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The older she is, the deeper her beauty

“I have an illness with old things.” Paul Vrooman, of Moon,Va., speaks lovingly of his native Stutts Creek in Mathews County, Va., and of the boats native to the area.His 61-foot Ellen Marie is one of those boats.She is of a special breed of the Chesapeake Bay deadrise work boats. Like other old things, there is more than meets the eye. You have to look deep.

The deadrise hulls were born when the Chesapeake commercial fleet was shifting from sail to power. Many of the features of the old skipjacks and bugeyes were retained as hulls were built for engines. The bow cut the water fine, with a flair to cast aside the short Bay chop. The keel remained, although it was more of a heavy structural timber than a foil to prevent lateral sliding.

Shallow they were, because they had to work the shoals of the Bay, oystering, crabbing, tending nets and simply getting in and out of their home creeks.

Tough they were, too. I used to watch Edna L, an ancient deadrise, work rough and tumble salvage jobs in the Bahamas. She had run all the way down there from the Chesapeake. She was followed by the vessel Irene and Pearl, used for island pleasure cruising by a family from Nassau. Winnie Estelle made it to Belize to work as a charter diving boat.

There were different types and styles of deadrise, depending in part on their builder and their intended use. Smaller ones are still being built, working the Bay today. But the special breed of the large old ones is all but gone. Some were “trapboats.” They often had a small wheelhouse astern and narrow decks around the side, although they were mostly open. They were used for working pound nets.

Others were “drudgers.” These had heavy dredging equipment for bringing up critters such as crabs and oysters. There were also “deckboats,” usually with larger wheelhouses and an accommodation shack astern. They were completely decked over, with cargo hatches — the larger ones sporting a small fo’c’sle.

These were also often called “buyboats” because they went out to buy seafood from the harvesting fleet so that they wouldn’t have to waste time returning to offload. This was particularly important when many of that harvesting fleet were sailing boats such as the bugeye and the skipjack. The deckboats also carried freight such as grain and watermelons from outlying farms to the cities.

Most of the larger ones, usually 50 feet or bigger, are gone or slowly dying on some creek bank. Vrooman thinks there are probably only two dozen or so of the larger buyboats still afloat today. Lately some have been used for oyster seeding.

Sometimes out in the Bay on a flat, calm day you might see a small gray mountain moving just over the horizon. Later, a buyboat appears beneath the mountain, laden to the gunwales. The mountain is oyster seedlings piled on deck, and as the boats lumber over the shallows, crews wash the seedlings off in select spots, using Bay water pumped through large hoses.

Built for work

Ellen Marie was built as an open trapboat and launched in 1926 when they were still building skipjacks, bugeyes and other sailing work boats. She began her career working pound nets. In those days she had a small wheelhouse aft. First she was powered by a little Palmer and later a much larger Cat and then the 871 Detroit that powers her today.

But she was lying in sore shape when Vrooman found her and fell in love with her. She had been decked over as a buyboat and sported a larger superstructure aft. He believes this cabin and wheelhouse came from the old buyboat, Midlen.

Throughout their history, as these boats died of rot or grounding or were converted to other uses, it was common to swap out a superstructure from one to the other.

She’s 61 feet on deck with a 14-foot beam, drawing around 5 feet. Her keel timber is 18-inch-plus square. Massive knees, as found in sailing ships, make her strong. “[She’s] sharp on the bottom all the way to stern,” Vrooman says. The only place that’s flat is right under the rudder. She’s, indeed, a deadrise.

Vrooman says she’s the last one in MathewsCounty that he knows of and that she was built there on Pepper Creek on the old Smith’s Railway. Most of these boats were built “rack of eye,” but the Ellen Marie was a bit unique — and better, Vrooman says — because she actually had a line drawing.

When he found her she was replete with costly dredging gear, including the hoister (called, “heister”), still aboard. But beneath her beautiful lines was a sad story. She was also replete with rot, with “little trees starting to grow up in the seams of her deck,” he says.

He set to work restoring her — in the water in front of his house because he couldn’t afford to haul her and have it done by a yard.

Rot in these boats usually comes more from rain water from above, than from the salty water below. So serious is the problem with these hulls of heart pine that often watermen douse the decks with buckets of Bay water when they come in — but this is no real cure. The boats were often built with no bedding between the planks, and when fresh water got in it would fester, even though the pitch from the pine remained thick. With her many years, the Ellen Marie had proved no exception.

Vrooman began pulling her rotten planks, “and they just wouldn’t stop. Pretty soon she had about as much freeboard as a Sea-Doo.” But finally she was proud again.

These boats were built so heavily they can rot and rot and you can hardly tell the difference. I’ve fished in one probably just as old or older, and we never worried even though we could lean against the sides while rolling along and whittle out some of the timber with our fingernails — even though we’d just cut them.

Neither does Vrooman worry. He says he pulled “five trash cans of rot off her this year” and fixed it, so she’s better than before.

A second chance

A few have bought these old boats and spent large sums to lovingly restore them so they could use them as yachts. This, of course, involved not just restoration, but modification because old boats that used to haul oysters and watermelons and fish aren’t what most would consider fine yachts.

Vrooman says he thought about turning her into a yacht, as others have done, but he felt that she would be less of what she was meant to be. Besides, he doesn’t consider himself a yachtsman or a rich man. He and his wife sing, play the lute guitar and violin, and perform Colonial-period music in and around Williamsburg, Va. He also works with his hands, restoring old things. (You can buy their CD, “Romance and Dance,” in the Williamsburg area or order them by phone at the number below.)

Paul thought about fishing her, but couldn’t afford the insurance. So he kept her, dredging gear and all, and loves her as she is. Occasionally he takes her out and they meet up with other buyboats from around the Bay, and sometimes they just take a jaunt around Stutts Creek and Milford Haven.

