Just like old times - skipjack hauls grapes

September 21, 2007|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun reporter

Peter Ianniello gathered the first harvest of grapes from his Harford County vineyard and trucked them to a dock in Havre de Grace. To get the two-ton load of fruit to a winemaker in St. Michaels, workers spent an hour putting them on a skipjack for the nine-hour trip to the Eastern Shore.

"It took a lot more time to pick than it did to load," Ianniello said, as the captain and crew of the Martha Lewis handled more than 130 crates.

Though intended as a historic re-creation of sorts, yesterday's operation presented a contrast to the classic imagery of the skipjack as an oyster dredging vessel. But cargo hauling was a vital function of the sloops, maritime historians say, as operators hauled all manner of cargo to bay ports after the September-to-April oyster season.

"Skipjack captains had to make a living after the dredging season," said Richard Scofield, boatyard manager at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels. "They were work boats and would deliver any cargo, from lumber to watermelons."

Pete Lesher, the museum's curator, found a print by Baltimore artist Louis Feuchter that depicted the skipjack E.C. Collier with watermelons loaded on its decks at a city wharf about 1910. That same skipjack is preserved at the St. Michaels museum.

And recently Lesher found a newspaper clipping from September 1907 describing how skipjacks had spent the summer carrying fruits and vegetables to Baltimore.

"This grape hauling is absolutely right on point to what skipjacks did," Lesher said.

For nearly a century, skipjacks were the lifeblood of commerce on the Chesapeake Bay. Designed for oyster dredging, the ships first appeared on the bay in the late 1800s. In the heyday of dredging, about 2,000 were in operation.

Nearly as numerous as the skipjacks were "buyboats," craft that would meet the bigger sloops halfway, buy produce and carry it to markets on the Western Shore.

But the skipjack's role as cargo-hauling workhorse came to an abrupt end with the opening of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

"As soon as that first refrigerated truck went over the bridge, the buyboats and skipjacks went out of business," Scofield said.

About two dozen skipjacks remain today and a few still dredge for oysters. The 52-year-old Martha Lewis is the only one that dredges under sail, according to the Chesapeake Heritage Conservancy, which owns the ship and operates it as a living classroom out of the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum. Over the winter, the vessel underwent a $60,000 restoration.

The 83-foot skipjack probably won't experience a third incarnation in modern-day grape running, but it is well equipped for yesterday's job, conservancy members said.

The venture came about when the Chambourcin grapes were ready for harvest at Ianniello's Mount Felix Manor and Vineyards. Ianniello contacted Mark Emon, owner of St. Michaels Winery, about purchasing some of the crop.

"I said I would only be interested if they were delivered here by water," Emon said. "I wanted the historic experience."

It just so happened that the Martha Lewis was headed that way. After the stop in St. Michaels, the ship is bound for tomorrow's 11th Choptank Heritage Skipjack Race, which the Martha Lewis has won nine of the past 10 years. The crew was willing to take on some cargo and a few passengers, such as Emon.

"We know these ships had a whole network of trade," Emon said. "The water was the only way to move around and they never wanted to sail empty. Every trip was precious to them. They would even haul empty oyster shells to use in road building."

Grapes filled the hold and lined the skipjack's deck yesterday as she sailed off on calm waters under a vibrant sky.

"That's a relatively small load," Lesher said. "Skipjacks could handle volumes of 10 to 25 tons, depending on their size."

Within days, the plump grapes will be de-stemmed and crushed at St. Michaels Winery. Then the fermenting process will start. About 300 gallons of wine from yesterday's cargo eventually will be bottled, available in about 18 months and selling for a little more than $20 a bottle, Emon said.

"Maybe, on this trip, the grapes will pick up some sea air that will be a subtle hint somewhere in the final wine," he said.

Ianniello had to stay behind. He has thousands more grapes to reap, some of which he hopes to ship to Emon, only next time on refrigerated trucks. He was thrilled to start off his new operation in Havre de Grace the way other vintners may have, when Harford County had a reputation for quality grapes.

"Thomas Jefferson asked for the rootstock from the Swan Harbor vineyard here," Ianniello said. "The first vines planted at Monticello came from Havre de Grace."

Cindi Beane, executive director of the conservancy, joined the crew for the trip.

"We are sailing on a perfect day with grapes on board," she said. "This is something Martha was meant to do. She is a working boat."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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