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1906 skipjack Ida May to sail Chesapeake Bay

CHANCE — It’s been almost six years since the skipjack Ida May has had wind in her sails and splashing water swirling across her bow, but in just a few weeks, the boat will once again be sailing the Chesapeake Bay.

Brothers Gordon and Elbert Gladden have been working almost weekly at Scott’s Cove Marina on the skipjack in dry-dock since the two found extensive structural problems with the boat five years ago.

Built in Deep Creek, Va., in 1906, the Ida May was purchased by their late father, Elbert Gladden Sr., in the mid-1950s.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the bay icon was completely rebuilt in 1954 in Reedsville, Va., and major repairs were done again in 1991 and 1999.

“The repairs we made in 1999 didn’t last because we used green (wet) wood and it didn’t work out. We didn’t rebuild the bottom at that time. Four years ago, we thought we were only going to do 21 feet of the bottom and keel, but when we started tearing it out, we found that the whole keel, chine (where the ribs go together), bottom and well were rotten. We kept going until we tore out everything,” Gordon Gladden said.

The two found bad wood where they least expected it.

“Even when we were getting her ready to paint and cleared the paint or putty off, we’d find more rotten wood,” Elbert Gladden said.

“We had a rotten spot on the side, and then the piece next to it was rotten and the piece next to that was rotten, and the piece below it rotten, so there was no stopping point.

“Elbert is 76 and I am 71, and we were anxious to get it done right so we won’t have to do it again,” according to Gordon. “I don’t think we would have started it if we had known just how many years it would take and that we would have to do so much work. It will be six years this November and, absolutely not, we never thought it would be this long,” said Gordon, a former insurance agent who has spent much of his retirement caring for the 42-foot-long wooden skipjack.

“Our father owned 12 skipjacks in his lifetime,” Gordon said. “This was the last one, and we feel an obligation to the family to keep it going.”

“As we kept moving forward, we found rotten wood in the stem, the inner stem, everywhere and in some critical areas. So rather than putting the boat back over and brining it back up again, we kept on knocking out until we found all the rotten wood. I think we now have nine-tenths or more of a new boat,” Gordon said.

Now all that might be left of the original skipjack is its sailing spirit.

While there are very few pieces left of the original wood, there is one artifact that has been attached near the wheel that is a century old, said Gordon. Framed in a mahogany case is a hand-size compass.

“It isn’t original to the Ida May,” he said, “but it was a compass our father had.”

The case was made by Frank Antez, one of two “sent from heaven” volunteers, Gordon said.

“Through an article in The Daily Times last year, we got two volunteers. One came a week after the story ran. Frank Antez showed up and volunteered. He’s worked on tall ships and in the Cambridge Shipyard. A remarkable find for us. He has built the cabin for the Ida May at his shop at home and took projects home to work on,” Gordon said.

“A week after I read the paper, I came down here and volunteered. It’s been a labor of love,” Antez said.

“Tom Evans, a former banker, is also a volunteer, a great carpenter. He’s been working with us this past year, too,” Gordon said.

As work nears an end, Evans was finishing the laying of a floor in the cabin. A fan pushed heavy, hot air into the small cabin as he measured and fitted each plank. While out of the sun, he was very much aware of the 101-plus degrees outside. He was doing what he could to help the Gladdens achieve their dream of once more having their father’s skipjack slip into the wind and water of another Deal Island-Chance Labor Day Skipjack Race soon to take place.

Though the former banker of 37 years has no experience in building skipjacks, he has a love of woodworking and an interest to learn as he goes.

“I have a wood shop in my basement at home, and as a hobby through the through the years I’ve made country furniture, but this is the ultimate woodworking project,” Evans said. “There is no piece of wood on this boat that is identical, because there are so many curves and compound angles. Every piece is hand-cut and hand-fitted.”

Evans said he has pitched in to help because of the rarity of skipjacks on the bay and the role it has played in generations of one family.

