Sail into History on a Skipjack
Shanghaied into labor, two able-bodied passengers grapple a stout line hand over hand to hoist the 2,000-square-foot Dacron mainsail of the skipjack Dee of St. Mary’s up her 72-foot tree-trunk mast. Then First Mate John Fulchiron crawls out on the 19-foot bowsprit to raise the smaller jib. And off Dee goes.
At 10 knots per hour, she is not a speedster. But passengers hold onto their hats as the fresh breeze moves the 56-foot-long boat through the humid air of an August afternoon. Captain Ed Bahniuk steers Dee out of Solomons harbor into the Patuxent River. The waters part under her thrust.
Every class of boat tells the story of its era, and every boat of every class has its own story.
|First Mate John Fulchiron provides an intro to crabs, crab pots and oysters for passengers aboard the skipjack Dee of St. Mary’s. <<
photo by Sue Kullen>>
As a skipjack, Dee is one of a fleet fashioned in the late 19th century to more economically dredge a diminishing oyster harvest. Beauty was a byproduct of the efficiency of the long-bowsprited, flat-sterned, low-riding sailboats. Hundreds were built, almost all on the Eastern Shore.
It’s been many years since skipjacks like Dee were efficient. Crews drop from the skipjack’s five or six to one or two. Oysters went scarce. Motorized oyster boats put skipjacks out of business. The last of the working fleet was built in the middle of the 20th century.
As the last commercial sailing fleet in the United States, skipjacks made the National Trust for Historic Preservation 2002 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. Perhaps three dozen survive, some in private ownership, some in museums.
Among skipjacks, Dee’s history is unique.
In the late 1970s, Jack Russell — a prospering seafood merchant up the Potomac River on St. George’s Island — commissioned a skipjack. Boatwright Francis Goddard finished his work in 1979. Russell christened his boat Dee after his wife.
Skipjacks had always been Eastern Shore boats. Dee was only the second to be built on the Western Shore, according to a mid-1980s survey by the Maryland Historical Trust.
“I’d been a waterman all my life, patent tonging, shaft tonging, all the stuff,” Russell told Bay Weekly. “Building a skipjack was getting my doctoral degree in the waterman’s business.”
Russell worked his boat for a decade, dredging oysters down the Bay from north to south “ahead of the ice.”
Russell next shifted Dee from commerce to education, taking students sailing, dredging for oysters, walking the beaches to pick up trash and recycling.
A waterman with a University of Maryland degree in government, Russell manages a double life in community, regional and waterways policy making. Since 2006, he has been president of St. Mary’s County’s Board of Commissioners. To support Dee and its work, Russell formed a nonprofit, the Chesapeake Bay Field Lab.
But a wooden boat needs constant and costly upkeep.
In 2009, Dee was still sailing, one of only a handful of skipjacks certified to carry passengers. By 2010, keeping her afloat took an $85,000 emergency grant from the Southern Maryland Heritage Area Consortium.
Over two years and with another $57,000 Heritage grant, Dee was “hauled out of the water and substantially rebuilt.”
For a decade her foundation searched for a home that could maintain and use her. In 2012, Calvert Marine Museum adopted Dee.
“I’ve never seen anybody happier to give away a boat,” said Sherrod Sturrock, the museum’s deputy director. “She was built on the Western Shore, and with us she stays here.”
In Solomons, Dee joined a fleet of historic boats and a sister historic tour boat, the bugeye Wm. B. Tennison.
She also found a workforce able to keep up with her many needs. Over the past year, the museum’s Patuxent Small Craft Guild has been hard at work, cleaning, painting and working as crew.
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Dee made her maiden voyage July 27, with her second voyage scheduled for Saturday, August 10. Passenger cruises will continue monthly; most of her time belongs to students.
As Dee made big circles in the river, passengers enjoyed a couple of lulling hours on the water and First Mate Fulchiron’s introduction to crabs, crab pots and oysters. Dee’s five-man volunteer crew can tell you all about her, but you’ll need to ask. Skipjack lore is not yet a routine part of the program.
Learn more about Dee and watch videos at Viki Volk Russell’s blog chronicling her namesake: www.justbeforeitsgone.blogspot.com.
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Ride a Skipjack on Other Waters
H.M. Krentz with Captain Ed Farley. Two-hour working or sightseeing cruises with up to 32 passengers April thru October from Crab Claw Restaurant St. Michael’s. Daily 11am, 2pm and sunset cruises; $35; rsvp: 410-745-6080; www.oystercatcher.com.
Nathan of Dorchester, a traditional skipjack commissioned in 1994 and funded and built by volunteers under the direction of Bobby Ruark. Up to 20 people board for one- ($15) or two-hour ($35) sails from Long Wharf, Cambridge, May thru Oct. rsvp: 410-228-7141; www.skipjack-nathan.org.
Rebecca T. Ruark with Captain Wade Murphy. Two-hour sightseeing cruises with oyster-dredging demo from Tilghman Island’s Dogwood Harbor. 11am, 2pm and 6pm daily; rsvp. $30: 410-829-3976; www.skipjack.org.
Watch Skipjacks Race
Many of Maryland’s surviving fleet of skipjacks take to the waters in racing competition this season.
Aug. 31 to Sept. 2: Deal Island’s 54th Annual Skipjack Races and Festival culminates in the blessing of the fleet and racing Monday Sept. 2 at 8am: Deal Island/Chance Lions: 410-784-2785 (Bill Sailer); www.webauthority.net/lions.htm.
September 21: Choptank Heritage Skipjack Race. Eight boats are expected to compete on the Choptank River off Cambridge. See the race from Great Marsh Park, 10am to noon. Reception with captains and crews Fri. Sept. 20, 6-8pm at Snappers, Cambridge. $30 w/advance discounts: www.skipjack-nathan.org.