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Sail On, Sail On

Jul 29, 2014 10:46AM ● Published by Cate Reynolds

Constructed in 1955 in Wingate, Md. by Bronza Parks and first captained by Orville Parks, the Rosie Parks, along with her “sisters” the Lady Katie and the Martha Lewis were among the last skipjacks built with the expectation they’d spend their lives as working vessels.

By Cliff Rhys James

Image titleThere once was an industry, a commercial eco-system, a way of life—all of it geared to dredging oysters from the plentiful reefs of the bay; places with names like Man of War Shoals at the mouth of the Patapsco River, Ragged Point near the Potomac, Gales Lump off Tolchester, or Nine Foot Knoll. There once was a breed of oysterman who lived by the currents, planned by the tides and worked through the season moving hundreds of bushels at a time to a thousand packing houses strung up and down the eastern and western shores. It was hard work, honest work, important work—endured over long hours in often harsh conditions, but these proud toilers of the sea were called to it by the high wild song of winter’s wind sung sweetly from generation to generation.

There once was a time when the prime mover at the beating heart of if all was the skipjack; a shallow draft, wide beamed, big sailed workhorse of a boat tough enough to take on winter’s wet fury each year and come back for more. These boats of wood were captained by men of steely resolve who each day ran lick after lick across the reefs—and did it wide open like so many Casey Joneses at the helms of trusted locomotives. There even once was a time when it must have seemed as if the prodigious bounty of the Chesapeake Bay would last forever. But those halcyon days and most of the skipjacks who sailed them from sunrise to sunset are gone—lost to history’s heavy attrition.

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The term “Skipjack” may have come from the slang term for the Bonita, a fast moving fish sometimes referred to as a “Skipjack.” Others contend that “Skipjack” is an old English term meaning “inexpensive but useful servant.”
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Image titleIt’s Saturday, the 14 of June, 2014. We’re on the Miles River near St. Michaels and the midday sun pours down its golden avalanche from the dome of a blue vaulted sky. Time for me drifts far off and forgotten as the spangled waves of the liquid horizon crest up and down beyond the bow of this fast moving boat. Mine is a full tilt immersion past the ebb and flow into the wind whipped, water sprayed rush of this river. A wave suddenly crashes over the bow and I catch a face full of cool brackish water. Yeah, I needed that; it’s a refreshing feel-good kind of shock. I’m in the game. “Once we’re out far enough,” Michael says over the low rumble of the engine, “I’ll circle her several times so you can get some good shots.” Michael is the Vessel Maintenance Manager for the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum and the skipper of the “chase boat” in which I’m riding. This boat’s name is Volunteer; Michael’s last name is Gorman; the “she” we plan to circle is a magnificently restored 51’ skipjack named Rosie Parks under a full sail of wind, and the shots we plan to take will come not from a smooth bore cannon but a hand held camera.

Out here in nature aquatic I’m confronted by the ghosts of my ancestors from Wales who sailed up these very rivers to sink their roots in the new world. All around me in every direction I sense and feel as much as see the living ecosphere that enfolds me in its dream like abundance. Surely, this is every seadog’s delight. Deep in my interior reaches all of this summons a cascade of impressions that I rarely encounter on solid ground. It’s enough to transport you clean out of this fallen world. Call it the serenity of sensory overload if you like but whatever this vitally fresh thing is that enlivens the spirit, it has a way of soothing my concerns and leveling off those irksome responsibilities awaiting me back on shore.

Earlier, I had arrived before noon on this festive and officially proclaimed “Langley Shook” day at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum’s splendid waterfront campus. I had come to tour the “hands on” exhibits; to stroll among the mint condition classic cars; to hear dignitaries speak, and to applaud approvingly as outgoing Museum President Langley Shook received honorary recognition as an “Ambassador of the Chesapeake.” But most of all I had come to bear witness to the resurrection of the Rosie Parks.

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The skipjack was formally designated as Maryland’s official boat in 2000.
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I quickly found several generations of the Parks family, crew members, CBMM staffers, friends, well-wishers, and on-lookers gathered near the pier. Spirits were high, explosions of laughter punctuated the many overlapping conversations and with each passing moment the anticipation of Rosie’s first post restoration cruise was jacking up enthusiasm. Tracey Munson, VP of Communications for CBMM, ambled by to brief us on the plan: “Just so you know, Rosie doesn’t have her push boat,” she announced, “but the Volunteer will pull her out while the guest crew aboard the Rosie raise her brand new sails. Then, the Volunteer will pull away and Rosie will be sailing free in the wind.” A spontaneous cheer goes up.

