The road to restoration has been a long and winding one for Skipjack Martha Lewis. As of now, it is hoped that her journey is nearly complete as she sits in dry dock at Richardson Maritime Museum’s Ruark Boatworks in Cambridge awaiting her final restorations. While it may be hard for some to fathom that she has been in a state of restoration since 2013, it isn’t necessarily unheard of in the small, and shrinking, world of skipjacks.
Wooden vessels require endless, mandatory and regular TLC requiring hundreds of hours of labor and many thousands of dollars. Of those eight years, many were spent idle, as additional funds were being raised. In addition to regular maintenance, the boats eventually need an overhaul.
“Restoration is an adventure of discovery,” explains Brady Stroh of the Chesapeake Heritage Conservancy, which was established in 1994 to preserve Martha. “Around every corner, around every tap of the hammer, rotten wood can be found that needs to be replaced. Just when one thinks that all the defects have been found and a budget set to fix them, more are found. As the rigorous demands of U.S. Coast Guard specs and regulations are satisfied, timelines and budgets expand again. But all this is essential to keeping the fleet of Maryland Skipjacks afloat.”
This is the story of the Skipjack Martha Lewis.
The Skipjack Martha Lewis was built in 1955 by Bronza Parks in Wingate. Her sister ships, Lady Katie and Rosie Parks, were built in the yard alongside Martha. One hears of these “sister ships” a lot. They are remarkable for several reasons: 1. Bronza was the premier boat builder of his day, having completed 400 in his life. 2. The three sisters are the last skipjacks he built. 3. The skipjacks were built simultaneously. 4. Sixty-six years or so later, all three have survived.
Rosie Parks was named for Bronza’s mother. Lady Katie was named for his wife, Katie Lewis. Martha Lewis was built for Katie’s brother, Captain Jimmy Lewis, and named for their mother. Lady Katie is currently docked in Cambridge at the Snappers Waterfront Café and Tiki Bar. Rosie Parks currently sails as the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum’s ambassador. The third sister, Martha Lewis, is currently in Cambridge at Ruark Boatworks to complete extensive renovations.
Martha Lewis spent a majority of her days on Tilghman Island dredging for oysters. After leaving Wingate in 1962, she worked the water from 1962 to 1993 on Tilghman under four owners – George Davis Faulkner, Daniel Dize, Gene Tyler, and William J. Roe, Jr. In 1993, Dr. Randy George of Alabama purchased Martha with the idea that an organization would preserve her and sail her in the oyster fleet.
Now owned by the Chesapeake Heritage Conservancy, Martha was fully restored in 1994 in Havre de Grace under the direction of ship builder Allen Rawl. Martha has served the community well since her 1994 restoration. But 27 years later she is once again due for a remake. Martha is now in the final stages of another complete restoration at Ruark Boatworks in Cambridge under the care of Master Shipwright John Swain and is scheduled to return to service in Havre de Grace in 2022.
At the time of her 1994 restoration, the skipjack fleet had been decimated to fewer than 20, which is the impetus for establishing the Chesapeake Heritage Conservancy. Along with the City of Havre de Grace and the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum, the conservancy worked together to restore and create an educational program around Martha Lewis.
These organizations, along with a cadre of volunteers, teachers, and ship building professionals, have worked hard to put the Martha Lewis back into the oyster fleet to help keep the heritage alive and continue the mission to serve as an environmental classroom.
Brady Stroh has been involved every step of the way since 2001 in a variety of volunteer positions, including crew, volunteer coordinator, educator, board member, board president, and restoration coordinator.
Brady explained, “One day I was looking around in Havre de Grace and came across the skipjack. The captain was on board doing some maintenance work. I asked him a bunch of questions about the boat and how I might get involved. The rest is history.”
The Martha Lewis has had a rich life and always did well in the oystering and racing of skipjacks. Soon she will be sailing the Chesapeake again, reminding all of us of her rich heritage and of our need for stewardship moving forward. A valuable “window of history,” the Martha Lewis is a glimpse of our unique Bay heritage and an instrument adeptly able to communicate a tradition that is vanishing before our eyes.
How to help:
- Volunteer time working on the boat in Cambridge. Skilled shipwrights are leading the reconstruction, but “unskilled” labor will be needed soon to support them.
- Help acquire items from a long list of supplies and equipment needed.
- Help spread the word about Martha’s restoration by sharing posts on social media and send friends and family to www.skipjackmartha.org.
- Donate. The restoration and operational grants secured require cash matches.
- On Amazon, consider linking your account on Amazon Smile to Chesapeake Heritage Conservancy. A portion of every order will be donated by Amazon to Martha’s restoration.