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Sunday, January 18, 2009

A Skipjack's Extreme Makeover

By Timothy B. Wheeler

Oystering sailboat to teach about life on the bay
(Baltimore Sun photo by Jed Kirschbaum / December 10, 2008)

Mike Vlahovich uses a plainer as he squares up an oak timber to be used as the inner bow stem on the mastless Caleb W. Jones in background on left.

The skipjack Caleb W. Jones is being restored at The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum by the staff and apprentices of the non-profit Coastal Heritage Alliance.

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.

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