In the last quarter of the 20th century St. Mary’s County Maryland still had outhouses, tobacco farms, fishing villages and plantations. One of the last live radio stations in America carried the only available daily news. There were a couple of traffic signals, a couple of dress shops, small community grocery stores and a Navy base that most military personnel considered a hardship posting.

Still, just as the first English settlers had determined 350 years before, there were always some who saw the remote and marshy peninsulas for what it is: a marketable paradise.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Just to Catch Everybody Up.

1. There is still a skipjack in my backyard.

This is because a long long time ago I married her owner. Catch the pronouns.

2. He doesn't look exactly like this anymore. But there are times he can still pull it off.

3. A skipjack is a Big Deal in the rarefied air of Chesapeake Bay Preservationists. A Really Big Deal. And a skipjack is astronomically, insanely and cataclysmic-ally expensive. Really expensive.

4. So a foundation was created.

They clearly need help. If you can help, please visit

5. Meanwhile work continues with a goal of hoisting her back overboard (out of my backyard) this spring.
What follows is a re-cast synopsis of the scary work done in 2010 that ultimately assured the Chesapeake Bay Field Lab which owns the vessel that she would be able to return to service.

 Work completed in 2011 is also documented and will begin appearing on this blog at the end of these re-published 2010 videos, photos and stories.

Launching the Skipjack

 November 1979 -- recalled in 2009

“We had about 3,000 head down here that day.”
Jackie Russell’s face lights up still today, remembering that day in 1979. He’ll draw himself from the peace of sleep, from even the fury of interruption and turn immediately back to that most exhilarating of days nearly half his lifetime ago.

“ ‘National Geographic’ was there, but the fella who’d followed it couldn’t be there that day and the pictures got rejected and that was why we never got in ‘National Geographic’ magazine.
“All the politicians were there, big hoop-de-la for Piney Point. And of course after they couldn’t get the boat off everybody went up to Swann’s and got smothered drunk. Except me. I slept on the boat that night.”

A roughly treated, large color photograph of that day is perhaps one of those rejected. I found it at the bottom of one of the drawers of Dee memorabilia in the trailer’s closet-bedroom. I can't find it anymore. It must have been shot during the smothering. Jackie Russell is alone on the stern of his new boat, looking down at her V bottom wedged in the muck of a low tide. Aground. He is centered in the heart of the photo, small aboard his big boat. A cap pulled hard over his head. An arm checkered in a woolen jacket dangling from the rail. He does not see the photographer.

You want to think it is a funny picture, but of course it isn’t. But it isn’t foolish or pitiful either. The most appropriate caption would seem to be, “What is wrong with this picture?”

“It floated off,” Jackie Russell continues. “It was three days later. We got a high tide, a sou’ easter’ and a high tide. It was lightly snowing and the fellow who was married to Anita Evans, I can’t remember his name. Doug. He was at the school and got a wet suit and cut the chains loose and pulled them loose from the fifth wheel and the boat floated off. We got her off December 19th and it was lightly snowing. I think we tried to launch it the 16th and we couldn’t get it off.

The deal was, I think the deal was, the wheels were all in a line.” He sits up in bed, staring into middle space, seeing the scene yet again. “Really why we couldn’t launch that boat, all the wheels were in a line and there was an old boat ramp there at Swann’s and somebody had been digging some manoses out of that boat ramp, that concrete boat ramp. And as those wheels went off the boat ramp one behind another she bogged down right at the end of that ramp. And it might have even been an old piece of concrete at the end of that ramp got caught up.

“And the tug boat the Susan Collins couldn’t pull her off. They had the tug boat up at Lundeberg School and the tug boat couldn’t even pull her off into the river.”

He falls backs and shuts his eyes. "Enough," he says. "Go on to another chapter."

It was more than 25 years ago I had the first of what sometimes feels a lifetime of ridiculous interviews with Jackie Russell. This night, when he tells again of that day, towel abandoned on the floor, dirty clothes resting on top of clean, it doesn't feel particularly different.
Back then I hadn’t any idea what his business was about. I mean his professional business. I did, finally, notice his eyes.

Almost every woman I met those early years, if Jackie Russell dropped into the conversation the next sentence had to do with his eyes. They possessed the cinematic trick that forced a comic book twinkle out of Tony Curtis’ blue eyes in one of the celebrity vehicle movies of the 1960s. The leitmotif gag played for the duration of the movie whenever Tony Curtis’ character’s blue eyes met the camera.

