If you are a regular visitor to Chestertown’s historic waterfront you may have noticed that something has been missing from the scenery this winter; Echo Hill Outdoor School’s skipjack Elsworth has been gone since the day after Super Storm Sandy. No, the storm did not swallow her up like so many others just to the North. The Elsworth is actually just down the Chester River at Rolph’s Wharf Marina where she’s been hauled out for what you might call a “nose job.” Though only a few miles from Chestertown by road or water, when you are down at Rolph’s in the winter you could almost be on a deserted island. The traffic consists of ducks and geese. The tide rolls in and the tide rolls out, and there’s plenty of wind. It is quintessential Eastern Shore of Maryland. Despite the beautiful conditions, work on the Elsworth has progressed steadily and she is only days away from returning to her berth in Chestertown.
The Elsworth, built by Mitchell Hubbard in 1901 in Hudson, Maryland, is one of hundreds of skipjacks built to dredge oysters in the Chesapeake Bay, catching what was to become the beginning of a downward trend of the great oyster harvests of the late 1800’s. Skipjacks as a type developed here in response to this oyster boom as these vessels were comparatively easier and cheaper to build than big, round bilged schooners and bugeyes, were shallow drafted and so able to work waters closer to shore and were easier to manage by a smaller crew as skipjacks were generally smaller and carried fewer sails. For the Elsworth the downward trend lasted 94 years as she worked the oyster beds every winter through 1995, the last eight years under the command of Captain Andrew McCown of Echo Hill Outdoor School.
How is it that a boat built for an industry that is notoriously hard on equipment, of materials that generally last for forty to fifty years and for the choppy waters of the Chesapeake is still sailing at 112 years old? The answer began on the first day of the Elsworth’s construction as, in the opinion of Kent County’s own Master Shipwright John Swain, the Elsworth was “well built.” In the 1940’s the Elsworth was “rebuilt” at the H.M. Krentz Shipyard. Echo Hill Outdoor School acquired the Elsworth in good shape from Captain Robbie Wilson in 1988 and since then she has been practically “rebuilt” again. Owners who have needed her to be a safe and functional work platform have cared for the Elsworth all along the way.
The “nose job” the Elsworth has received is only the most recent in a long list of preservation projects that Echo Hill Outdoor School has undertaken in order to maintain the vessel as a National Historic Site and as a certified United States Coast Guard Inspected Vessel. In the early 1990’s Living Classrooms Foundation in Baltimore replaced a number of deck beams and some of the deck planking. During the winter of 1996 John Swain installed a new keel, centerboard trunk, chine timbers, all bottom and deck planking, half of the side planking, and a new cabin. A new mast was installed in 2000 and bow sprit in 2004 by Echo Hill’s own shipwright Nick Biles. John Swain and Nick Biles built a new push boat for the Elsworth in 2005 and a new boom in 2009. This winter Nick Biles, with the help of Echo Hill Outdoor School staff and Volunteer Shipwright Apprentice Zachary Hall (WC 2013), has replaced all the components of the Elsworth’s bow. Echo Hill Outdoor School would like to thank The Hedgelawn Foundation and Preservation Maryland for providing funds for the work on the Elsworth’s bow. Nick Biles would like to thank John Swain of Swain BoatBuilders LLC, Marc Barto and Richard Scoffield from Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, Mike Vlahovich from Coastal Heritage Alliance, Tom Parker of Parker Welding, and Captain Tom Briggs for their help with materials and consultation. And lastly, thanks to Zachary Hall for his many hours of volunteer help.
When the Elsworth shows up back in Chestertown in a couple days, stop by and take a look at a real piece of Maryland history. As for what is new, you will only notice some fresh paint but know that every piece is a part of a 112 year continuum. Echo Hill Outdoor School is working to preserve that history through a commitment to its fleet of historic Chesapeake Bay work boats and through the programs offered on the Bay and on the school’s campus in Kent County, Maryland to thousands of students and participants throughout the Mid-Atlantic States and beyond.
By Captain Nick Biles, Echo Hill Outdoor School Staff Teacher and Shipwright