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A Chesapeake treasure worth saving

I have managed to survive a midlife crisis or two, but falling into a demanding maritime midlife crisis can pose personal challenges for the most committed boatman. Men in their mid-30s and into their 40s can be especially vulnerable to such whimsical changes in lifestyle, especially when the object of affection is a traditional Chesapeake Bay watercraft.

Jack Sherwood

Such an event befell Earle Bateman "Roo" Wood III in 2000 when he was smitten by a home-built skipjack that was launched in 1970 in Round Bay near Annapolis. He first laid eyes on her settled on the bottom at a private dock in St. Michaels with a bilge full of stinking mud and a mildewed interior grown wild and woolly an inch thick. Afflicted with love at first sight, he saw the once handsome strip-planked, mahogany-on-oak vessel not as it appeared but as a "Chesapeake treasure" that he decided was worth saving.

"Something I cannot fully explain to this day became a part of me that day," he says a decade after inexplicably taking possession of a boat once built for pleasure but seemingly doomed for a one-way trip to the mud flats.

"Let's put it this way: The boat's owner was very, very happy to see me, and we arrived at a private transfer of ownership that shall be kept private," says Wood.

Wood is an eighth-generation Talbot County landowner who grew up around powerboats on a particularly pleasant part of Maryland's Middle Eastern Shore. He had his own outboard-powered runabout at the age of 10 and participated in youth sailing programs at the local Miles River Yacht Club. Although he had never owned a sailboat, he had crewed for big-boat racers and on hiking-out boards in log-canoe regattas aboard Magic out of St. Michaels, Md.

He soon discovered there is a world of difference between crewing on a sailboat and owning one. A volunteer crewmember departs another's boat with a clear mind and no responsibilities. But ownership of a vessel - especially an older, neglected skipjack of wood - fills a head with projects large and small and to-do "watch" lists that continue to expand.

Roo Wood

Wood, who is 45, has been a real estate broker in Easton for 25 years, but he laughs as he says, "I get broker and broker every day." Even though the real estate market has dried up during the last few years, his firm has survived and has afforded him the time to take up a hobby such as dedicated boatwork. So far he has remained loyal to his time-consuming project and does much of the grunt work himself.

This summer, a decade after the purchase, his skipjack received the name Caroline (after his daughter) and was deemed ready for formal presentation to a select boating society enamored of wooden boats. Dressed in a fresh coat of high-gloss white paint and flag-bedecked for a showboat parade up the Miles River, she took her polite bows in a grand debut, with onshore welcoming music provided by Bird Dog Wheeler and his boys.

Wood hosted this gala - a tented lawn party for a hundred or so guests in the high heat of summer at the historic home of his wife's parents outside Easton - after a short motor cruise from St. Michaels to Goldsborough Creek landing. I met Caroline on the upper Miles en route to the festivities with her builder, John Layng, 78, and others aboard. I followed them with my camera in my 1962 Sailmaster 22, Erewhon, as they raised sails and whispered into the dock in a near calm.

At what Wood billed as the 40th anniversary of the skipjack's 1970 launching, he honored Layng as the "man who made all this possible." As a metallurgist builder of an occasional rowboat, Layng named his first and only sailboat Lizzie D, after his wife. He was inspired by the classic lines of a working skipjack named Messenger that he found in a Howard Chapelle book on small American watercraft. He scaled it down in size and came up with an open boat 34 feet overall, 28 feet on deck, 25 feet on the waterline and with a large centerboard drawing 2.5 and 6 feet.

After years of working on it under a tent in a backyard, he launched it in 1970 and later added a large box-like, though oddly graceful, cabin to do some overnight Bay cruising.

By the early 1990s, however, Layng's cruising days were over. His wife became bedridden with arthritis and he began what he called "my 18-year career as her caretaker." The boat was offered to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels and later went through the hands of several owners.

Wood fell hard for the skipjack - it was love at first sight.

"I often wondered what happened to her but had long since lost track until I got a call out of the blue from this fellow named Roo, who related his big plans for her," he says. "I was surprised at how emotional he became over this rather simple boat, but was grateful to have someone committed to her well-being and apparently able to carry out ambitious plans."

Activities were far too hectic at the summer party to interview Wood and Layng, so I invited myself on a short ride aboard Caroline in late September, with Wood and log-canoe sailor Dave Parkerson as crew. We left Wood's Miles River Yacht Club slip under brilliant early autumn skies on a rail-down reach under main alone to a sweet anchorage around Seth Point on Tilghman Creek.

We anchored - by the stern, it turned out - and Wood went below to very gently sauté fresh-picked Chesapeake Bay backfin crab meat under the low flame of a camp stove. There was no need to ask for crackers, because he knows how and what to serve for a short lunch break on the hook.

On the return trip, he popped a Harken roller-furling jib, and we close-reached back to St. Michaels. I took a turn at the spoked, traditional cast-iron wheel with varnished wooden handles and allowed Caroline to take over for the most part, heading up into white-capped puffs and leaving behind a bubbling trail of slightly disturbed water.

Not surprisingly, work continues on Caroline. Wood sails her gently and forgivingly, and they have become a familiar daysailing sight on the Miles. He appears determined to keep the boat sail-ready year-round and refuses to cover the mainsail, which is rigged with lazy jacks. I tried to convince him that there is a simple way to stow the lazy jacks under the furled folds of the large leg o' mutton mainsail and easily slip on a sail cover, but I got nowhere except for a promise to keep the main clear of unsightly mildew. We shall see ...

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.

This article originally appeared in the December 2010 issue.