Jackie could do it, can do it, without the cinematic assist, without the gag. “Jackie is genuine,” one of my least demonstrative girlfriends once gushed in a moment of appreciation. I grunted. Somehow I still suspect something of the trick to it. I can see the glint looking as far back as that first interview when he opened his arm wide to introduce his Associates. “My associates,” Jackie Russell welcomed me aboard his skipjack with a majestic sweep of his arm gesturing up the forward deck, just then being swabbed clear of the last of the oyster debris of the day.

A half-dozen men, layered in rag-tag collections of shirts and jackets and rubber boots to their knees, glanced up from their task and acknowledged me with sudden grins, then looked quickly to the captain before returning to their tasks or sauntering off.

“I call them my associates,” Jackie Russell confided to me, walking me aft. “It sounds better that way.”

Jack Russell was an egalitarian captain, well, as egalitarian as a captain can become. A huge snort of laughter bursts from him today as he reads over my shoulder.

“I can’t remember the name of the one who worked with Tynan Poe’s son, who, the two of them, beat up Eddie Poe so bad that time,” Jackie laughs. “He told me they were doing all the work and I was making all the money. He laughed.
He welcomed me aboard the skipjack, that first time, with his wide open arm, such a smooth gesture that it goes unnoticed once his eyes get you.
He draws that inclusive arm back, his left arm, and then brings it forward to grasp your forearm in a near embrace, then suddenly blocking that embrace he swings his right hand around and reaches for yours and grabs that handshake to pull you in closer. He holds you face to face, and he’s just a little bit too close but he stays too close, shaking your hand, close and tight. Without quite knowing how, you’re too close for refusal, too off-balance to step back.
Before you know it, you’re aboard, you’re a pirate too, you’re in his world and pleased with yourself. You’re possibly even lost to yourself.

Removing the Boom

 April, 2010

With the support of a generous grant from the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority, the Dee of St. Mary's skipjack will undergo a tremendous restoration this year. Planning began in late 2009 and continues. This month labor began to prepare this 30-year-old wooden boat for major surgery.

The Dee of St. Mary's is 56 feet long with a 20-foot beam. Her mast is 76 feet tall and her boom 56 feet long. She carries about 2,600 square feet of sail with a hull speed of roughly 10 knots--about 11 m.p.h.

The large amount of sail enables skipjacks to pull large iron dredges--toothed scoops--along the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay even in minimal wind. The few skipjacks still oystering today use hydraulic motors to pull the dredges from the bottom.

The boom of the Dee of St. Mary's weights 750 pounds. This boom, the vessel's second, was made in 1987 in Jack Russell's yard. It is made of laminated pine. The boom is held in place by lines rigged to the mast.

Helping Cap'n Jack Russell in a delicate dance of balancing and weight lifting to remove the boom are:
Antonio Hernandez, Joe Panella, Roman Pauley, Andrew Sarenceno, James Burnett, Jr. and Marcus Fields.

3.5 Tons of Ballast Taken from Skipjack

March 2010
Jack Russell and crew currently training at the Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship at the Paul Hall Center in Piney Point removed this week 3.5 tons of ballast from the skipjack Dee of St. Mary's.

Skipjacks are commercial sailing vessels used to harvest oysters. The vessels, when working under sail, drag man-sized toothed mesh claws from both their port and starboard beam. They carry a great deal of sail in order to gain the speed and power to pull the dredges along the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay scooping up oysters. The Dee carries more than 25,000 square feet of sail.

Despite carrying such sail capacity, skipjacks are shallow-bottomed for maneuverability so their ballast consists of many small weights nestled in their bottom hull between the ribs.

The Dee's ballast included:

Removed from Wings (beneath aft cabin bunks)
Starboard: 24 bricks; 13 cinderblocks
Port: 55 bricks and 13 cinderblocks

Removed from Stern: 
Stern: 8 bricks, 1 lead and 25 cinderblocks
Removed from beneath Aft Cabin:
Port: 96 brick; 44 cinderblock; 1 lead in keel
Centerline keel: 17 bricks, 0 cinderblocks 11 lead
Starboard: 88 bricks; 55 cinderblocks

Observation from C. Caryn Russell, "You'd be surprised how small three-and-a-half tons of brick are."

