Restored skipjack provided family with lifetime of lessons, memories
Editor's Note: Julie and Joe Nisonger and their boys explored the Chesapeake in the 1960s aboard Willowind, a small skipjack they'd resurrected from the Anacostia River's mud. This is the second installment of their adventures; the first appeared in September
2010 and can be found in Bay Journal's online archive.
To access the wider Chesapeake Bay more easily than sailing the 90 miles of Potomac between District of Columbia and Point Lookout, the Nisongers moved Willowind from her berth on the Anacostia to the South River.
Only small boat yards - not posh marinas - were found along these Western Shore tributaries 50 years ago. They were an inexpensive option for young families on limited budgets who needed access to a dock with pilings to tie up to and a place to leave a car. Even in the early 1970s, a full decade later, the 38-foot yawl my wife and I owned tied up for $15 a month in Solomons Harbor where, with an extension cord and hose, we had access to free water and electric.
Old boats have a way of suckering their owners in, only to present the next, unexpected repair or rebuild. So it was with Willowind, which presented Joe and Julie with structural challenges as they began working to windward against the Bay's summer breezes under a press of canvas.
To make windward progress, shallow-draft vessels like the skipjack need something to slice into the water, which prevents them from sliding sideways from the pressure of the wind. The device Chesapeake oystermen adopted from earlier coastal vessels was the centerboard, essentially a heavy plank-built, barn-door like structure that pivoted at the forward, lower corner and dropped through a longitudinal slot in the boat's bottom. There it served as a moveable keel that gave the boat enough purchase to greatly reduce leeway, or side-slip, under sail.
Willowind, though 32-feet long on deck, drew only 2 feet of water, board up. When the boat was sailing to windward without the board down, the wake did not come straight out behind the stern, but slued away at an angle toward the wind as the boat made leeway, clearly demonstrating the loss in sailing efficiency. Lowering the board increased this efficiency, and the wake straightened up as the boat sailed to windward, the crew tacking port and starboard, to make zig-zag progress in the direction of the wind.
A wooden centerboard trunk that housed the board when it was retracted, kept water from rushing into the hull through the centerboard slot. In Willowind, this trunkâ€”already a structural weak point because of the large, long slot cut in the keelâ€”had suffered six decades of abuse. Its iron fastenings were on the way to complete corrosion, and the through-bolted bedlogs that supported its juncture with the hull were rotten.
One weekend at their South River moorings, the Nisongers drove to nearby Galesville. Upon return they found Willowind sunk at the dock. Everything below decks was mixed with Bay water. It did not take them long to realize the entire centerboard trunk would have to be replaced.
The grapevine among boat owners suggested that Applegarth's Boatyard at Oxford, on the Eastern Shore's Tred Avon River, would be a good place for repairs. The yard had been started 11 years earlier by Curtis Applegarth. A fourth generation boat builder, Applegarth still had to work 20 years as a hardware and haberdasher's clerk to save up enough money to purchase the yard. He once described his operation as the "kind of shop where you take 5 dollars worth of brains and a 100 dollars worth of work. That's Eastern Shore ingenuity." Applegarth serviced the commercial fleet for repairs, and during the slow winter months turned out a series of mostly small skipjack replicas for use by dilettantes as recreational boats.
Crossing the Bay to Oxford on the Tred Avon River thus became one of the Nisonger's first long trips.
The Tred Avon, whose upper reaches are nearly fresh in years with normal rainfall, had been a summertime refuge for sailing vessels since at least the last decade of the 17th century. One of Maryland's earliest naturalists recorded that his ship was taken up there "into the freshes" (freshwater) "to avoid the worm" (the boring marine organisms, Teredo and Bankia), which destroyed ships' timbers before the advent of effective marine antifouling paints.
The unexpected expense and delay were not welcome, but Willowind - which was slowly decomposing - benefitted greatly from the Applegarth yard's work and went on to sail decades more.
Learning to live aboard with two small boys, Mark and David, was another challenge.
"We had a little stove that burned oil (kerosene) that we would set up to cook, but, you know, I really didn't cook that much," Julie said. I gather from her description that it was a Swedish Primus stove, a standard for the time. I grew up with one aboard my dad's boat and remember mom pumping air into the little tank to pressurize the fuel, then priming a little metal pan under each burner with alcohol. When lit, the alcohol would heat the burner assembly. Just before the alcohol flame went out, the fuel on-off knob was cracked open and the volatilized kerosene would ignite with a hissing blue ring of burning jets. If one did everything right and the wind was not too strong, the burner got hot enough to put on a pot for coffee.
"We had an icebox" Julie said. This is distinct from the light, portable affairs boaters have today. It would have been insulated - sort of - by a couple layers of cork between layers of enameled sheet steel. "It leaked all over the place" she reminisced. (I, too, remember how quickly the largest block of ice - costing 25 cents - would melt in hot weather.) She talked about visiting the Bay's out islands, where block ice was not available to the recreational sailor spending an extra long weekend aboard.
Laundry was another trial. "You know, Julie said, "world voyagers tow their laundry behind at sea to wash it. We tried that in the Potomac, and found [with the river's heavy brown sediment] your clothes could never be white again!"
"We kept Willowind [in South River] all year long," Julie recalled, "and came down to check on her all the time, even sleeping aboard overnight a few times in winter. Boy it was cold! We kept almost all of our clothes on through the night." Just imagine the family, all bundled up, each in his or her own bunk. "When the river froze we would skate around the boat." (Even though it was saltwater water, it did freeze most years.)
