Skipjack Kathyrn Under Repair

from Delmarva Now (September 3, 2012)

CHANCE — Capt. Harold “Stoney” Whitelock won’t be at the wheel of his skipjack, Kathryn, during Monday’s annual skipjack race off Deal Island.

After striking a buoy during last year’s race that opened a plank on the port side, the Kathryn began taking on water and had to drop out of the competition. Within days, Whitelock put the Kathryn in drydock at Scott’s Cove Marina for repairs.

Whitelock, who is president of the Deal Island-Chance Lions Club, which sponsors the annual race, said he knew he could make repairs to the gash in the side of the sailing craft. What he didn’t know, last September, was the extent of rot in the entire bottom of the overall 75-foot-long skipjack. That discovery ended hopes of having the Kathryn fill her sails with wind and compete among the 11 skipjacks in tomorrow’s race.

Within weeks of having her drydocked, Whitelock had an 85- by 40-foot tent raised over the Kathryn. He and others began peeling away the fiberglass sheathing, just below the side guards, that ran the length of the skipjack to just below the waterline. Volunteers also began tearing out bottom planks from about 30 inches on each side of the keel for the length of the vessel.

People peek into the tent, surprised to see a skipjack. It seems the unlikeliest of places to find one of the dozen or so working period skipjacks in the world. Built in 1901 in Crisfield, the Kathryn has a National Historic Landmark designation.

The Kathryn’s 64-foot wooden mast is on the other side of the marina, and her sails are in storage. Yet even without them, the vessel, with its graceful lines and bowsprit, is a work of art and craftsmanship.

Just before last year’s skipjack races, the Kathryn appeared to be in pristine shape, but Whitelock knew there were hidden problems. “When I hit that buoy, that was no big deal, but I found out there was no nails holding the planks onto some of the frames, they were eaten away. Almost all the frames at some point were rotten. The double hull kept me from seein’ the extent of the problem. Last summer I knew she was leakin’ eels then. I could hardly keep her afloat,” he said.

When a special crane was used last year to raise her out of the water, support straps — unable to be spread farther than 12 feet apart, made it impossible to remove the skipjack’s centerboard. When the Kathryn was lowered and secured with jacks, the centerboard was also on the ground. To remove it, Whitelock and a crew dug a 14-foot-plus long hole a few feet wide and more than 6-feet deep to drop it out of the bottom and wiggle it free.

Since then, a lot of the restoration work has been grunt work.

It has been a year, and the “tearing out” stage lasted until just a few weeks ago.

“Now we are gettin’ ready to put somethin’ back into ‘er,” Whitelock said.

“To preserve the historical character of this boat, I want to put it back the way it was. We want to retain the original shape of the vessel; that’s why we aren’t removing all the frames. They would have lasted my lifetime, but we’re talking about going back original like it was in 1901. She was well kept, but she is 111 years old. I could have fiberglassed the existing bottom and frames, wrapped the whole boat up in it, but it wouldn’t be original.

“Them weaker frames would have held maybe another 50 years. Some of the stronger frames in there are so hard when you cut them, you have sparks flying off your saw. But around the edges of some of the frames, there are some you can pull apart with your hands,” Whitelock explained.

“We are puttin’ a new keel in. We got white oak logs we are goin’ to cut and shape and splice into the existing keel,” he said. “We will be using two 30-foot long pieces and one 25-foot long piece cut from two white oak logs to replace the original 14- by 9-inch keel. That’s as original as we can get. We’ve got to put in a new stern post, too. The old one is completely eat up, gone. But when we get done doin’ everything, we’ll have somethin’ that will last another 100 years.”

The Kathryn, 50 feet long on deck and 16 feet wide, is unique among existing skipjacks because her bottom is fore-and-aft-planked, unlike most skipjacks, which are cross-planked.

“She is built like the early schooners and bugeyes,” said Jack Willing, co-owner of Scott’s Cove Marina, who routinely offers Whitelock advice on the restoration project. “Her planks run port to starboard. I think that makes her sometimes ‘slide’ in the water, which might have contributed to her hitting that buoy last year.”

In addition to several local folks providing volunteer work, Whitelock also has the services of Mike Vlahovich, a master shipwright, and apprentice John Rafter, for 240 hours provided for by a grant. Vlahovich is founding director of the Coastal Heritage Alliance and served as the manager of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum’s Skipjack Restoration Program. Vlahovich acquired the grant to provide work to the Kathryn.

“Mike is also handling the restoration fund on the Kathryn’s behalf, and all contributions are 100 percent deductible going through Coastal Heritage alliance,” Whitelock said.

Support for the effort also came from Deal Island School students who drew pictures of the Kathryn. These images were transferred to T-shirts and were sold to raise funds.

“When they were sold, we gave half of the proceeds to the school’s PTA. We have had three other fundraisers, too. One was an oyster and champagne get-together near Hebron, another at the Discovery Center in Pocomoke and a third, that I called a ‘Hardhead Festival,’ was at my house,” Whitelock said.

Help has also come from lifelong friends.

“Jack Willing and his nephew Eldon Willing, owners of Scott’s Cove Marina, have done everything to help, let us use the site, equipment, tools. If you are from down here, we are all ‘brothers’ who grew up together. All Rock Creekers,” he said with pride.

Whitelock, who bought the skipjack in 2008, said it could cost almost $300,000 to finish the Kathryn, and hopefully the project will be complete this time next year.

“I looked at this as an opportunity to restore for future generations. I will probably end up paying out of pocket for this work. Why wouldn’t I? This is my heritage. My life is here. Bred, born and raised in these boats. All my ancestors were all skipjack captains. Even my son, David (owner of the Hilda Willing, built in 1905 in Oriole) is a skipjack captain. This is our heritage,” said Whitelock, soon to be 65.

“The craftsmanship in this vessel is just amazing, an art and quality that is slipping away, just like wooden boats. It is getting harder to find people to do this kind of work. I’m lucky to get someone to help me.”

There was a point, soon after he bought the skipjack, that he could have the Kathryn once more working the Chesapeake Bay.

“Thought about goin’ back oysterin’, but I couldn’t find the time. I’m retired, but I just can’t seem to find the time to do what I have to do. Ain’t even got time to fish. Been a fisherman all my life, and this summer haven’t fished once. I’m supposed to be a retired old man. There just ain’t enough time.”