A Lot of Work Ahead

March 2011

Shipwright Benjamin Goddard, Marine Surveyor Michael Previti and Captain Jack Russell spoke in somber,sometimes outright grim tones as they prepared to write the plan for

the reconstruction of the inner keel. The men are standing in the aft cabin on the bottom of the skipjack (flooring was removed ahead of the ballast earlier this week.

The Dee of St. Mary's skipjack was built in Piney Point in 1979 -- the first skipjack to be built in 50 years.


Left: from disparate collection of photos taken during the 1979-1980 construction of the Dee.
 Her first sail in November 1980.


Removing a 76-foot Mast

Friday, April 23, 2010 the mast was removed from the skipjack the Dee of St. Mary's for the second time. The mast was removed once before in 2001 to dig out the damage "clinker bugs" had done to the wood.

Travis Mattingly, overseen by his father Aubrey Mattingly, pulled the mast the first time. Aubrey's son Aaron Mattingly operated the crane to pull the mast this year with the assistance of Joe Hockinson.
Francis Goddard, who built the Dee of St. Mary's skipjack in 1979, advised on both projects down to specific inches and pounds on the 76-foot mast and (estimated) 22-ton vessel he built. For example, Francis determined where the strap would be secured on the mast for a safe pull, swing and placement.
Jackie Russell, former owner and still Captain of the Dee -- now owned by the nonprofit, Chesapeake Bay Field Lab, Inc. -- performed on-site supervision and labor.
Eugene "Bones" Ramsey, former first mate of the Dee during her oystering years, went aloft to fasten the strap.
The entire process from the arrival of the crane to its departure took less than 2 hours.

When the Dee was built in 1979 her launch came before her mast was stepped. The photos below were taken before and after.

The mast is a single tree. A pine tree Francis, Jackie and George Bean floated across the Potomac from Virginia once Francis found the tree he wanted. George pulled the tree is his boat the Cathy Lynn -- also built by Francis. The tree would dive deep into the river, Jackie Russell recalls and the men would lose sight of it and not know when or where it would rocket out of the water. Or when it would dive again.

Tensions Are High

May 2010

All in all things aren't floating too well around this place, at this time. The winds have blown all the water out of the creek and the de-masted skipjack lists in the mud.

A group of Merchant Marines in-training at the Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship in Piney Point came down a week and a half ago on a high tide and helped Jack nudge the skipjack into the bulkhead. This is so the cranes can reach it and swing it onto shore.

The cranes are due today. They say.

For a week Jack has hunted down huge wooden blocks and more importantly lifting straps that can nestle the boat as the cranes lift it from the water. There will be two cranes. The boat might be as heavy as 30 tons, Jack says. Francis shakes his head and shrugs his shoulders. "Twenty-two?" he says.

Other men help locate the blocks and jacks. Danny Holden leaves a half-dozen nice solid blocks at the dock as his contribution.

Jack finds heavy rope and threads it through the sleeves in the straps he borrowed from St. Mary's Yachting Center, Brandywine Motors and one from David Adams. The rope he finds in the infinite stores of the endless rigging snugged somewhere within the dark and cavernous attic above the oyster house.

And on another high tide he slips the straps beneath the bottom of the skipjack the Dee of St. Mary's and pulls the ropes onto her deck.

There is a late call Monday night and a date given for the cranes to arrive. The date is set and rain dates aren't an option. There is a flurry of paperwork. The wind blows harder, the skipjack is immobile in the mud. Our daughter who is teaching the Wooden Boat station at the Chesapeake Bay Field Lab this semester reported to me last week, "The skipjack is on the ground."

When Jack and I agreed to create a nonprofit to continue the life of the Dee of St. Mary's beyond our own we spoke with our daughters --- Hoot and Holler -- about their loss of inheritance, that the boat would not pass to them.

"Whoo - hoo," they both cried and pumped their arms in the air. Despite their hooting and hollering and the one who dramatically flung an arm to her forehead at the tragedy of such a loss, they made it clear that neither were considering the life of a waterman.

Yet the day she reported, "The skipjack is on the ground," she didn't think to mention until later that a tool at her teaching station needed to be replaced. She shrugged that she could use something else in the meantime.

"It's on the bottom," I said.

"It's on the ground," she repeated.

