Forget Liberty, Courageous and Defender. Stifle a yawn over Australia II and her mysterious winged keel. The winningest sailing ship in the Western Hemisphere may be a 76-year-old wooden workboat that looks like a cross between a Japanese sampan and a swordfish, sports a huge, rusting winch midships, and is skippered by an ancient mariner who hides nothing but his strategy.
"These fellas know what I got," said Stanford White, a 73-year-old Eastern Shore waterman who won his sixth consecutive Oyster Fleet Skipjack Race on Labor Day. "I don't worry about this bunch."
To get from America's Cup competition in Newport, R.I., to the 24th annual Skipjack Race on Tangier Sound, you would have had to travel through five states and at least half a century.
Skipjacks are the last commercial sailing fleet in the United States. They have no teakwood decks or fancy trim. And the brightest metal work on board is usually in the teeth of the crews.
They are clipper-bowed, shallow-hulled workboats, designed in the late 19th Century for downwind power to drag metal-toothed dredges along the Chesapeake Bay's oyster-bedded bottom. At one time there were more than 2,500 skipjacks working the Chesapeake. Now there are fewer than 40 and they survive only with the aid of restrictive Maryland laws and in a precarious market.
"My work life is over, but I do give a little worry to the ones coming along now," says 86-year-old W. Clifton Webster, who left school at the age of 14 to "follow the water" like his father and his father and his father before him. Webster has three grown sons, all of them skipjack captains and all hurt by last winter's dismal oyster harvest.
"The bay ain't getting any better. Something is killing the oysters. What that is," said Webster, "is anybody's guess."
A parasite known as MSX contributed to a 25 percent drop in the oyster harvest last winter. But such experts as Michael Osterling, a Virginia Institute of Marine Science specialist, say overharvesting appears to be more responsible than disease for the crop decline.
The skipjack dredgers and hand tongers blame new oystering methods, especially the recent, widespread use of scuba divers, for contributing to the decline. Scuba diving is just too efficient, they argue, and could lead to the depletion of entire oyster beds. The divers, among them a few veteran skipjack owners, argue that their method actually protects the oyster beds because it allows them to select only the larger oysters.
"There's a lot of difference of opinion," said Jack Willing, the owner of an Eastern Shore boat marina and one of the organizers of the skipjack races. What everyone seems to agree on, said Willing, is that this winter's oyster harvest could be even worse than last year's. "When the watermen see each other they all say, 'Save your money. It's going to be a hard winter.' "
The skipjack captains talked about oystering when asked. But Monday they were more interested in talking about racing. All were eager to stop White's winning streak. Art Daniels, the skipper of the City of Chrisfield, had been on local television a few days before promising to do just that.
But when the morning start of the race approached and the wind remained light, there seemed little doubt that White's F.C. Lewis would win once again.
"Stanford White has the fastest boat in light air. He's going to win it unless she runs around or does something terrible," said one captain.
While the ships gathered at the starting line just a few hundred yards offshore of Deal Island Marina, a small crowd, equipped with lawn chairs and binoculars, situated itself on a nearby beach.
"This is a disappearing bit of Americana," said Ed Crocker, a retired government employe and self-described landlubber who nevertheless travels from his home in Iowa every year to watch this race. "This has built into it the whole culture of the Delmarva Peninsula."
From shore, it appeared that Art Daniels would make good his boast to beat White, as he chose a tack in the first leg of the four-mile race that brought him close to shore where a stiff breeze was blowing. Before he could make the first buoy, however, Daniels was deserted by his breeze while the other boats found winds of their own.
White was an easy winner. But the first boat to return to port was the Skipjack Norfolk, which gave up the race at the halfway point. The Norfolk, owned by the Virginia city of the same name, was the only one of the dozen entries that is not a full-time workboat. The volunteer skipper, Gene Wells, works as an accountant. He is the first to admit that he has yet to figure out all the complexities of skipjack sailing.
"It has a mind of its own," said Wells, who promised a better showing in the future. "We're going to redesign our keel for next year's race."