Fine boats at the Choptank Heritage Skipjack Races

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Dorchester Banner/Paul Clipper The Nathan of Dorchester and the Rebecca T. Ruark jockey for position before the start of the Choptank races.

CAMBRIDGE – A light wind, or maybe even an overall lack of wind, did little to dampen the spirits of the spectators or crews at the annual Choptank Heritage Skipjack Race at Long Wharf on Saturday. Early risers watched a fresh breeze ease off until all the flags were limp by the time Bill Smith fired his cannon to signal the start of this annual race, hosted by the Dorchester Skipjack Committee.
“We had just seven boats because a couple of them had breakdowns and could not make it,” said Lou Hyman, chairman of the Choptank Heritage Skipjack Race Committee. “But we were honored by having the boats we did have here. We had a nice crowd out on Long Wharf to watch it, and a nice, beautiful day to hang out and see historic boats.”
The very light and variable winds played games while the sailors tried to gain purchase, and spectators on Long Wharf were treated to a close-up view of the Helen Virginia’s bowsprit as she drifted into the pier. Not to be outdone, the Rosie Parks decided the spectators on the near end of the floating pier would appreciate being swept with her boom, which they were. All hands helped push the boats off, and eventually they all caught at least a bit of wind and headed for the markers.
Considering the time that would be spent completing the course at a casual walking speed, the Skipjack Committee decided to shorten the course by half. The boats rallied to the occasion, and actually appeared to catch a bit of wind near the river channel, and off they flew!
Well, they flew a lot like an osprey hovering over a great fishing spot. But they still painted an impressive picture stretched out over the Choptank. The Rebecca T. Ruark eased into the lead and crossed the finish line first, as she has so often done in the past. Sailing out of Tilghman Island, the Rebecca T. Ruark is the oldest Chesapeake skipjack still in use, built on Taylor’s Island in 1886 by Moses Geoghegan. She was built for William T. Ruark, and named for Ruark’s wife, Rebecca.
The second boat across the line was the Rosie Parks, of the so-called Three Sisters built by Bronza Parks in 1955; the three boats being the Rosie Parks, named for Parks’ mother, the Lady Katie, named for Parks’ wife, and the Martha Lewis, named for one of Bronza’s daughters. The Rosie Parks is a beautiful boat owned by the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, and she sails out of St. Michaels.
Finishing third was Cambridge’s own Nathan of Dorchester, the youngest skipjack in the fleet, built in 1994 by a team of boatbuilders right in Cambridge Creek. The Nathan sees weekly use in the Cambridge harbor, taking tours out into the river.
The Helen Virginia from Deal Island came across the line in fourth, and another Helen, the Lady Helen, from Rock Hall, finished fifth.
Two other boats had trouble and dropped out. The Dee of St. Marys, a huge, impressive skipjack measuring 56 feet and with a deck as wide as a ballroom, found herself tangled in a trot line and used all her racing time getting loose. The Hilda M. Willing, the smallest skipjack in the fleet, had unspecified troubles and dropped out.
There may have been a certain amount of disappointment due to the lack of wind, but it would have been hard to detect it in the after-party and luncheon at Snappers, where a jubiliant breeze kept the crowd animated.
“We didn’t have any wind this year, so it was a really slow race,” Mr. Hyman told us, summing up the day’s events. “But we had a lot of participation. We had a really great selection of boats here, and we’re real proud of what we were able to do today.
When presented with the Heritage Cup Trophy, Captain Wade Murphy of the Rebecca T. Ruark kept his proud acceptance speech to a minimum: “Thank you!” he said—but with great enthusiasm.
“It was a beautiful day,” said Mr. Hyman, summing up the morning’s fun. “We’re really excited because this is the kickoff of an exciting Dorchester weekend. Our race in the morning, Crabtoberfest in the evening, and the Arts Festival tomorrow. Anything we can do to help encourage people to come to Cambridge is a good thing.”

View a slide show of the event below:

Paul Clipper is the editor of the Dorchester Banner. He can be reached at pclipper@newszap.com.

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