So Jack stalks the waterfront, snaps at the wife, has no chance to kick a dog because none cross his path, instinctively smart enough to stay out of his way as he waits for the cranes to arrive.

"Well if they drop it, it drops," he says during his 90 seconds sitting at the kitchen table this morning. He leaves his coffee to chill and curdle.

Right, I think. And the boat is on the ground. Nobody's worried at all.

Skipjack on Land

May, 2010
Last week Keene Mill School in Fairfax, Va. saw a skipjack fly. One of their accompanying teachers was Robert Abell, former principal of Piney Point Elementary School and descendant of the Chesapeake watering industry.

The day began threatening with thunderstorms in the forecast. Before the Chesapeake Bay Field Lab teachers arrived a nervous captain paced the parking lot. The students arrived before the cranes.

It would require two cranes -- the smaller engined at the skipjack's bow the other at her stern. The boat's builder, Francis Goddard, arrived before the first crane. Next arrived was Charlie Knott, a man capable of inventing on the spot any necessary mechanical contraption out of the immediately available junk; within his realm he is a veritable Thomas A. Edison.

It is loud and then louder when the second crane appears. Holly Staats and John Fulchiron have joined the workforce in addition to the two crane operators, Mike Eagan and Aaron Mattingly of DirtWorks.

The cranes are in position quickly but it takes more than an hour for the men to satisfy themselves about which ropes and straps and hoists to use. They adjust, readjust, consider, reconsider, reconfigure.

Aubrey Mattingly was the only crane operator Francis Goddard permitted work on the Dee when her mast needed repair in 2001. With an ancient crane nicknamed Big Red Aubrey removed and then re-stepped the mast nearly a decade ago. His son Aaron inherited the touch and just as smoothly removed it again last month, April 23, 2010, preparing for this day -- May 12, 2010 -- when the skipjack would be lifted out of the water for restoration.

All appears ready. The cranes are revved, their arms extended and their back wheels off the ground allowing the legs to compensate the weight. Aaron yells above the noise into his cell phone, "I don't want to be the one breaks it in two."

As the straps tighten and the men jump off the boat and the hull is no longer floating but cradled, a loud creaking begins, louder than the cranes.
It was the straps, I am later told.
"I thought it was the wood," I said. Francis overheard and whipped his head around. He scolded in a single sputtering sound, walked on without pause, behind him he raised then dropped his long expressive arm in disdainful dismissal of such an impossible consideration.

Later I bring Francis a ladder. Of course the nervous captain wouldn't have thought to have one handy, I told Francis.
"You leave off him," Francis scolded me again. "Jackie Russell's doing fine. Just fine."

Sad Story

Somewhere there is a black and white photograph of Jackie Russell taken the first day I met him. In this old black and white photo self-consciousness shows in his eyes which are averted from the photographer. Otherwise it is an unusual photo of him. He wears a sports coat, no hat and holds a pencil with its eraser touching the perfect bow of not quite pursed lips.

For a newspaper, the description of a photograph is in the present tense. The cutline sustains the action. Even if the photograph is centuries old, its description is of its current depiction, even if that which it depicts no longer exists today.
It is perhaps merely this that makes old photographs seem poignant. Makes us keep them. Makes them worth a thousand words.

“His is a sad story,” Joseph Norris intoned the day that photo was taken. We sat side-by-side in cold metal folding chairs. He looked up at Jackie Russell. First time I’d seen Jackie Russell. Joseph Norris hung his head. His arms draped over his thighs and he looked at the lean reporter’s notebook held in one and a pen held in the other of his dangling hands. “A very sad story,” he repeated and slowly shook his head.
Joseph Norris is an authority on local sadness. He sings woeful ballads of the disappearing Chesapeake culture and munificence. He writes prodigiously of St. Mary’s County’s losses. He calls it The County. He carries about himself a moroseness and appreciation thereof. At barely 30, he was a tradition, under his belt a decade in local print on the subject of all that was gone or headed that way. That morning at 4 a.m. he showed me how to work the audio switches in the closet where he broadcast the news. And where, on Monday, I would broadcast the news.
“It’s good on Wednesdays,” he told me when the closing bars of the “He IS Southern Maryland News” promo played and he opened the door, unfolded himself from the closet and joined me in the hall. Wednesday was the day The Enterprise published so the local stories were fresh. “But you’ll have some good local stories for Monday,” he assured me. We were to meet up again at 8 a.m. for the Potomac River Fisheries Commission meeting held in Colonial Beach, Va., a two-hour drive but right across the river as the radio beams fly. “Probably the most important story you’ll face,” Joseph Norris told me.