Many times she’s won ribbons and awards at the annual Harborfest in Norfolk, Va., and other festivals, where she’s become a regular, allowing the denizens of the modern world to see and know this part of the Bay’s heritage.

Why would someone do this? Love affairs aren’t always reasonable things. Love affairs with boats can be especially unreasonable. All this is more readily understandable when you understand the nature of old Tidewater Virginia and MathewsCounty.

Native culture

MathewsCounty is “flatish,” with wide farms, acres and acres of pine and miles and miles of marsh. Boring, you might say, if you like city life. “Near perfect,” you might say, if perfect to you is what it is to me.

To the south in this county lies MobjackBay with its four rivers, one of which reaches almost to the courthouse. To her east lies the lower Chesapeake Bay, separated from the mainland by marshland, sandy beaches and barrier islands. Her northern boundary is mostly that of the PiankitankRiver, which becomes Dragon Run swamp far inland. To the west? Well, that’s moving toward a lot of high civilization, so we won’t go there today. MathewsCounty is one of those places the “Yankees” are always retiring too, but as one old fellow told me, “I don’t understand it. They come here ’cause they didn’t like it where they were, and then the first thing they do when they get here is try to make it like it was where they left.” But Mathews still doesn’t have a stop light.

It does have two lighthouses offshore. One still stands tall off Wolf Trap shoal and the other guards the tip of New Point Comfort. During my very young days this was, in my mind, my first “tropical island.” But with the comings and goings of the hurricanes and nor’easters it sometimes connects to the marshes of the mainland.

Mathews, like many of her boats, has a special heritage, especially when you look deep. Most of my time in the county has been spent on its Gwynn’s Island. During the Revolutionary War when Lord Dunmore governed Virginia, he headquartered there for awhile and it was called Governor’s Island. His soldiers were slaughtered wholesale by disease and the relentless rebel cannon firing from the mainland, across the “Narrows” that separates the northwestern part of the island from the “shore.”

The island was accessible only by ferry until a bridge was built in 1939, and commercial seafood harvesting and gardening kept it independent. The fishing fleet would come alongside the fish houses, offload and get paid — they hoped a fair price. (Few agreed that it ever was, but that’s the nature of the business.)

The villagers resisted change when it wasn’t needed, and did well for many years. Cap’n Wilson Rowe, an old friend who has now passed on, once scoffed at the first outboard that another waterman had brought to the island.

“I can go faster than that contraption just sculling,” he bragged. A race was declared — and he won.

For many trips I went out to help him tend his pound nets on his trapboat, Linda R. She was, of course, a deadrise.

At the southern end of Gwynn’s Island, the treacherous “Hole in the Wall” is used by working deadrise boats, daily snaking their way in and out among the shifting shoals. “Hole in the Wall” channel separates the southern end of Gwynn’s Island from a string of sandy, marshy barrier islands just offshore of the mainland.

When you enter though the “Hole in the Wall,” Milford Haven broadly opens to your starboard. It’s a bay that lies between the island and the mainland. And ahead lies the mouth of Stutts Creek.

Today you see quiet waters, green peaceful shores and fine homes along the shores of Stutts Creek. But as I said earlier about the boats, there’s more than meets the eye. For example, long ago the “great-great-great-grandfather” of Paul Vrooman built schooners and brigs from nearby plentiful forests. His yard was at Fitchett’s Wharf, just downstream from the creek where Paul and his family, including the Ellen Marie, live.

Commercial seafood gathering thrived in the old days of sailing boats and the deadrise. Today, like the boats, that tradition is endangered. The men and boats often work year round, and when they aren’t working the men keep busy mending gear and fixing the boats.

In earlier days the “old heads,” as the older ones called themselves, would sit around wood stoves at night talking about the boats, fishing and the water. They could tell some tales. Several told me that Stutts Creek used to be named Sluts Creek and that there used to be a brothel there. Purely from historical interest, I decided to check it out.

The old land grant books and tax records of the 1700s did indeed refer to the creek as “Sluts Creek.” There were even references up to the 1800s. I heard different explanations.

“Well, in the old days the word probably meant something else. Back then they were all Anglicans and they would never have allowed that name,” I was told by one person.

One old timer had another explanation.

“Well, that must have been from the French,” he opined. “You know, there was a lot of ’em around here when they came over with Lafayette to help out George Washington.”

Finally, several residents told me that during the American Revolution, ships anchored in the creek off a certain point and “ladies of ill repute” came out by boat to “visit.” This was apparently a popular anchorage, notwithstanding that the bottom wasn’t the best for holding.

But I found no confirmation of a brothel ashore. I only heard, over and over again, words to the effect: “Well, yes, I heard that once, but I don’t know if it’s true or where it was or even if it was, and I can’t rightly recall for sure who it was that told me — if they did.”

So many couldn’t “rightly recall who told me” that I wouldn’t be surprised if there was such a shoreside base far back in time — it just hasn’t yet been designated as a historical landmark yet.

But there are many historical landmarks that are so designated around these parts, even though they may have a few hidden stories beneath the surface.

And even though the Ellen Marie isn’t a designated historical landmark, she should be, as should so many other good wooden boats built and worked long ago, and which now need some special love and care in their old age, from people and communities who remember.

These boats, like the people and the harbors they served, all have a bit of a story beneath their timbers. The illness with old things, especially old boats, can bring a certain kind of wellness. And this is good.

The Ellen Marie is for sale. Anyone interested can call Vrooman at (804) 725-4078.

For pictures and authoritative facts about Buyboats see: “Chesapeake Bay Buyboats” by Larry S. Chowning. Cornell Maritime Press/Tidewater Publishers.