112 Years Old and Still Sail­ing Strong

Soundings - - Contents - By Jeff Bol­ster

One of only a hand­ful of re­main­ing skip­jacks on Ch­e­sa­peake Bay, Min­nie V. is 112 and still work­ing.

Noth­ing says Ch­e­sa­peake Bay like a skipjack, with its dis­tinc­tive pro­file and raked rig. These days skip­jacks are ro­man­ti­cized, but for a long time they were sim­ply hard­work­ing boats linked to wa­ter­men’s tra­di­tional way of life. Min­nie V. is among the last of the breed, a re­gional trea­sure with a quirky his­tory.

The water­man’s life al­ways had plenty of al­lure. Pretty morn­ing light and the slap of gen­tle waves on the hull were just the be­gin­ning. Mak­ing a sat­is­fy­ing lick, as men called each pass with the oys­ter dredge, paid the bills. In close quar­ters, with skip­jacks tack­ing and gy­bing to stay over pro­duc­tive bot­tom, dredg­ing could be down­right ex­cit­ing. Skilled wa­ter­men were right­fully proud of their lo­cal knowl­edge. And they were part of some­thing big­ger: a uni­verse of wa­ter­men and their kin, con­nected to their quarry of oys­ters, crabs and fish. But it was never easy.

Al­most 2,000 skip­jacks may have been built on the Bay, nearly all for dredg­ing oys­ters un­der sail. No one knows ex­actly how many are left, though Cyndy Car­ring­ton Miller, who runs The Last Skip­jacks Project, be­lieves there are about 45. Some are wrecks, oth­ers mu­seum ex­hibits, yet oth­ers re­cently built plea­sure boats, and 15 or so are dredg­ing. Skip­jacks have a lot of sail. Pay out the

main­sheet, put the breeze on the quar­ter, and those old boats will re­ally move. But they weren’t de­signed for speed. They spent their days scrap­ing iron dredges across oys­ter bars, pro­pelled by sail alone. Stout teeth on the dredge dis­lodged the oys­ters, which fell into a chain bag. It was heavy work. Skip­jacks’ dis­tinc­tive rig on a hard- chine vee­bot­tom was de­signed for power.

Min­nie V. has done a lit­tle bit of ev­ery­thing. John B. Ve­tra built Min­nie in Wenona, on Mary­land’s Deal Is­land, in 1906, nam­ing her af­ter his wife. To­day, Min­nie is dredg­ing each win­ter from Deal Is­land. Capt. Stoney White­lock is the most re­cent in a long chain of in­di­vid­u­als who have cast their lot with Min­nie V.

“I was born and raised in this area,” he says, de­scrib­ing him­self as a fifth-gen­er­a­tion water­man. “And my sons are sixth gen­er­a­tion,” he says. “It’s in our blood.”

White­lock re­cently brought Min­nie home from Bal­ti­more, where she had been since the early 1970s, run­ning har­bor tours and school pro­grams. “We put it back to oys­ter­ing,” he says proudly. “We got it in right good shape.”

On Min­nie’s best day this sea­son, White­lock’s crew har­vested 34 bushels. That helped com­pen­sate for the win­ter’s nasty weather, when they lost four weeks on ac­count of ice. The bot­tom line, he says, is that “she is pay­ing her way, and I am tick­led about that.”

Min­nie V.’ s ca­reer be­gan with Capt. Charles Mid­dle­ton of Smith Is­land. He com­menced dredg­ing oys­ters with her in 1907, when oys­ter­ing was big busi­ness on the Bay. He op­er­ated her un­til 1944, sell­ing her to his son, Wil­lie, who ran Min­nie V. for 10 more years. In those days, the boats had a gaso­line en­gine on deck, pow­er­ing a winch called a win­der, and one dredge on each side. They dredged from the wind­ward side. In­ter­viewed in 1996 at age 90, Wil­lie said that Min­nie’s record haul of oys­ters to­taled 250 bushels in one day, taken off Po­plar Is­land in the up­per Bay. She would have stag­gered un­der the load.

No skip­jacks had en­gines. For decades they could legally dredge only un­der sail. Yet most car­ried a mo­tor­ized push boat. The push boat’s prow fit into a jig on the skip­jacks’s tran­som, and it piv­oted there on a short teth-

er. Skip­pers could legally push out to the grounds if the breeze was not fair. They could push home. To dredge, how­ever, the push boat had to be hauled. Mary­land changed the law in 1967, al­low­ing boats to dredge un­der power two days a week. Af­ter that, many cap­tains dredged while push­ing two days a week, and sail-dredged the other three.

