Friday, November 23, 2001

ST. MICHAELS, Md. In a boatyard on the banks of the Miles River, shipwright Mike Vlahovich and three apprentices are working to put an 80-year-old oysterman back on the water and save part of Maryland’s maritime heritage.
Mr. Vlahovich and his crew at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum are completing repairs on the City of Crisfield, a skipjack that sank a year ago at a Cambridge dock. On Aug. 9, they began working on the boat, which could take to the water again by late December.
The Crisfield is the first boat to be repaired in a proposed three-year effort to save skipjacks, single-masted wooden dredging vessels that once were the backbone of the Chesapeake Bay oyster industry.
More than 1,000 skipjacks were plying the Bay in the early 20th century, but just 13 working boats remain in the only U.S. commercial fleet still moving under sail.
“We’re going to get to each boat,” vows Mr. Vlahovich, 51, a specialist in traditional wooden-boat construction. He moved this year from Tacoma, Wash., to St. Michaels to lead the restoration program.
But with no guarantee of funding beyond $150,000 allocated for the first year of the project, some are wondering if all of the remaining skipjacks can be saved.
“It’s a lot to do, and the money’s running low,” said Art Daniels of Deal Island, skipper of the Crisfield and senior captain in the skipjack fleet.
In addition to the initial $150,000 grant from the Maryland Historical Trust, the program has received a $25,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and in-kind donations from vendors and suppliers, including Black & Decker and Chesapeake Wood Products in Cambridge.
Mr. Daniels expected his 52-year-old boat to be fully restored when he sent it to the museum, only to discover that a cap of $50,000 had been put on each of the first three boats to be repaired.
Mr. Vlahovich estimates it would take at least $200,000 to restore the Crisfield. It was the first boat chosen for restoration because it was the most decrepit. Given the budget restrictions, however, he and his crew are focusing on repairs below the waterline.
“This is not a museum restoration. This is a repair job,” he said.
In a modification of the boat’s design, Mr. Vlahovich and his workers added four hardwood transverse frames, called strongbacks, in the hull to retain the shape of the boat. Using white oak and yellow pine, they have strengthened the keel, rebuilt the transom, replaced the chine logs where the bottom and sides meet, and replaced rotting planking. The new side planking is caulked in the traditional way with cotton and oakum, a hemplike fiber pounded into the seams with a chisel.
“Everything we’ve done to it has strengthened this boat 10 times more than what it would have been,” said Dave Hibbard, 25, an apprentice from Tacoma. “The boat had a lot of issues when we started.”
Mr. Vlahovich said the Crisfield needs extensive work topside, but the boat’s condition is not to the point where Mr. Daniels can’t operate.
“We’re doing some deck work, but it’s more in the line of patchwork to buy him some time,” he said.
But time may be running out for the skipjacks.
“If we don’t do something now, it’s going to be too late,” said Louise Hayman, staff member for the state’s Save our Skipjacks Task Force, formed in 1999 as an outgrowth of Maryland’s millennium celebration commission.
Skipjacks first appeared on the Chesapeake Bay in the 1890s and soon became the dredging boat of choice. With their unique V-shaped and cross-planked bottoms, the shallow-draft, centerboard vessels were less expensive to build and maintain than the round-bottomed, fore-and-aft planked vessels that came before them.
The oldest remaining skipjack, the Rebecca T. Ruark, was built in 1886. As the oyster population began to decline because of overharvesting and disease, skipjacks started to disappear around the mid-20th century, even though some, such as the Crisfield, still were being built.
Efforts to save the skipjacks began in the late 1980s, when only about 35 boats were left. State officials appointed a group that came up with several recommendations, but nothing was done.
In addition to the high cost estimates, there was little cohesion among skipjack supporters, Miss Hayman noted. While the captains were interested in maintaining working vessels, some historians and preservation purists had other ideas about restoration. Meanwhile, some conservationists were worried skipjack dredging would further deplete the oyster fishery.
By the time the task force was established in 1999, almost two-thirds of the remaining fleet had disappeared.
“Obviously, there’s a lot of skepticism about whether this program is going to be successful, because nothing’s been successful before,” Miss Hayman said. “The only thing we can do is plod ahead and try to make progress.”
For Mr. Vlahovich, the biggest challenge is not repairing the boats, but gaining the support of “people who have no vision.”
“That’s a formidable task,” he said. “Fixing a boat is a piece of cake.
“I don’t think a lot of people see the bigger picture in this,” adds Mr. Vlahovich, who grew up in the Northwest as the third generation in a family of Croatian-immigrant salmon fishermen. He spoke passionately of preserving the nation’s maritime heritage.
“I came here to do more than save an old boat,” he said. “I came here to do my part to try to save a culture.”

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