Helen Virginia

I saw one of the remaining skipjack ladies off on what I hope will not be her final voyage this morning. Helen Virginia has been up on land for the past year or so at the Boatworks in Cambridge. It’s not good for a wooden boat to be out of the water that long, and she is not in good shape to begin with.

I once interviewed the late Bobby Ruark, builder of the Nathan of Dorchester, about an old workboat he was considering for restoration. When asked what kind of shape she was in, the laconic Ruark answered with one word, “Rough.” That about sums up Helen Virginia, too.

Capt. Stoney Whitelock recently bought her. Stoney owns Kathryn, a big skipjack being restored at Deal Island with the help of master shipwright Mike Vlahovich and the Coastal Heritage Alliance. When I got to the shipyard in Cambridge this morning to take a few photos of Helen Virginia while she was still in the neighborhood, I happened to arrive just as Stoney got there, preparing to tow her down to Deal Island today. I couldn’t resist staying around to see them off.

There had been talk of Stoney cannibalizing Helen Virginia, taking off as much of the ironwork as he could and buying a new hull sitting over at the Boatworks to put together a new skipjack. When I asked him about the rumors, he said there was no “history” in that new hull. He wants to keep the history alive in Helen Virginia.

She was built in 1949 in Crisfield, Maryland, not the oldest of the remaining fleet, but she has been worked hard. As we stood there waiting for the rest of Stoney’s crew to show up, a gentleman who was working on his own boat at the shipyard stopped by to chat and told me tales of working on Helen Virginia.

It is rare that a skipjack docked anywhere on the Eastern Shore is not visited by someone with stories about themselves or family members being crew on one of these boats. There’s a line in Shoeless Joe, the book on which the movie Field of Dreams was based, where one of the characters says, “The memories will be so thick that the outfielders will have to brush them away from their faces…” Skipjacks have the same lamp-like quality, drawing out swarms of fluttering memories.

I was sorely tempted to accept Stoney’s invitation to come along on today’s trip down the Bay. But with the wind up, it is likely to be a cold, rough trip on that old, rough boat, and—as usual—I was not dressed for it. I shivered every time the sun hid behind a cloud as I stood there on deck waiting to see them off. I prayed the deck I was standing on would not wind up at the bottom of the Bay today.

The trip to Deal Island should take nine or ten hours and I will be thinking of them the whole way, hoping all goes well. If she makes it, the voyage will add another chapter to the history Stoney is determined to keep alive in Helen Virginia.

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