The Martha Lewis, one of Maryland's few remaining skipjacks, will return to its home port in Havre de Grace today with a cargo of watermelons from the Eastern Shore. The crew promises to give away dozens of hefty melons in exchange for a donation to the Chesapeake Heritage Conservancy, the ship's owner.
"Be here about 6 p.m., and the crew will sign the watermelon, too," said Mac Taylor, a volunteer sailor who was making the three-day trip to St. Michaels and back.
The ship, flying its Maryland and Havre de Grace flags, sailed from its berth in Tydings Park Thursday, loaded with about 400 pounds of grapes, harvested that same morning at the nearby Mount Felix Vineyard. That cargo was bound for St. Michaels Winery, which was expected to press the grapes as soon as they were unloaded.
"This is exactly what these boats did, when they were not dredging for oysters," said Peggy Roberts, another volunteer crew member. "Hauling cargo was definitely one of Martha's other jobs."
Before sailing home, the skipjack was expected to spend yesterday in Oxford, where it was to sail in a parade marking the 325th anniversary of the Oxford-Bellevue ferry.
For nearly a century, skipjacks, often called cargo-hauling workhorses, 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. There are less than 30 today.
The Martha Lewis made the same voyage south a year ago, and that eventually resulted in 80 cases of wine that were aged in oak casks and bottled at St. Michaels Winery. The vintage, dubbed "Martha," with a drawing of the ship on its label, is available at the Maryland Wine Festival this weekend in Westminster.
Mark Emon, owner of the Talbot County winery that bottled Martha, hopes to make the 53-mile sail down the Chesapeake Bay an annual tradition.
"I am really into history and proud to revitalize this classic use of a skipjack," Emon said. "This is a totally historic accurate use of the skipjack. And what better way to have a day on the bay?"
The crated deep-purple clusters of Chambourcin grapes, delivered to the dock Thursday by Mount Felix owners Mary and Peter Ianniello, would likely remain on the ship's deck for the 8-hour voyage. That would allow the clusters to "pick up the flavor of the salt breezes," Emon said.
Those same breezes help evaporate moisture from the grapes as the Ianniellos pick them.
"We can truly say our grapes are air-dried by the Chesapeake," said Peter Ianniello.
The Ianniellos moved to Mount Felix, a 15-acre property with sweeping views of the bay, in 2005 and refurbished its 1830s Georgian-style Colonial house. In the spring of that year, they planted 3,000 vines - one every four feet, in rows six feet apart. They chose Chambourcins, often called workhorse grapes, for their versatility and adaptability.
Their children, ages 7 to 12, have quickly learned "canopy management" and rarely go into the vineyard without pruning shears. They know a bottle of wine starts in the vineyard with much hands-on work to make sure grapes are consistently exposed to sunlight.
Each vine could potentially yield 10 to 15 pounds of grapes. Since a bottle of wine takes about 2 1/2 pounds of grapes, there might be 15,000 bottles of Mount Felix wines from the harvest this year. Last year's harvest produced several vintages, available at the newly opened winery on Route 155. The first official tastings last weekend drew steady customers, the couple said.
"We have met the greatest people and gotten the most positive feedback," Mary Ianniello said. "We even met Smitty Mitchell, the great-great-great-grandson of the original builder of Mount Felix."
There will likely be a 2008 Martha, from the grapes the Ianniellos shipped to Emon's winery. In addition to tending his own vines, Emon purchases from growers who "ring the bay," he said. But the Ianniellos' crop is the only one that arrives by skipjack.
"We will press them tonight," Emon said before boarding the skipjack Thursday. "That way we will really capture all the flavor of the vineyard and the bay."