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Another chance for derelict 1906 skipjack

Sailed out of Islip, N.Y., for years, the vessel has been handed over to a Virginia preservation group

Sailed out of Islip, N.Y., for years, the vessel has been handed over to a Virginia preservation group

The Ethel Lewis, a derelict Chesapeake Bay skipjack built in 1906, is back home again at her birthplace on Virginia’s Lower Eastern Shore after being rescued at the former Brooklyn (N.Y.) Navy Yard, where she had been abandoned to rot and ruin.

Her epic, homeward-bound, piggy-back voyage of 300 miles on an empty 240-foot barge ended Nov. 29 in Cape Charles, Va., near her final destination of Onancock. Several companies donated equipment and manpower to deliver the vessel to the safekeeping of the Eastern Shore of Virginia Historical Society in Onancock.

One of the oldest surviving vessels in a vanishing oyster-dredging fleet that once numbered 2,800, Ethel Lewis worked commercially for decades under sail and power before she was converted to pleasure-boat status (inboard engine) by Ben Buemi.

Buemi, 83, now of Annapolis, bought Ethel in the late 1950s in Tilghman Island, Md., and worked aboard her off and on for the next few years before sailing her (renamed March Gale) to his home in Bayshore, on New York’s Long Island, in 1961.

For years he and his five sons sailed her in the Great South Bay. In the late 1970s he “sold” her to a young man for a fee never paid and she wound up in a boatyard, also with an unpaid yard bill.

Buemi says he plans to visit his old boat in Onancock and perhaps help out with some of the reconstruction. “I can’t wait to se her again,” he says.

Ethel Lewis ended her sailing days in Long Island as “The Nine Belles.”

The 42-foot (LOD) skipjack was owned for 20 years by Long Island contractor and boat lover Dick Schaefer, 75, who had a fatherly responsibility of providing wholesome outdoor recreation for his nine daughters (who inspired the boat’s new name). They, in turn, provided him with an ample crew to daysail the boat out of his backyard canal in Islip, N.Y.

Schaefer bought her from an Oakdale, N.Y., boatyard in 1977 for $1,000, basically to meet the unpaid yard storage fee.

“I refastened her with 1,600 galvanized, 4-inch screws,” he says. “I built a forward cabin for an enclosed head and also installed an inboard gas engine, a new deck, and rebuilt the boom and centerboard trunk. But even though it was a labor of love, it was impossible keeping up with the maintenance and the boat was rotting away before my eyes.”

The nine belles (and one son) eventually grew up and fled the nest, leaving Schaefer with a large (58 feet, LOA) aging skipjack he could neither maintain nor sail alone. He tried to sell her, but ended up donating her in 1998 to a now-defunct, non-profit maritime workshop at the old Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Also getting into the act was Ginger Martus of Vincentown, N.J., founder of Bone Yard Boats ( com/boneyardboats) and sometimes called The Bone Yard Lady. She lists neglected boats for sale in her periodic newsletter. Ethel Lewis was listed as “free” and in “very poor shape.”

But no one wanted Ethel Lewis and she was abandoned to slowly deteriorate in a corner of what is now the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, a massive city-owned industrial park. During a yard clean-up campaign orchestrated by Elliot Matz, the corporation’s chief operating officer, the skipjack was placed on the junk list.

“But I took pity on the old girl,” says Matz, who couldn’t bear to break her up. “I learned she was built in 1906 and must be of some historical interest to some organization. I searched the Internet and eventually located Frank Young of Onancock.”

Young, 74, a former board member of the Eastern Shore of Virginia Historical Society, jumped at the opportunity and got the ball rolling to save the workboat, which was built in nearby Chesconessex, probably by William Thomas Young.

Frank Young was deeply involved by late 2003 in trying to save the Ethel Lewis and visited the boat three times. A retired engineer, he took measurements, made drawings, and began organizing the rescue mission.

“I was born and raised in the Onancock area and helped my stepfather build workboats when I was a young man,” he says. “Earlier, our society had saved an old log canoe, which is now stabilized and on exhibit. But the Ethel Lewis project was far more complicated.”

The first problem was how to transport her from New York City to Cape Charles, Va., at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. It would have been too costly by road, so the volunteers began checking around with local firms in the marine-related industry for ideas.

Turns out that Bayshore Concrete of Cape Charles was shipping concrete piles by barge to the Modern Continental Construction Company of Boston, which is working on bridges on a parkway not far from the navy yard. Contacts were made and plans were developed to find a barge returning to Cape Charles empty to pick up more concrete pilings and place Ethel Lewis on board.

Firms working at the old Navy yard, such as GMD Shipyard Corporation and Phoenix Marine, donated efforts to build a cradle for the skipjack, lift her onto the barge with a 75-ton crane, and stabilize her for the long ride south.

Meanwhile, Bayshore Concrete, Floyd Energy of Belle Haven, Va., and Aerial Crane of Parsonsburg, Md., pooled their resources to unload the skipjack from the barge and place her on a flatbed truck for the 40-mile trip from Cape Charles to Onancock.

Ethel Lewis was in Onancock (population: 3,000) by Dec. 1 and placed temporarily on a parcel of land near the town harbor donated by BB&T Bank.

“The object is not to restore her, which would be far too expensive, but to save what is left of her and do some rebuilding,” says Young. “The first thing we plan to do is get her under some kind of cover to protect her from the elements. Being exposed for several years in Brooklyn was very destructive.”

Curator Pete Lesher of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Md., estimates there are about 37 skipjacks remaining, counting derelicts, those near death, museum boats, “dude” dayboats, and the remaining members of the working fleet — some of which are being rehabbed in a Save-the-Skipjacks program at the museum.

Only five skipjacks were power dredging for oysters in early December, an all-time-low turnout. None dredge commercially under sail anymore, although some perform show-and-tell demonstrations for tourists. The last of the working skipjacks include Hilda M. Willing and Thomas Cyde dredging in the upper Bay, and Fannie L. Daugherty, City of Crisfield, and the Somerset dredging in Tangier Sound in the lower Bay. As for the Chesapeake Bay oyster harvest, it is almost non-existent, but there are proposals of introducing a non-native species to replenish the supply.

For information on the Ethel Lewis or to contribute to the Eastern Shore of Virginia Historical Society for her upkeep, call Frank Young at (757) 678-5117 or e-mail the Save the Ethel Lewis committee at . A Web site has been set up at