Saturday, January 23, 2010

Century-old skipjack destroyed

The century-old skipjack Ethel Lewis, which was transported from New York to Onancock five years ago by volunteers hoping to save her, was destroyed this week in a controlled burn after those involved said it was unsalvageable.

The 58-foot boat, built in Chesconnesex in 1906, had been one of only about 40 skipjacks still in existence. The wooden sailing vessels were used at the turn of the century to dredge for oysters on the Chesapeake Bay.

Several experts who examined the Ethel Lewis since it came to Onancock in 2004 said it was beyond repair and in April, the citizens' committee that had taken on the restoration project released the town to dispose of it.

The town asked the Onancock Volunteer Fire Department to burn what remained of the skipjack.

"That boat, it looked like it was pretty rotten. ... It was beyond repair, basically," said Reedville Fisherman's Museum's Aubrey Henry, who was part of a group that surveyed the skipjack about three years ago.

Onancock recently sold the waterfront lot on which the boat sat, making the vessel's removal necessary.

After changing hands several times since the 1950s, the Ethel Lewis was restored in the 1970s by Richard Schaefer of Islip, N.Y., who used it for two decades, according to a 2004 Newsday article about the restoration effort.

Schaefer donated the boat, in need of repair, in 1998 to a nonprofit group based at the Brooklyn Navy Yard that taught inner-city youth about boat restoration.

But that organization ceased operating when it lost funding after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

A downtown revitalization plan the town unveiled in 2006 but never implemented featured a park at the corner of Ames and Market streets with the fully rigged, restored skipjack as its centerpiece.

The Reedville group recently restored another skipjack, the Claud W. Somers, which was built in Accomack County in 1911.

Paul Ewell, an Accomack County native and Virginia Wesleyan College professor who is compiling a database of old Eastern Shore workboats, also examined the Ethel Lewis earlier this month. Ewell's family members have been commercial fishermen on Virginia's Eastern Shore since the 1600s.

"I remember thinking, 'they're probably not going to be able to do anything with it,' " he said. "If anybody wants to preserve an old workboat, it's me; but the problem is she's so far gone."

Ewell said he recorded the boat's dimensions and took photographs during his survey.

"I've got a significant amount of history," he said.

Skipjacks were "cheaper, easy to build" vessels which in the late 19th century and largely replaced the earlier, sturdier-built bugeyes, Ewell said.

"They were meant to be disposable boats," he said.


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