As time passed, oys­ters got scarce, and crews aged. Fewer cap­tains both­ered to dredge on sail­ing days. To­day, no sail dredg­ing takes place. Iron­i­cally, skip­jacks are the last fleet of work­ing sail­boats in Amer­ica, but none of the work­ing boats are sail­ing. Some don’t even have sails any­more. A hand­ful of cap­tains would like the state to des­ig­nate some bot­tom for sail-dredg­ing only. Minny V. has sails, and Cap­tain White­lock would like to sail dredge, if he can.

For 64 years, Min­nie V. worked un­der owner­op­er­a­tors from Smith Is­land and Deal Is­land. Pri­mar­ily a dredge boat, she made oc­ca­sional off-sea­son for­ays, car­ry­ing cargo or fish­ing. Skip­jacks like Min­nie were cen­tral to the Bay’s 20th cen­tury mar­itime cul­ture, link­ing con­tem­po­rary wa­ter­men to the ways of the past.

Things changed in 1970. The city of Bal­ti­more pur­chased Min­nie V. for $8,200 to berth the old skipjack in the new In­ner Har­bor as a float­ing ex­hibit dur­ing the sum­mer. Her­itage tourism was grow­ing. Each fall, she would re­turn to the East­ern Shore to dredge, man­aged by Capt. Ir­win Drum­mer, who lived near Kent Is­land. That worked un­til 1975, when Min­nie caught fire. It looked like the end. Drum­mer towed her into a marsh to die, the his­toric des­tiny of most wooden work­boats once they had out­lived their use­ful­ness.

Her­itage is of­ten a pow­er­ful hook. In this case Bal­ti­more of­fi­cials de­cided Min­nie V. was too pre­cious to lose. Grant writers se­cured fund­ing from the Na­tional Trust for His­toric Preser­va­tion for a to­tal re­build. Mel­bourne Smith, who had built the clip­per schooner Pride of Bal­ti­more, got the job. Smith’s crew re­built Min­nie V. in a ship­yard near the Mary­land Sci­ence Cen­ter, and in a two-for-one move, they si­mul­ta­ne­ously built a sis­ter ship, the Anna McGar­vey. Re­built, re­painted and ready to go,

Min­nie V. was cer­ti­fied in 1983 by the Coast

Guard to carry pas­sen­gers for hire. By then the old boat was more valu­able pro­mot­ing the Bay’s her­itage than har­vest­ing its seafood. The city turned over the ves­sel to the Mary­land His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety un­der a longterm char­ter agree­ment, with the un­der­stand­ing that Min­nie would carry tourists in the har­bor dur­ing sum­mers but re­turn to Har­ri­son’s Ch­e­sa­peake House at Til­gh­man Is­land in the winters to dredge. Maybe she could do it all.

The his­tor­i­cal so­ci­ety turned to re­tired editor Bob Keith to man­age the boat. It seemed an un­likely choice. Though Keith had an affin­ity for old wooden ves­sels, which he called “his­toric trea­sures of Mary­land,” he was not a mariner and had never run a boat busi­ness. Never mind: He cared about his­toric skip­jacks, and he knew Bal­ti­more Har­bor’s his­tory in­side and out. His tim­ing was per­fect. The mar­ket for her­itage tourism kept grow­ing. Keith cre­ated Ocean World In­sti­tute in 1983 to of­fer pub­lic tours and pro­grams for the his­tor­i­cal so­ci­ety aboard

Min­nie V. His en­thu­si­asm was con­ta­gious. For the first time, large num­bers of peo­ple could ex­pe­ri­ence her charms un­der sail.

For four sum­mers be­gin­ning in 1986, I skip­pered Min­nie

V. for Ocean World In­sti­tute. At the end of each win­ter, the dredge gear and en­gine would be stripped off, the boat cleaned and painted, park benches for tourists bolted down, and life jacket boxes se­cured on deck. We tucked the first reef into the main­sail to con­form to Coast Guard sta­bil­ity re­quire­ments, and we were ready to go.