I located Joe in the first row. Sliding into a seat next to him I jumped when my skirt slid up and my thigh made contact with the cold metal folding chair. I realized I was the only woman in the room. At the far wall a bank of white men faced the room. They sat across the width of three tables pushed together end-to-end. Behind them, sitting off to the side next to the wall, I spotted one other woman. She was also taking notes.
Behind us sat 40 or 50 men, mostly with their hats in their hands but a few with caps affixed atop their heads that they’d methodically take off, punch or fold about a bit with their hands and replace. They wore mostly old clothes, outdoor clothes, long-sleeved shirts and heavy woolen vests. Some held thick coats in their arms wrapped tightly around their chests. They were brightly clothed above their underpinnings of gray and brown and scuffed workpants, creased and greased. Their shirts and coats and hats filled the room with tufts of bright red, faded hunter green and flecks of yellow-gold.
I wouldn’t have noticed that day, but there would have been no blue. No blue beyond faded denim. A bad luck color aboard a boat, blue is. As bad of luck as carrying a women aboard I have had occasion to learn since.

The watermen were all a sad story, Joseph Norris had told me before we left The County. Their way of life was disappearing. The oysters were dying. None of the fish populations were what they used to be.
“Who’s that?” I asked Joe, squirming to warm the seat.
“Jackie Russell. He’s one of the saddest stories yet.”
He didn’t look all that sad to me. He looked, actually, to be in pretty good shape. Jackie Russell had the round face of a little boy with a couple broken blood vessels to enhance rosy cheeks. A small curl actually did curl down the middle of his forehead. He had lips like a bow when he pursed them together in a pose of attention. I mention this only because of the photo mentioned above. Because, actually, usually he was grinning.
He had a quick smile and bestowed it widely, speaking to nearly everyone in the room. He moved smoothly through the rows of chairs, suddenly up from his seat at the front table to grab a man’s upper arm and clasp his hand in a pumping shake, then startling me only a row away, pulling another man near to whisper something short before leaning back with a guffaw. Straight, white teeth. He’d throw his head back when he laughed. He’d reappear behind the table, his arm around yet another man. Shaking hands. All the while smiling, laughing.
“He doesn’t look sad,” I said to Joe.
“He’s from The County,” Joe said in a mournful tone. “He’s local,” Joseph Norris said of Jackie Russell.
“Oh yeah?” I said. “Local, like St. Mary’s County?”
“Oh yeah. More than that. St. George Island. He built a skipjack.”
“Uh, huh,” I said, looking finally from Jackie Russell and registering a blank look for Joe Norris.
“A skipjack,” Norris said, lifting his arms up from their dangle in a struggle to convey to me the colossal nature of such a thing. “First one built in half a century. The Dee of St. Mary’s. A boat. A big boat. A big working boat. A wooden sailing boat.”
Joseph Norris was upright in his sea. “She’s the youngest vessel of the last commercial sailing fleet of North America.”
“Uh, huh,” I said, looking back at Jackie Russell, who was still not looking back at me.
It’s even possible Joe Norris told me the whole skipjack story that day, that first day I saw Jackie Russell. But I don’t remember Joe telling me the story of the skipjack. I only remember Jackie Russell telling that story.

I didn’t get the story that day. I couldn’t even pull that glad-handing man’s eyes to mine that day. That day I was too far away to get the story. To get that story. But I got the drift, which was more than Jackie Russell got as I tried again and again to catch his icy blue eyes and suspected for the first and not for the last time that he might be pointing them steadfastly away from me. “Well,” I said, determined, not for the last time, to not take it personally, “he doesn’t look sad at all to me.”
“But it is a sad story,” Joseph Norris insisted with his hanging, shaking head. “He built this beautiful boat and then him and his wife split up.”
“Well,” my head jerked up and I tried yet one more shot at those icy eyes. “Well break my heart.”


