"Let her out and see what she'll do," old salt Pepper Langley advises his son, skipper of the skipjack America. Only a light wind ripples the harbor outside the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomon, but the boat takes off, quickly leaving the dock behind.
"Look at that rascal go," approves Pepper, shaking his head and looking pleased as a new father. "Have you ever seen anything like that in a light wind? You know what they say about a skipjack: If there's one knot of wind, they keep on moving."
A French child from a visiting yacht has seen the skipjack, too, and runs along the pier, shouting in amazement.
"Papa, viens voir! C'est une craft comme les grandes!
He's right -- the America is only four feet long, and her captain is standing on the shore, controlling the sails and the rudder by radio. But the boat is a scale model, one-inch-to-one-foot, of a real skipjack, the famed sailboat that works the Chesapeake Bay dredging for oysters. Made from plans drawn for the museum by naval architect Bill Hall, the models are exact copies of past or present skipjacks, right down to the gold leaf on the bowsprites.
Except, says Pepper, commodore of the only fleet of radio-controlled skipjacks in America, -- "or anywhere, that we know of" -- for some minor details necessary for radio-controlled racing.
"The lines are not a hundred percent true," he explains, showing a visitor around the carving and modeling shop in the basement of the museum. "We had to straighten the transom up, and to make the shag -- the part under the rudder -- deeper. Also, these boats have a 10-pound lead keel for balance weight instead of a centerboard."
All of the skipjacks in the model fleet were carved in the museum shop in class taught by Pepper, who learned carving by working on big boats in a yacht yard in Solomons, beginning in 1935 when he graduated from the high school that used to be in the building the museum now occupies. About five skipjacks are expected to compete in a regatta this Sunday at 11. Other skipjacks' skippers are still waiting for their sails, which are being custom made by an Annapolis sailmaker.
Meanwhile, Rip Van Winkle, another member of the model skipjack club, has rigged his boat with homemade sails made of perma-pressed sheet material.
"They work real nice," he says, as the boat tacks in front of the dock. "But there are better racing sails. Closer woven material is stiffer and holds its shapde better."
Following the three-point course that the model skipjacks will follow in Sunday's regatta, Van Winkle's boat, the Excalibur, sails smoothly, but lags behind the America.
"That homemade sail is a little heavy," explains Pepper, taking command of his son's boat with the radio-control device.
"This button operates the rudder, and this one operates the sails -- in and out," he explains, making the boat come about. "We made the rigging plain, so it can be taken down fast if a storm comes up. This can't be anything elaborate, like a model you're just going to look at. These controls will transmit up to about a mile, but we can't let the boats get more than about a thousand feet offshore. Farther than that, you can't tell the direction of the sail, and you don't know which way to turn."
"You know you're fouling up my Channel 4," says a disgruntled-looking man who turns out to be another member of the model-boat club come to watch the maiden voyage. Soon a small crowd has gathered on the pier, including the visiting French, some museum officials and the passengers and crew of the Lady Katie, a fullsize skipjack docked at the museum.
"The Excalibur was the first boat I ever worked on," remembers Paul Avery, now a hand on the Lady Katie. "It was sold, and somebody made it into a yacht."
The Lady Katie is a working oyster boat during the winter, Captain Stanley Larrimore of Tilghman Island explained. But during the summer it becomes a yacht, available for cruises booked through the museum. It also served as the model for the model boat Pepper Langley himself is making. It's finished, says Pepper, who also made model airplanes for testing by the Naval Air Test Center across the Patuxent River from Solomons, except for the gold lead on the trail boards.
"My gold leaf did not turn out to suit me," he says, studying the gold leaf and the red-white-and-blue banners on the fullsize Lady Katie, "so I'm doing it over again."
"Any of them have a plumb mast?" asks Larrimore, taking time out from cooking steaks on the gas grill on the Lady Katie's deck to examine the models. His question starts a debate about the merits of a plumb mast -- one at right angles to the deck -- vs. one that meets the deck at a sharper angle.
"His is the plumbest I've ever seen," comments Pepper, ending the debate by saying that if you multiplied the speed of the model by 12 -- in line with the scale of an inch to a foot -- the models would be moving faster than the Lady Katie.
But what size oysters could you dredge? asks Larrimore, and the discussion ends in laughter at visions of scale-model oysters.