Min­nie had an au­then­tic­ity that no other tour boat could match, and we ran her seven days a week. Berthed in the In­ner Har­bor, we rarely got be­yond the Fran­cis Scott Key Bridge, but there was al­ways some­thing to see and sto­ries to tell about the chang­ing na­ture of the waterfront and wa­ter­men.

I was new to push boats but quickly grasped how they could in­crease ma­neu­ver­abil­ity in tight quar­ters com­pared to a con­ven­tional sin­gle-screw in­board. The push boat never steered. We steered with the skipjack’s rud­der. But the push boat had a line from each quar­ter cleat back to Min­nie. To get off the face of a dock, for in­stance, I could haul one of those lines to pull the boat away from the skipjack and then go astern with the push boat en­gine. It was a cranky old V-8 car en­gine con­verted to marine use, with horse­power to spare. Ori­ented like that, it would pull us smartly away from the dock.

Ch­e­sa­peake Ap­pre­ci­a­tion Days, with skipjack races at Sandy Point State Park, were a high point each fall. The event at­tracted “fam­ily boats” ( skip­jacks built as plea­sure craft), work­boats and hy­brids like Min­nie V. The ri­valry was in­tense but friendly. Later each fall, we sailed Min­nie back to Til­gh­man Is­land, where Capt. John Mo­tovidliac was dredg­ing her. Gross rev­enues from dredg­ing in the 1985- 86 sea­son were $ 81,400, a tidy sum. But by 1992-93, rev­enues had fallen to $18,228, and dredg­ing was no longer worth­while. Dis­ease had rav­aged oys­ter beds, al­ready de­pleted by over­fish­ing, and wa­ter­men were hav­ing a hard time mak­ing ends meet. It looked like Min­nie V. would spend the rest of her days as a tour boat.

In 1996, the Ocean World In­sti­tute trans­ferred man­age­ment and care of Min­nie V. to the Liv­ing Class­rooms Foun­da­tion in Bal­ti­more. It over­saw re­plac­ing the tran­som. Within a year, my brother, Pete Bol­ster, was the foun­da­tion’s fleet cap­tain. As re­lief skip­per on Min­nie, he ran school trips and har­bor tours. Like wa­ter­men of old, he found that rot never sleeps. He re­placed much of Min­nie’s deck and re­built the cab­ins, the push­boat and the cen­ter­board trunk. Min­nie V. is 112 years old and scrupu­lously ac­cu­rate, but there’s not much orig­i­nal ma­te­rial left in her.

The Liv­ing Class­rooms Foun­da­tion ran Min­nie V. for 20 years. On week­ends and hol­i­days, she con­tin­ued to carry tourists out of the In­ner Har­bor. The foun­da­tion’s pri­mary fo­cus, how­ever, was hands-on marine ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams for school­child­ren, with an em­pha­sis on at-risk youth. Lisa Jones, di­rec­tor of ship­board ed­u­ca­tion, says a five-hour trip con­sisted of en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­ence and Bay his­tory, “with a good dose of prac­ti­cal nav­i­ga­tion and seamanship.”

Stu­dents took turns steer­ing. They helped set and strike sail. Once each trip, they de­ployed a bot­tom trawl to sam­ple ben­thic marine life — though in Bal­ti­more Har­bor, oozy black mud was more prom­i­nent than squirm­ing crea­tures. Kids also towed a plank­ton net and used mi­cro­scopes to ex­am­ine plank­ton. Min­nie had be­come a school ship.

Ul­ti­mately, the foun­da­tion rec­og­nized that Min­nie V. was too small to carry the large classes that have be­come preva­lent on field trips to­day. Luck­ily, White­lock wanted to buy the old boat in 2016 and put her back to work. He thinks oys­ters are mak­ing a come­back.

It seemed fit­ting that Min­nie V. would be dredg­ing once again at Deal Is­land, where she be­gan. In 2017, her builder’s great-great grand­daugh­ter, Car­lie Boz­man, won the Miss Skipjack pageant on Deal Is­land. She says she is proud to be de­scended from the man who built what she calls “the beau­ti­ful skipjack” Min­nie V.

Three skip­jacks, in­clud­ing Min­nie V., docked be­hind J.C. Lore Oys­ter House, Solomons, Mary­land, 1985. (Right) Min­nie V. run­ning pub­lic tours in Bal­ti­more’s In­ner Har­bor, 1980s.

Min­nie V. in Bal­ti­more, shortly be­fore she was sold to Capt. Stoney White­lock.

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