The State of Maryland was to launch an effort today to keep America's last commercial sailing fleet afloat, forming a task force to save the endangered oyster-dredging skipjacks.

The task force, appointed by Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (D), includes four captains of the sloop-rigged vessels. The fleet has dwindled from as many as 70 in the 1940s to only 10 today actively harvesting oysters in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

The initial goal of the task force will be to create a Skipjack Insurance Trust Fund to provide subsidized hull and liability insurance to the fleet. When a state agency looked at the issue 10 years ago, hull insurance cost $20,000, and $100,000 worth of liability insurance cost $12,500 a year.

"For dredging skipjacks, for which the economics were marginal, this was driving the bulk of the captains out of business," said J. Rodney Little, director of the Maryland Historical Trust and a member of the new skipjack task force.

The broad-beamed single-masted boats are named for a bluefish that "skips" across the water. The fragility of the fleet--as well as the state's stake in preserving it--was underscored this month when the 113-year-old Rebecca T. Ruark sank in a storm off Tilghman Island. The Maryland Department of Transportation paid $10,000 to raise the boat, citing its symbolic importance to the tourism industry.

Today's initiative, scheduled to be announced aboard a skipjack in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, comes from the Maryland Commission for Celebration 2000, a state agency chaired by Schaefer. The commission already had planned to give the fleet "Treasure of the Month" honors this month, the start of dredging season, before the Rebecca went down.

But once the Rebecca sank, commission officials began to think more expansively.

"We started to think, 'Boy, this is really timely. How can we help?' " said Louise Hayman, executive director of the commission.

Like most of the skipjacks, the Rebecca was uninsured, and the captain has been hard-pressed to raise money to make repairs.

In a state that permits dredging under power only two days a week, most of the boats dredge only on the more cost-effective "power days," Mondays and Tuesdays, when generally they can be assured of a crew and a reasonable catch. Even then, few boats harvest the daily limit of 150 bushels.

"If there's oysters to catch, a few of us are out here trying to catch them," said Capt. Ed Farley yesterday, speaking by cell phone from the H.M. Krentz, dredging in the upper bay, under power.

Most of the sailing these days is reserved for the skipjack races on Labor Day off Deal Island and in the fall off Sandy Point State Park. In addition to the 10 working skipjacks, 10 or so are owned by foundations or museums in Maryland.

Several of the skipjacks carry tourists during the off-season. Capt. Wade Murphy, of the capsized Rebecca, for instance, said 75 percent of his income now comes from the tourist trade, not from oyster-dredging.

Today's announcement will not be the first time Maryland has tried to keep the fleet afloat. In 1991, a gala hosted by then-Gov. Schaefer raised funds for repairs. The Maryland Historical Trust and the Lady Maryland Foundation also supported the effort, resulting in restoration work on five vessels by the Living Classrooms Foundation of Baltimore.

The task force will be chaired by R. Clayton Mitchell, of Kent County, a former Democratic speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates and currently a lobbyist for Baltimore Gas and Electric. Along with Little, members of the task force include skipjack captains Walton and Delmas Benton, Farley, and Russell Dize; John C. North, chairman of the State Chesapeake Critical Areas Commission; Chuck Foster, of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation; Doug Alves, director of the Calvert Marine Museum; Christopher Judy, shellfish division director for the Department of Natural Resources; Thomas C. Kelley Jr., director of the insurance division in the state treasurer's office; insurance agent Carl Meil Jr.; and Tyler Gearhart, director of nonprofit Preservation Maryland.

CAPTION: The skipjack Kathryn is pushed by its motorized boat known as a yawl or push boat. The oyster harvesting skipjack fleet on the Chesapeake Bay has decreased from about 70 in the 1940s to 10 today.