Until Tuesday around sunset, the 113-year-old Rebecca T. Ruark was the oldest oyster-dredging sailboat on the Chesapeake Bay.
Today, the boat, one of only a dozen commercial sailing ships in bay waters, lies at the bottom. She was a victim, her captain said, of sudden and sustained 50 mph winds off this Eastern Shore island.
"It was so rough. There were 10- to 12-foot seas. I've never seen it blow so hard so long. She was awesome," Capt. Wade Murphy, 58, said. Miraculously, a diver declared the boat, resting on its side in 20 feet of water, intact.
That was the good news.
But it had been a while in coming. Murphy and his three-man crew, who are from Crisfield, first had to endure a harrowing rescue from the sinking vessel late Tuesday. The boat had capsized, and the captain and crew found themselves in treacherous whitecap waters clinging to a life ring and the boat--but within sight of land.
It was a chilling end to what had been a successful day of oyster harvesting by the vessel. Murphy and his crew had dredged up about 70 bushels on the second day of the skipjack season.
Midday rain had not deterred the dredgers on the Choptank River. When the rain stopped, Murphy said, the wind came out of the southeast at 25 to 30 knots, and about 3 p.m., the Rebecca T. Ruark headed for home.
As is customary, Murphy used a winch to raise the small motorized yawl that pushes the skipjack on power-only days. Then he raised the sails.
The three other skipjacks working the Choptank headed to Cambridge, the nearest port, their crews' eyes on the weather. But Murphy, a third-generation skipjack captain from Tilghman Island, set his course for home. He thought it was worth the risk.
"It was blowing but not that bad," he said.
Soon, gusts welled up to 55 mph. "It blowed so daggone bad," Murphy said, that it ripped the sails to shreds before he could lower and furl them.
Afraid the boat would be swamped, Murphy dropped anchor. In his 19th-century vessel, he reached for his cell phone and called his wife, Jackie. At 4:30 p.m., the siren sounded at the Tilghman volunteer fire department, and soon rescue boats were on their way.
The Island Girl, a 42-foot workboat, threw Murphy a towline and began pulling the distressed vessel to shore. But the high seas kept cascading over the bow and water was leaking through the deck. Soon, water was filled the hull.
Furiously, the men baled with buckets, but to no avail. The boat was floating no more than two feet above the water's surface, and then, Murphy said, "she rolled right on over. . . . I thought she was gone."
One of the crew members could not swim, Murphy said. "I was worried more about my crew than the boat," he said. "You can always fix a boat . . . "
Over the years, 32 Tilghman Island watermen have drowned in the bay and surrounding waters, according to a memorial plaque in a park opposite the firehouse. Among them was James Murphy, the captain's grandfather, in 1913.
But Wade Murphy, who put nearly $100,000 into rebuilding the sloop-rigged dredge boat in the 1980s, considered himself nearly unsinkable--and his boat as well.
When he's not dredging for oysters, Murphy caters to Tilghman's burgeoning bed-and-breakfast trade, taking tourists for cruises. That season for the old boat ended just last weekend.
Now, Murphy must find a barge and crane to raise the uninsured Rebecca T. Ruark, so that he can resume oyster dredging in, he hopes, two or three weeks.
"It's the first time in 113 years she went down," Murphy said. "I don't think that's going to happen again."
CAPTION: In summer 1996, the Rebecca T. Ruark sails off Tilghman Island. This week, the boat succumbed to rough weather in the same area.
CAPTION: Most of the Rebecca T. Ruark remains below the surface after sinking in rough waters off Tilghman Island. The captain hopes the boat can be raised to sail again.