former Fortune 500 senior executive decided her white house overlooking the boatyard would be a good place to heal. Putting away her pumps and pearls to see if she could run a boatyard alone might be good for the soul. And she had a sapphire engagement ring to remind her of their shared dream.

"I was starting over, re-inventing myself, and needed to reach out to the community," Smith said. "I needed to feel part of something ... [and] get connected to Annapolis."

So she did.

Her skills in corporate suites and towers served her well through a period of "wide-eyed learning" in another male environment where the weather, not the stock market, is the most important news.

First up for Smith was a fresh coat of silvery gray paint over a layer of white peels, so that passing boaters could see something afoot. Renovating and carpeting the offices was another upgrade.

"I wanted to keep it a working boatyard, but also wanted to let people know something different was going on," Smith said.

A key move was hiring Jim Kavle, 47, as general manager. Kavle, a member of the winning America's Cup team in 1987, brought a burst of momentum to the boatyard, which has 42 slips, some of them covered, along with small boat and kayak rentals. Six contract workers have stations on the yard, as they did before the sale.

"Ben had the marina an awful long time, and we were cleaning out years of things that had accumulated to reorganize the place," Kavle said. "Sarles was a working boatyard and our clients are seeing us carry on that tradition."jamie.stiehm@baltsun.com

Tickets to the Sarles Boatyard's 100th birthday party are $35 for adults and $15 for children. The party begins tomorrow at noon and ends at 6 p.m. Proceeds benefit the Annapolis Maritime Museum. The Eastport boatyard address is 808 Boucher Ave. For more information, call 410-263-3661.

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