Local Skipjack Preservation Efforts Continue

For the volunteers who keep the Skipjack Nathan of Dorchester afloat, both literally and figuratively, the work is rewarding on many different levels. The 27-year-old Nathan was built to commercially dredge oysters, but her true mission is tourism and education. Since 1994, the Nathan has been sailing and educating visitors far and wide on the waters of the Choptank River and Chesapeake Bay.

Nathan’s crew is known for wearing their sharp red shirts on board. Volunteers wear them as a badge of honor. It took 14,000 hours of volunteer labor to construct the Nathan. At her launch on July 4, 1994, more than 500 people gathered to witness the christening, completed by Gladys Nathan. More skipjacks were built in Cambridge than any other place along the Bay. Since its founding in 1634, Cambridge has been a hub of boat building activity.

Last year, when the sailing season came to a grinding halt due to the pandemic, work on the Nathan geared up. Via Zoom, training began in March, getting new volunteers prepared for the rigors of boat maintenance, repairs, sailing, educating, and more. Crew members are anxious to get shakedown cruises under way after repairs are made. The aim is to get the U.S. Coast Guard inspected skipjack out on the water with passengers once again by July 4, on Nathan’s 27th anniversary.

The Dorchester Skipjack Committee, Inc., a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, is tasked with maintaining and operating the youngest skipjack in the fleet. Nathan spent the winter at the Generation III boatyard in Cambridge having the port knightshead repaired and about 10 feet of log rail on the forward starboard side replaced. A new mast and boom have been prepped from seasoned local loblolly pine. The Nathan will have a new suite of sails in 2021, too.

Those sails make an impact when they are hoisted while out on the Choptank River. During a Zoom meeting, one volunteer made the comment about how hoisting the mainsail will leave the passengers speechless. “There’s an absolute moment of silence when the crew puts the sail up as we get out of the harbor. We like watching the passengers faces light up when the crew gets up there and starts hauling the sails.”

Another volunteer quipped, “It is quite a thing to see the mainsail as it’s 1,500 square feet. I had a guy tell me one time that [the sail] is bigger than his condo here in Cambridge.”

Yet another volunteer said, “We’ve had some magnificent times. This is such a beautiful area and when you’re out on the water in a wooden boat with the sails and the wind, it is truly just a joyous experience. That’s what volunteering is in a nutshell – it’s very rewarding.”

These three 90-foot straight local old growth loblolly pine trees will replace the mast and boom.

While weekly public sails take place during a normal season, the Nathan also takes longer voyages to attend events such as Oxford Day and the Deal Island Labor Day Skipjack Race. The Nathan can log 1,900 hours under way each season. That’s why there is an emphasis on safety and training.

Bud Marseilles explains, “With a limited amount of sailing in 2020, we want our crew to regain the proficiency and teamwork that is so essential to safe and smooth boat operations.”

And even if the Nathan is the safest skipjack on the water, it doesn’t mean that the weather stops attacking the boat. Soft spots appear in the deck, are identified, cut out, repaired and repainted. Volunteers carefully inspect sails and rope rigging for wear and repair as needed. Each rigging block is carefully inspected, removed and refurbished on an ongoing schedule.

Once the boat is out of the water, volunteers clean, scrape, prime and paint the boat from top to bottom. Likewise, all metal work is carefully stripped of paint, inspected for wear or signs of corrosion, replaced if necessary, then re-primed and painted. But even with careful continuous maintenance, wood ages, and cracks and signs of rot appear.

In 2006, Nathan (in front) and Lady Helen competed in the 10th annual Choptank Heritage Skipjack Race, which is hosted by the Dorchester Skipjack Committee. This year’s race will be held on September 25 in Cambridge. The only other skipjack race remaining on the Bay today is the Deal Island Labor Day Skipjack Race. The 61st Deal Island Labor Day Race will be held on September 6.
Photograph courtesy of Amy Kehring.

Last year, Nathan’s mast showed small signs of rot in two places below the deck. The mast was pulled, the lower section with rot was cut away and a new section of mast was spliced and glued in place. Meanwhile, three 90-foot straight local old growth loblolly pine trees were cut and have been seasoning to replace the mast and boom. Even with donated wood for a new mast and boom, it will be quite costly to make and replace the mast and boom.

This image shows how an area of the damaged lograil on the starboard side of the Nathan has been removed. The lograil is an “L” shaped curved log that makes up the top of the hull and start of the deck. Nathan has about 45 feet of curved lograil on each side of the hull.

During this season’s summer haul out, volunteers discovered rot located in one of the knightsheads, which are large, complex wedge-shaped pieces of wood on either side of the bowsprit. With the assistance of the staff at Generation III Marina in Cambridge, volunteers replaced it.

There may not be any passengers or or charters right now, but Nathan’s volunteers will continue to work on the boat and find opportunities to keep telling folks about skipjacks and the area’s rich maritime heritage.

Donations are always welcome. Visit www.skipjack-nathan.org or mail donations to: The Dorchester Skipjack Committee, Inc., P.O. Box 1224, Cambridge, Maryland 21613. With the public’s continued help and assistance, the Nathan of Dorchester and her volunteers will sail beyond the effects of the pandemic and be able to represent Cambridge and Dorchester County tourism for many more years to come.

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