The Maryland Dove sits in a marshy creek off the Choptank River. Among the skip-jacks and workboats, it's a strange sight - a three-masted, square-sterned 65-foot ship, crafted of Eastern Shore oak. When you board, via a narrow, shaky plank, you notice the list. The boat is aground - stuck in the mud. But never mind. While the captain and crew wait for the flood tide that will carry the boat off the mud, out of the creek, down the Choptank and across the Chesapeake to its new home port at St. Mary's City, they put the finishing touches on the Maryland Dove. This replica of the Dove, which carried some of the original Maryland settlers to St. Mary's City in 1634, is scheduled to make a ceremonial arrival - under all six cotton canvas sails - in St. Mary's City this Sunday.

The deck is strewn with empty cans of pine tar and ends of rope, and its oak planks and dark with use.

"We want to have the decks blond before we go," says June Wingo, who "mostly waitressed before she joined the crew of six young apprentices who have been working on the Dove since its keel was laid in June 1977. "How did you say to do it, Captain?"

"Sand and concrete block," answers Tom Doyle, a slightly portly, 53-year-old New York Irishman wearing a long-sleeved emerald-green T-shirt and a red train engineer's kerchief. "The main halyard sets up here," Doyle instructs one of the crew. The ship is just about ready, he explains, but the running rigging - the ropes, called halyards, that raise and lower the sail - isn't in place yet. To this end, everybody, including Doyle, is splicing rope, or bathing it in pine tar and turpentine, or tying it with waxed string, or burning its ends off with a propane torch.

If you've been splicing rope for 37 years, as Doyle has, you can talk while you're doing it. "I went to sea at 16, on the Joseph Conrad, a square-rigged sailing ship used as a merchant marine sailing vessel," Doyle explains. "I've been in the merchant marine, the Navy, the Coast Guard, and the harbor police in Washington, D.C. I've also worked as a floating pile driver and a longshoreman."

When the Maryland Dove arrives in St. Mary's City, Doyle will say goodbye to the present crew and train a replacement crew of Explorer Scouts, who will show the ship to visitors. Costumes?

"I can't see me in short pants and silver buckles," says Doyle. "But my wife made me a 17-century shirt that she copied from a book. She made it by hand, because that's the way they did it then."

In the interests of authenticity, Doyle's wife is also making a straw mattress for the captain's bunk. The Maryland Dove has bunks for the captain and four crew members, though no one knows exactly what the sleeping accomodations were aboard the original Dove. It's thought that most of the 25 passengers on the three-month voyage slept in the hold with the cargo.

As Doyle splices, Kathy Moore is giving more rope a bath in a plastic tub containing a mixture of pine tar and turpentine. "It softens the lines up quite a bit, and historically it was a preservative for organic fibers," she explains. "It also makes this nylon rope look the way old line used to look."

When a question comes up - such as how are the mast partners fastened or exactly where should a hole be drilled - the answer is always: "Go ask Mr. Jim."

Mr. Jim, James B. Richardson is in full command until the boat leaves Le Compte Creek, his creek, where he has been building boats since he was 15 years old. Now 72, Richardson is found standing behind a workbench in the boatyard shed, splicing rope with the aid of a deer's shin bone.

"I never learned to work sitting down," he explains. "I came out of retirement to build the Dove - nobody else would fool with it. Now I'm going back into retirement to build my own boat. If I live long enough to finish it, I'll have my grandson sail me around. It's a round-stern bugeye. I made my living out of Bay craft. Would you expect me to build a yacht?"

Widely respected for his skill with wooden ships, Richardson built the Adventure, a replica of a 17th-century ketch, for South Carolina's Tricentennial.

"We don't know exactly what the Dove looked like. In the history books, no two pictures of it look alike. but the marine architect, William A. Baker, did research. He went to the English Admiralty and asked to see plans of boats of this burden of that time. They were all very much the same, like streetcars," Richardson says. "How do you start building a boat? First, somebody shows you some money," says Richardson with a mischievous twitch of his salt-and-pepper mustache.

The crew, whom Richardson sometimes refers to affectionately as hippies, "just gravitated. I was very fortunate. I don't know what I'do without them. Did I teach them? Well, we all kind of muddled along together."

"He doesn't like to hire people who have gone to boat-building school," explains Jim "Bull" Elk, the only member of the crew who worked for Richardson before the Dove. "They do things differently."

Paul Hawkinson is melting wax with a propane torch to secure the ends of one of the lines. "Pop knew Mr. Jim and came down here and asked if I could have a job," he says. Hawkinson, who has built and raced a unique Bay craft called a log canoe, plans to vacation in California when the Dove is finished and then go somewhere where somebody's building big wooden sailboats. "They're talking about rebuilding William Penn's boat in Pennsylvania," he says.