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Residents Restore Historic Chesapeake Bay Boat 'Kathryn'

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The Skipjack Kathryn sailing in the 2010 Skipjack Race.
John Rafter
The Skipjack Kathryn sailing in the 2010 Skipjack Race.

Since the end of the 1800s, watermen on the Chesapeake Bay have harvested oysters with these quick, nimble boats known as skipjacks, and the Chesapeake's commercial skipjack fleet used to number in the hundreds.

Nowadays, though, it's down to six.

Or five, rather, since one of these boats, a sleek, white, 50-footer named Kathryn, has been out of commission since 2011, when she struck a buoy during the annual Skipjack Race in Deal Island, Md.

Eastern Shore native Harold "Stoney" Whitelock captains the skipjack Kathryn.

"This is part of my heritage," he says. "This is where I came from, and this is what my family did. My great-great grandfather was a skipjack captain. My great grandfather, my father, and now my son's doing it."

Stoney remembers the Labor Day accident well.

"We had a stiff breeze that day," he recalls, "and this boat likes a stiff breeze. But we hit up in the forward port side, and we were taking on water, and that's a whole 'nother story.'"

A whole 'nother story that involved Kathryn's two-dozen passengers using five-gallon buckets to bail out the water, before she was towed back to land, and moved inside a massive, blue-and-white tent near the Bay.

Kathryn's still in pretty rough shape, but she's come a long way since that fateful Labor Day weekend, thanks, in no small part, to Michael Vlahovich, founding director of the nonprofit organization, Coastal Heritage Alliance.

The Coastal Heritage Alliance is all about promoting the heritage of commercial fishermen. So Vlahovich has been instrumental in raising money to restore the skipjack Kathryn. And as a master shipwright, he's also been doing actual restoration work himself, through a grant that's funding 240 hours of labor.

"That means staff and tools and materials three days a month," he says. "And that's the time when we solicit volunteerism and that's when we get interns down from the local college. People are welcome at any time, but those are really designated days."

Michael Vlahovich's son, Anthony, has helped out on several of those days. "And he says when he first saw the inside frame of the skipjack, "I'd hardly even call it wood — it's more like mulch!"

Because here's the thing: Kathryn was built in 1901. And as Michael Vlahovich points out, her fellow remaining skipjacks are similarly long in the tooth.

"They were never expected to last this long," he says. "And Kathryn, like all the other skipjacks, has received repair work in the past."

So actually, even before the Labor Day incident, Kathryn wasn't exactly in tip-top shape. Like Vlahovich says, she'd had some work done here and there. At one point, the Chesapeake Bay skipjack fleet was actually in line to receive $50,000 apiece from the state of Maryland.

But when those funds ran out earlier than expected, Vlahovich, who'd spent his life building and fishing on boats, stood up and said, "If the state can't do it, I'll do it. And that's when and why I founded Coastal Heritage Alliance."

Another source of funds for the skipjack Kathryn is a little less official, and a little less grown-up, but the way Capt. Stoney Whitelock sees it, it's no less important.

Capt. Stoney's granddaughter's then-second-grade class drew "get well" pictures of Kathryn just after the Labor Day incident. The images were eventually made into t-shirts, which are now for sale.

"Half the proceeds go to the PTA and the local Deal Island School, and we take the other half to work on the Kathryn," Stoney explains.

He estimates they have about $200,000 to go but is confident they'll get there, and that Kathryn will be ship-shape by next year — ideally, in time for the next Skipjack Race.

"When we get back, we plan on winning the race," he says with a smile.

In the meantime, though, he says he's touched to see so many people lend a buck, or a hand, or a crayon-drawn "get well" card, in support of Kathryn. Though he also says he isn't surprised.

"Just everybody that got on the boat to take a sail, they just left everything ashore," he says. "I mean, you could tell they were brighter when they left than they were when they came aboard. And it's true: this boat got its own soul."

[Music: "La Mer - Beyond the Sea" by Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt from Bio-Shock 2]

Photos: Chesapeake Bay Boat Kathryn

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