     It’s more than a quarter century now I’ve watched and written about this dwindling handful of watermen parading themselves and their vanishing culture, resignedly and relentlessly before governing councils, scientists and their incoming neighbors of far deeper draft boats.
     “Indeed by God!” and “Christ may kill me,” they’ll sing, their lilting vernaculars lifting even their cursing to Shakespearian levels.
     I have seen them fall to their knees their clenched hands raised in mock prayer.
     Science, bureaucracy, progress and diplomacy fail to inspire in the face of a man resembling a Paul Bunyan icon with broken blood vessel cheeks crying and raising his calloused, stained and torn hands to the sky, “’Tis thee ways of my daddy and his daddy and his daddy as weil.”
     I have seen them sprawl across podiums, sweep chairs aside row by row upon their approach. I scratched out quote after quote of their increasingly irrational pleas for reason.
     They make for incredible copy. They say ludicrous things. They say uncanny things. They know things. Things about natural order and secrets about nature itself, like where a spring of freshwater bubbles out of the bottom of the Potomac River. Really. It is as David Sayre said, a mason jar could catch a fresh drink midst crabbing if you timed it right.
     They can make electricity from gasoline engines and from batteries. They can put food in their families’ bellies. Most can cook the meat, fish and fowl they bring home. Most can cook it well.
     They are dinosaurs. But they are not reptilian in thought. Even those not particularly clever are savvy. Most of them, by the time I started taking notes, knew one another or knew of one another, or of a cousin, brother. There weren’t all that many left, even then.
     Jackie Russell stood out among the pirates. For pirates they were and they remain an uncooperative lot, distrusting, clannish, unforgiving and un-forgetting.
     “Quick, get that basket in the cabin,” Jackie hissed at me the day he first took me trotlining. “In the cabin,” he hissed again and kicked the basket forward. Its lid bulged, the basket packed so full of jimmy crabs. Tossing a basket lid on a partial basket of females he jerked his head to indicate I should lift it onto the full jimmy basket now secured in the cabin. When I did he shut the door with his foot.
     All this time he’s speeding toward another boat, the broad smile on his face never faltering despite his abrupt and impolite commands to me.
     “Latch the door,”’ he said to me, “ and don’t say anything about them,” he added before coming alongside the other man, who, as I thought to be the point, cased me up and down. I smiled. Took his photo. Wrote his name down. Jackie puffed up his chest.
     “Got a good run over at Tarkhill,” Jackie said, and shook his head toward the single partially filled basket in the boat and the one full basket toward the stern. “How’re you doin’?”
     “Comin’ back from Windmill Point,” said the other man, shrugged over at a pitifully small catch and they pushed off from one another and went along.
     “That can’t be enough for him to keep crabbing?” I asked.
     “Hell, he had five baskets in his cabin. I’d like to know where he’s been working.”
     “Windmill Point,” I offered, just as puffed up as he’d been.
     "He hasn’t been near Windmill Point all day. Sonny’s workin’ over there and I just talked to him.”
      I met Jackie Russell as he turned 40 looking a decade younger. He dressed like Marlon Brando on the waterfront, only dirtier. Fish guts, dried paint, sweat, the smell of crab crap or oyster mud, depending upon the season. Like a mechanic, his hands never come clean.
     He will grab your shoulder, open wide his eyes and poke their icy blue gaze into your face. He can grin hugely or purse his lips tight when he tells you something in a high pitched laugh or in a hissing growl. Regardless, whichever voice, whatever the tale, you believe him. You believe him with all your heart.


Albert Poe

Albert Poe knew best where to lay his traps on St. George Island for meat and skins. He knew where the crabs were in the summer and oysters in the winter. He knew when and where he could dig a mess of piss clams, if anyone should want them.
He knew when the fish were in and where they would school. He saw the first osprey arrive every year and the first martin. He knew the day their young ones flew and the day they left.
He knew when it would rain to harm a day’s work and when it would only hinder.
He read the newspaper aloud in the island’s store. He explained to his neighbors what came above their scrawled legal signatures.
He died in the state mental institute. Vitamin deficiencies, his daughter said with a shrug.
A framed, black and white photograph of Albert Poe, skinning something spread across newspaper upon a kitchen table, sits on my husband’s dresser. He is an older man in the photograph. Not too old. He is smiling a small, nice smile. He looks nice.
His daughter called him Daddy to her last breath. Her youngest son is his embodiment. So goes the talk. So grows the legend.