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A cheerful whirlwind of energy is what Tracey is and moments later over the buzz I hear her shout, “Did you hear that Richard? Theodore here says he once had the Rosie up near 25 knots.” Theodore cracks a smile and nods ever so slightly. Theodore Cephus is the 83-year-old gentleman sitting quietly at a weathered picnic table and is among the day’s honorary crew—as well he should be. He was the first man aboard the boat on October 26, 1955 when she went down the ramp and kissed the water; he was her long time first mate under captain Orville Parks; and the last man off the boat when he and Orville turned her over to the museum in 1975. He also returned in November of 2013 for the boat’s official rechristening. He’s a calm man with an air of quiet dignity about him, but his eyes sparkle at the sight of this skipjack’s restored glory and at the thought of sailing her for one more voyage because timber for timber, plank for plank, this is a faithful restoration of Bronza Parks’ original vision—and if any living man knows this deep in his bones, it’s Theodore Cephus. You see, he too has come to bear witness to the resurrection of the Rosie Parks.

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The height of a Skipjack’s mast equals the sum of the boat’s deck length and breadth.
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Image titleAcross from Theodore sits a lively Mary Parks Harding. She is the 86-year-old daughter of Bronza Parks and matriarch of this once dispersed but now re-united family. In response to my question she says, “My dad started a seafood factory, which only lasted a few years and so he started building boats right in our yard.” Once he started, he certainly kept at it because Bronza Parks built more than 400 boats in his life, which was tragically cut short in 1958 when a deranged customer shot him. “The Rosie Parks was named for my grandmother,” she continues. “Dad ended up keeping Rosie’s sister the Lady Katie for himself when the man he was building her for died. I said Daddy, name her for your best girl. Name her Proud Mary.” Another round of laughter goes up. When it quiets down Mary continues, “But he said, ‘I’ve already named her after my best girl. She’s the Lady Katie.’”

Surely it’s only fitting that the Chesapeake Bay, that largest and most resplendent of American estuaries, would owe much of its maritime mystique to the iconic vessels that navigated her waters; ships and boats so superb at fulfilling their intended purpose that the very mention of their name invokes images of bygone eras. Two come to mind immediately: the Clipper Ship and the Skipjack. In fact if you want to understand American grit writ large, go study her colonial period. And in studying America’s colonial period, you’ll learn about the Chesapeake Bay region—its settlers and settlements; it trails, byways, and waterways. And in learning about the natural bounty of the Chesapeake Bay, you’ll quickly grasp the commercial and cultural significance of oysters and the men who harvested them. And finally, any proper acknowledgment of oystermen leads to a discussion of Skipjacks—and any talk of Skipjacks often turns to one in particular: the Rosie Parks.

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A skipjack’s large sails generate the power to propel the eight ton plus boats through the water despite the enormous friction of the heavy bottom dredges towed behind.
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Shipwright and rigger Mark Donohue has been the Rosie Parks Project Manager since June of 2013. Today he was also one of the crew for Rosie’s first post-restoration cruise. “I’ve been sailing since I was five and working on boats for the past twenty years,” the New Jersey native tells me once we’re back on land near the working boatyard. “She’ll be a dockside attraction,” he answers when I ask him what Rosie’s future holds. “She’s also going to the skipjack races and we plan to win—all of them.” He smiles with confidence. “It’s amazing how fast she is,” he adds. “The design of her bottom is the key to her speed. It swoops up to the stern which allows her to just cut through the water.” He pauses for a moment then tells me, “You know, I was brought on as project manager when the bottom boards were going on and when you stepped back to look at her, you just knew she was going to be fast.”

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Chesapeake Bay Oysters - Crassostrea Virginica, which in colonial times were the size of dinner plates, were once so abundant they could filter the entire bay–all 15 trillion gallons of her, every two days. It now takes 365 days for the remaining oysters to filter the water.
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Image titleThe Museum maintains the largest collection of Chesapeake Bay watercraft in the world and for years, with the aid of a grant, it restored skipjacks that worked the bay. Still, a thousand skipjacks and the way of life they sustained have been swept away by the currents of time. The rich expanse of the bay was a place where men could rub up against nature and make a living; where life on land was shaped by the sea. After all, as Captain John Smith himself described this area in his 1608 journal: “Heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man’s habitation.”

“Inexpensive but useful servant” indeed. The original skipjacks were straightforward designs built cheap, worked hard, and then too often near the end of their useful lives they were pulled into shallow water and left to decay beneath the implacable forces of nature—a ruins among the desolation. As abandoned and broken down hulks they suffered the agonizing decline of slow motion collapse, like a sad reel of time lapse photography captured frame-by-weathered-frame.

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Between 1955 and 1975 the Rosie Parks established herself as the one of proudest, best maintained skipjacks in the fleet. She not only worked the oyster beds of the bay better than most, she was also a champion in the annual Deal Island skipjack races.
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But because of a successful $500,000 fund raising campaign and years of tireless effort by the members, staff, shipwrights, apprentices, volunteers, and donors of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, the Rosie Parks has thankfully escaped the watery grave that claimed so many of her kind. If America is a land of second chances, the Rosie Parks has experienced it first-hand. She has been restored to life by a collection of tough minded tender hearted supporters who refused to give up on her. She’s in good hands now, in the care and custody of folks who love her for all that she was—an iconic symbol of a way of life—and all that she will be—a goodwill ambassador of the bay. The Rosie Parks has found her forever home.
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