Come spring, after the usual ritual of fitting out, more explorations and learning began. The Nisongers headed south, crossing the Bay and entering Hooper Straits. On one such journey, Joe was below taking a nap, with Julie at the helm. As Willowind rolled with the wind behind it blowing from the south southwest, the tip of the rig's long boom, which was winged far out and almost perpendicular to the vessel's centerline, began tripping in the water. This jerks the boat port and starboard and changes steering radically each time the boom strikes a wave: hard schooling for a young woman in this situation for the first time.
Things were easier when they changed course to sail across Tangier Sound on the far side of the lighthouse at Sharkfin Shoal. They entered the tiny harbor at Chance on Deal Island, not far from Albert Brown's sailmaking loft at Wenona. They anchored off to one side, close to other skipjacks, made supper and went to sleep, content at the day's progress. When they awoke next morning, though, the tide had gone out and despite its modest draft, Willowind was embarrassingly hard aground.
Joe, who was sensitive to the sun, burnt easily, a real problem for someone who spent Chesapeake summers on the water. Julie said that Sea and Ski - "Lets in the dark tanning rays, stops most burning rays cold" - enabled Joe to survive his long-term exposure to the sun aboard Willowind. The protective qualities of the cream's para-aminobenzoic acid, or PABA, had been discovered in 1928. Sea and Ski was introduced about 1953, and by 1961 was the nation's largest suntan lotion maker.
Whenever they could, the Nisongers made summer cruises lasting weeks at a time. This was partly enabled by the children being on long summer holidays, and by Julie's career as an art professor at the University of Maryland.
On one trip up the Chester River, they found the remains of a 100-foot schooner that had been wrecked in the hurricane of 1938. Its rig and stern were gone, but all the amenities could still be seen below its broad decks: stairs leading to the salon and four staterooms. The head was complete with a bathtub. Berths for 6 crew remained, and in the galley was a coal - or wood-burning stove with six cookplates. It was pre-Great Depression opulence, all curly maple joinery with leaded glass windows in the pilothouse.
Their voyages to Smith and Tangier Islands half a century ago were great family adventures. Julie remembered the first time they entered the channel on the west side of Tangier Island. This was shallow going, but they had no difficulty thanks to their shallow 24-inch draft. "There were no docks, just pilings, and we just tied up alongside," she said. It was not long before a waterman came in from fishing and seemed to want to tie up to the same pilings. "We offered to move but he said 'no' and soon came aboard and made friends with us. I guess we were respected for sailing this old traditional boat. Sonny Parks was his name.
"We asked where we could go get some fish for dinner."
"Whot koind du y' waunt?' he answered.
"We didn't know we had a choice" Julie replied.
'Well, go out here, go down the Oiland 'till your op'site the wrecks, off th' end of th' Oiland, an put cher loines doun t' 20 foieet."
They did what they were told and "that's where the spot were, and we pulled up one after the other till there were enough for dinner," Julie said.
The accents the Nisongers heard were very different from those around the mainland Chesapeake and the College Park and the D.C. suburbs where they lived. One of the "urban legends" around the Bay is that these accents were echoes of those spoken in Elizabethan England. The first English landholders John Evans and John Tyler, after all, came to Smith Island in 1686, just 83 years after Queen Elizabeth's reign ended. Their named descendants dot the island and fill the cemeteries to this day.
Linguistic experts say that the distinctive dialect heard among Smith and Tangier Island natives is not so ancient. They say this sound and intonation is actually how eastern North Americans spoke in the 19th century. The Tangier and Smith Island dialect, therefore, harks back around 130, but not 300 years.
On the islands, "they treated us just like royalty in those days." Julie recalled. In the early 1970s, my wife, Nancy, and I had a similar welcome from Smith Island's senior crabber, Edward Harrison. Today, daily waves of commercial tourism have taken the edge off this spontaneity.
Julie said that many of the women wore bonnets to protect them from the sun. The original intent was to protect delicate skin and keep it lily white, but the practical protection from UV radiation must have made skin cancer a rarity among island women.
"They all wore long skirts - almost to the ground," Julie said. "They had Sears catalogs to see what the fashions were on the mainland, but a lot of the women stayed out there [on the islands]. They were shy about dressing so old-fashioned."
But, Julie chuckled, "I know why they did that - the mosquitoes! We found that out ourselves very fast! Yes, on Willowind, we had screens, those flimsy portable frames but, you know, we never got them up early enough and there were always some buzzing around while we were trying to get to sleep."
Although the cabin sides were equipped with a six portholes, screens also blocked the often faint night-time breezes and "sometimes it was so hot you could hardly breathe," she remembered.
Joe and Julie sailed Willowind around the Chesapeake for 18 years. The skipjack was finally so old and rotten they had to sell it, and did so cheaply. "We got more than [the $600] we'd paid for her" Julie chuckles, "but, we'd put in many times that much, you know, bit by bit! You could tell when a screwdriver pushed in went up to the handle that it was time to go to fiberglass!"
You'd think that might end the unusual Chesapeake saga of this couple and their sons. As I was closing out my last interview with Julie, she laughed, and with a twinkle in her eye, mentioned, "Then, we bought the Hampton Roads Ferry, 230-odd feet long and 13-feet high at the rail, for $10,000. We had to leave almost immediately, because the pier was being torn out."
She was ready to spin yet another adventure.
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