Jackie Russell
Legends were easily made on the Chesapeake Bay, filled, as it was, with lone fishermen upon emptying seas. Watermen are the last true hunters of the continent. Those few remaining were sons of women who in the 1960s still ordered chicks through the Sears & Roebuck Catalogue to hatch the egg money that ran their households between seasons.
When their mothers were girls, at least on the Chesapeake’s islands, laundry was carried by boat to the nearest mainland high enough above sea level for hand-dug wells to reach freshwater.
In the early 1980s Chesapeake Bay watermen still made plentiful livings from a diminishing wilderness. Cash bulged in their pockets. They were weathered, muscled and independent. If they’d kept up their dental work they made for attractive legends. They still held unquestioned dominion over the water and the shore. They were wily but direct and somehow trustworthy despite the air of piracy that clung a bit to them all.
Their sudden standing in a legislative hearing, their rolling stride up a center aisle quieted the room. One alone could fill a bar with the nearly sexual smell of oily fish and ammonia.
Jackie Russell was the living embodiment of it all. He claims an island lineage from the English no-goods and stow-a-ways traveling beneath the decks of the Catholics who in the early 1600s sailed to the Calvert’s Merrye Lande of tolerance. He makes the claim, and plenty of others, with still a piece of an accent of that long-ago England.
It was mightily picturesque in the waning of 1983 to stumble upon a living legend. It was, in fact, irresistible. And it has dominated everything since.
“I’ve never met a man so popular,” a client gushed 20 years later, trying to charm me into a better cruising rate. “For all the places I’ve traveled and people I’ve known, I tell you, I’ve never met anyone, not anyone, there’s just no one more popular.”
“Yeah,” I tell him, “I know.”

Sheltering the Skipjack

May 2010

Carpenter Matt McFann made the decision simple. The reason to build a shed around the skipjack was "so this old boat doesn't turn to trash."

"She's drying out already," shipwright Benjamin Goddard said as he plucked chunks of loose paint from the stern where reconstruction is likely to occur. He talked about the boat and praised efforts (by the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority and the Chesapeake Bay Field Lab) to preserve the Dee as he walked beneath the growing canopy of plastic sheeting and pine framing.

"I didn't know boards came that long," said Carol Cullison, St. George Islander and still married to a member of the Dee's first working crew. The Dee of St. Mary's oystered with the last commercial sailing fleet in North America from 1979 to 1989.

The shed of pine and plastic -- which comes in a long roll and is draped and industrial-stapled to the frame -- is needed to shelter the skipjack from the sun and make work at her home port possible.

Maryland Heritage Areas Authority applauded Chesapeake Bay Field Lab's successful effort to keep the skipjack at her home port for her restoration. Already classes from Virginia and Maryland have seen the vessel closer than any of the prior 100,000 students estimated to have sailed the Dee during her 20 years of environmental education.

Both the nonprofit that owns th Dee and the many preservations helping to support the restoration, hope such immediate access to the year's effort will spur fund raising.

"It ain't that bad," said Ben Goddard as he peeled the paint and walked around her stern. Indeed, he concluded, a wooden boat that has put in 30 hard working years is due an overhaul. That she remains stout and secure to the shipwrights is testimony to a masterwork of ship building.

Merging Regs and the Zen of Boat-building

June, 2010

Francis Goddard is 78 years old. "Seventy-eight-and-a-half," he brags. He climbs a tall ladder up high sides then scuttles back down onto the floor of the hull of the first skipjack he built. He wields a small chain saw. He built the Dee and appears to recall how she went together splinter by splinter. He shows little compunction at sawing out her guts and rebuilding her. He would do it better just by the fact that he had done it once before.

Of building a boat Francis says, "Once I dream it, I can build it."

Ben Goddard, more than a decade younger, is a cousin once removed, or a second cousin, but more importantly another respected Goddard boat builder of Piney Point.
Piney Point, until the 1980s, was primarily a fishing village and settled in the horizontal traditions of cousins and clans rather than the more vertical father to son set ups. The sweeps of various European cultures across America had clannish, horizontal systems forming the Appalachians, more Scottish than British. And bits of this fell throughout St. Mary's.
Good thing. Ben isn't one for dreaming but for the practicality of the minimal disruption to reach the maximum goal. Where Francis wields a chain saw, Ben will hone a piece of wood into its cradle. And cousins respect cousins. And the same with boat builders.

In the photo above of Francis he is creating a template. In the photo below of Ben he is sawing and planing the new right cheek of the keel.

The collaboration has worked well. The captain remains calm and pleased. Phew.

