A skipjack's extreme makeover

Oystering boat to get new life teaching about working and living on the bay

January 18, 2009|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

ST. MICHAELS - The deck of the Caleb W. Jones gleams with a fresh coat of white paint, as does the new cabin aft. Down below, though, the 55-year-old skipjack is showing its age - and even some daylight. You can poke three fingers through a hole in its rotted wooden hull.

Built in 1953, this remnant of the Chesapeake Bay's fading fleet of sail-powered oyster dredging boats is getting an extreme makeover at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. On dry ground for now, the Caleb's hull is being taken apart and put back together again, a timber and plank at a time.

"The boat was partially sunk when I got it," explains Mike Vlahovich, a veteran boat builder and founder of the Coastal Heritage Alliance, a nonprofit that works to preserve the vessels and culture of fishing communities. "It was pretty clear that no one really cared too much about it."

With the help of apprentices and volunteers, Vlahovich spent more than a year rehabbing the topside of the 44-foot skipjack while it sat in the water, its leaks controlled by pumping. A few weeks ago, he had it hoisted out of the water with a crane at the museum so he and his helpers could restore the hull on land.

"It has to be done in careful fashion, and braced up, so we don't lose shape," Vlahovich said. It's painstaking work, pulling the hull apart a bit at a time to replace the rotten wood. Like a jigsaw puzzle, no two pieces are exactly alike; each replacement piece must be carefully measured to fit the gap it must fill.

The restoration is being underwritten by the boat's owner, Michael Sullivan, a developer from Charles County. Sullivan, 53, grew up in Charles and has supported land-based historic preservation projects there. Though not a sailor himself, Sullivan said he was drawn to restore the Caleb W. Jones because his great-grandfather had worked on the water and had a skipjack.

"I just wanted to help preserve the heritage of Maryland," he says. "There are so few of them left."

Indeed, there are only five still dredging the bay bottom for oysters - three based in Somerset County, one that sails from Tilghman Island and one from Baltimore. In the late 1800s, more than a thousand reportedly plied the bay.

Named for its original owner, a Smith Island waterman, it was built at a commercial boatyard in Reedville, Va. It's one of the last skipjacks ever built but, Vlahovich notes, "like many of the newer ones, very cheaply built and just not made to last as long as they have."

Skipjacks were developed in the 1890s. They were relatively inexpensive to build, and their shallow draft enabled them to dredge oysters closer in to shore. Watermen often built the craft themselves in their backyards.

The Caleb's fortunes mirror those of the bay's oyster industry. Harvests topped 2 million bushels a year when the old Smith Islander took his namesake out dredging. He sold it after about a decade to a man in Virginia who intended to convert it to a pleasure sailboat, according to a book about the Caleb by Doug Stephens of Sharptown. The skipjack returned to work after a few years, with Richard "Dickie" Webster of Wenona, on Deal Island, as its captain.

Deal Island is one of the last bastions of oyster dredging, and still holds a skipjack race every Labor Day. Webster, whose family owned three skipjacks at one time, recalls boom times when they could catch 400 or 500 bushels a day. It was grueling work, though, sailing through all kinds of weather in fall and winter.

"I've caught some bad storms, but she took care of me," Webster, 67, says of the Caleb. "She brought me back."

But oyster harvests plummeted in the late 1980s, as diseases devastated the bay's once-abundant shellfish. The statewide catch is a fraction of what it was before - just 83,000 bushels last season.

As oysters hit bottom, so did the Caleb W. Jones. It sank in 1992 - fortunately in just 10 feet of water near Smith Island. It was patched and towed to Baltimore for repairs. Students at what later became the Living Classrooms Foundation provided the labor. The overhaul lasted barely a decade, though.

"I couldn't make enough money to keep the boat up," says Webster. "It just needed a lot of things."

So Webster sold the boat, and the new owner commissioned Vlahovich to restore it. A descendant of Croatian immigrants who fished Puget Sound, Vlahovich has been around fishermen and boats almost all his life. He started out salmon fishing, then shifted to building boats. For the past decade or so, he's worked on preserving fishing vessels, first on the West Coast and since the late 1990s here in Maryland, where he has focused on restoring the commercial skipjack fleet.

But keeping the old boats shipshape isn't really enough, he acknowledges.

"There's not enough money in dredging oysters to keep the boats alive. You need to find alternate sources of revenue. Ideally, there wouldn't need to be a Coastal Heritage Alliance. There would be sustainable fisheries."

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