- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 18, 2003

ST. MICHAELS, Md. — The whir of buzz saws and the thwack of mallets on wooden planks fill the boatyard at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum as shipwrights and apprentices rebuild skipjack oyster trawlers some of the last in the state and the components of the nation's only remaining sail-powered commercial fleet.The skipjack Lady Katie is fastened to the dock that reaches from the boatyard into the Chesapeake Bay. Aboard her, master shipbuilder Mike Vlahovich, director of the museum's skipjack restoration project, and Scott Todd, captain of the Lady Katie, are replacing the deck.
"I don't have any kids. I've never even been married. But this boat is like my baby," says Mr. Todd, 39, a fifth-generation waterman from Cambridge, Md. "Right now, it's like I'm getting ready to send her to college."
The shipwrights already have spent three months replacing the bow and most of the boat's framing, but it will take at least three more months and eventually cost about $100,000 to completely renovate the vessel. She looks naked now, without a mast or aft cabin, and her skeletal framing is visible through the missing deck planks.
"It's a whole new boat," her captain says. "We build a new boat where the old one was standing."
For three years, Mr. Todd and his father have worked at renovating the boat. They are fishermen, not boat builders, he says. They had made little progress before the museum and the skipjack project came to their aid.
The project, which is partially funded by the state, provides $150,000 a year to renovate some of the 12 skipjacks remaining in the fleet. The work also provides training for shipwright apprentices, who will have the skills needed to repair wooden boats and ensure their survival.
"It's a set of skills that are being lost, but the museum is keeping it alive," says Bryan McCarthy, 25, who came from Cape Cod, Mass., to be one of eight apprentices in the program.
Since the program started two years ago, the museum has performed restoration work on four skipjacks: City of Crisfield, Herman M. Krentz, Somerset and Lady Katie. A committee of skipjack captains selected which vessels would be restored first and allotted $50,000 per boat from program funding.
The skipjack, Maryland's state boat, once swarmed on the Bay. In the early 1900s, about 1,000 of these shallow-draft, wooden-hulled sailboats were dredging oysters in the Bay. By 1985, just 35 remained. A dozen are in operation today.
The boats are recognizable by their low freeboards; expansive deck space; and small, raised aft cabin. Skipjacks are rigged with a jib-headed mainsail with wooden mast hoops and a single large jib. They usually are painted white with decorative tailboards.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation last year placed Maryland's skipjack fleet on its list of America's 11 most endangered historic places, a list that includes Baltimore's Senator Theatre and the Antietam Battlefield in Washington County, Md.
As the Bay's oyster beds dwindle, depleted by historic overharvesting, pollution and recently identified intractable oyster diseases, so do the number of skipjacks and crews that uphold the watermen's tradition on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
In the museum's boatyard, three young men are carving masts out of poles 73 feet long and 23 inches in diameter, cut from Douglas fir trees grown in Washington state. Three poles, each weighing about 4 tons, are being transformed into masts.
The Lady Katie's finished mast about 70 feet long and cut down to a cigar shape that is 14 inches wide at the bottom and 8 inches wide at the top is resting on blocks nearby.
"It's been a long time since you've had four masts being built at the same time. It used to be commonplace around these parts 40 years ago," Mr. Todd says. "If it wasn't for this program and [Mr. Vlahovich], you might as well just throw these boats away. They would just disappear. They would be gone."
Mr. Vlahovich knows firsthand how an entire way of life can vanish. He witnessed his own watermen's culture disintegrate in his hometown on Washington state's Puget Sound. He had to give up the life of a commercial salmon fisherman but discovered a passion for building and preserving wooden boats.
He says the museum's restoration work does more than just keep the boats afloat. It keeps the watermen's culture alive and gives visitors to the museum a chance to interact with fishermen, shipwrights and apprentices on a personal level.
"They are not on a stage. They are here in their element," he says. "We are building a bridge between the tie-and-blazer crowd and the working waterfront."
The work they are doing is "packed with meaning," he says. They are saving a historic fleet, preserving the watermen's culture and sharing these vessels and the watermen's lifestyle with a world that otherwise would forget them.
"I think a lot of it escapes us because we are too busy doing it," Mr. Vlahovich says.
One of the men working on the masts, Alaskan native Heron Scott, 20, says being a boat builder is a special calling.
"It just seems so amazing to me," he says of rebuilding the skipjacks. "It's like a work of art."


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