In the video posted Jack shows where the center keel and its starboard (right) cheek have been removed. The Coast Guard visited later that week and met with Jack, Francis, Ben and Surveyor Michael Previti. The determination was to also replace the left cheek as well. This was the concurrence of the Coast Guard, Shipwrights, Surveyor and Captain.

This final third of the boat's spine can't be removed until both the new center keel and right cheek, which makes sense to me.

Work on the center and starboard cheek continues.

All these photos were shot by Jackie. Thanks!

Chiseling Out the Center Keel

June 2010

The heart of the problem with the skipjack the Dee of St. Mary's was diagnosed last fall as rotten wood in her keel. Fresh water is what rots wood. Salt water preserves.

The extent of the rot in the keel was uncovered last week.

The inboard portion of the keel -- in the stern -- consists of a laminate of three chunky three-inch by ten-inch boards. The laminated keel runs from the stern forward about 12 feet to midship. From that point forward the Dee's keel becomes a single piece of 12 by 12 fir shipwright Francis Goddard had shipped from Oregon.

The laminate is described in the video piece by piece -- the center keel, right (or starboard) cheek and left (port) cheek. A substantial length of the right cheek had to be removed and a portion of the center keel as well.

The rot does not extend into the left cheek or below the hull planking. Nor is there any rot in the lower keel, the portion extending beyond the bottom of the boat or in the skag, the sternward extension of the keel for the mounting of the rudder.

Rotten wood found elsewhere is also being removed including segments of the deck, some hull planks and the entire forward cabin.

Shipwrights start arriving at 7 a.m. with the intent to remove all bad wood and permit the fullest exposure to U. S. Coast Guard inspectors due for an on-site inspection this week.

Cutting-Up A Skipjack

June, 2010

It started out as simply a good idea to replace the dredge chocks, as long as first class shipwrights were on-site and something as extreme as a keel was being replaced. And of course railing. It is always a good idea to update railing. That led to some decking. Then some more decking. Then the decking around the fore cabin. Then the hull.

By the time the U.S. Coast Guard arrived last week for inspection and endorsement there were holes in the skipjack where a captain never wants to see holes.

But it started so simply, with the chocks:

And that led to this:

The starboard side doesn't look much different.

Hull replacement work is limited to primarily these planks at the bow, seen below from port and starboard.

Among the volunteers working to keep the vessel readied for the next day's shipwrights are Dave Cronce of Bainbridge, Pa. and Matthew Clements of Roanoke, Va. Both men are from the Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship at the Paul Hall Center of the Seafarer's International Union -- a generous and long-term supporter of the Chesapeake Bay Field Lab, Inc., the 501(c)3 that owns and operates the Dee of St. Mary's.

Visit to learn more about educational programing and tours.

A New Keel

July 2010

This is what the shipwrights found beneath the flooring of the aft cabin -- photos by Jim Laws, 1st Carpenter, Restoration of the Dee of St. Mary's.

This is the new keel -- completed by Francis Goddard, Benjamin Goddard & James Laws.

The keel was the central concern regarding the 30-year-old skipjack. Its successful repair has passed U.S. Coast Guard muster. While a tremendous amount of work remains -- in the hull alone bulkheads must be replaced and pieces of braces and structural ribs made clean and whole -- the successful replacement of the keel is a huge accomplishment. This was the first and primary goal of the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority grant as well as the supporting grant from Preservation Maryland.

To orient the keel within the hull and in conjunction with the decking the standard 6' ladder pictured in most of the following photos has not moved:

The forward legs of the ladder rest on the new cap that runs from the aft bulkhead through the midsection of the hull. The midsection is where the diesel motor will return to a reconstructed cradle.

Stabilizing members are replaced if necessary. Except for a few staves in the bow the hull is intact.

Rot, say the shipwrights, from the keel to the deck comes from fresh water gathering and seeping into the wood. Salt water acts as a wood preservative.

The gaping hole in the foreground is where the fore cabin was removed to replace rotten decking around it and rot in the cabin itself.

Facing forward from the wheel housing the ladder is obscured by the aft cabin , but the flashlight and broom are visible in both deck shots.

The wheelhouse aft of the aft cabin.

The Chesapeake Bay Field Lab is seeking venues to apply for additional grants and for donations to extend the restoration to the decking and exterior hull. They can be located at

Thanks for reading.