“This is a historic boat and means a lot to the Gladden family. This is good Chesapeake Bay history and good family history. I told Gordon, who serves with me on the Henson Foundation, that I would help out for a couple of weeks. That was a year ago,” Evans said with a smile.

At least four days a week, the skipjack crew is on the job, making the 60-mile round trip between Chance and Salisbury, a route that can add up the gas dollars quickly.

“I put $82 in my truck this morning, and that will get me down here and back about four-and-a-half times,” Gordon said.

There’s a behind-the-scene volunteer to appreciate, too.

“My wife, Mary Sue, gets up every morning, when I work down here, and prepares fresh fruit for us to eat,” Gordon said. “Every day we have been down here, for the past five years, she has fixed us a container of fruit that we keep on ice.”

As the brothers and volunteers worked, they came upon a curious discovery. At various places on the skipjack, particularly the keel, they found wooden pegs.

“We found a wooden peg, about the size of your thumb, on the keel. We haven’t figured out if the carpenters made a mistake when she was being built or if it has a purpose we can’t identify,” Gordon said. “Our final assumption was that it was a design flaw. We found lots of pegs throughout the boat.”

In addition to so much replaced original wood in the body of the Ida May, she will also get a new mast.

“It’s at Elbert’s home in Fruitland,” Gordon said. “We have been working on it the last couple of weeks, and we will have to rig it and then get a boom truck down here to set the mast in the Ida May now that she is overboard,” he said.

Getting the Ida May overboard this month marked a milestone in the history of the skipjack and this recent phase of reconstruction.

As a boat lift lowered the bright, white boat into the creek by the marina, the warm water gurgled as it slipped through cracks, the first step in having the lumber swell tight to make the Ida May seaworthy.

“It was exciting, watching her go down a little bit at a time till she hit the water. She’s going to leak a lot because the boards have cracked open. She will have to sit in the lift a while give the lumber a chance to swell up tight,” Gordon said.

If everything is ship-shape, the Gladdens are anxious to tackle the next step.

“We are hoping to get in some trial sails in before the Skipjack Races to make sure everything works,” he said.

Trial sails will mean using the Dacron sails made for the Ida May years ago.

“The sails are at my house in a shed. There could be a problem. They weren’t in good shape when I put them away seven years ago,” Gordon said. “I’m concerned about that, but we will have to cross that bridge when we get there. The sails ‘will sail,’ we just won’t know how many holes we’ll have to patch.”

Working all those years, through all seasons, the brothers are relieved that the job is almost finished, just in time for the skipjack races.

“We will be in the race this year with John Price at the wheel,” Gordon said. “His father was probably the first captain our father had when he bought the skipjack, Dewey, in the early 1940s. John is an excellent captain, and we’ve asked him to serve as our captain for that day.”

When the big day arrives, the Gladdens will be joined on board the Ida May by family and volunteers.

“I’ve always thought it was part of my responsibility to keep this boat going. It’s part of our family tradition. My father was a captain in the first skipjack races 45 years ago. We missed a couple when he was in poor health, but we’ve been in almost every race since its inception,” except the past five years, Gordon said.

In all those years, the Ida May has never won top honors.

Win or lose, just being back in the fleet is a personal milestone for the brothers. Now there’s a future to look forward to as the Ida May makes a comeback.

“Once we get in the water and sail it on Labor Day, our next excursion will be to sail her up the Wicomico River to the Green Hill Country Club for the Parade of Lights when boats sail from the Wicomico Yacht Club up to Salisbury the day after Thanksgiving. We’ve got 600 feet of LED lighting that we will decorate the Ida May with,” Gordon said. “She will be on display at Green Hill as the other boats pass by. After a week’s stay, will be take her to Pocomoke City for the winter and have her docked near the Delmarva Discovery Center. People will be able to see her there.”

The Ida May sails again, thanks to a family’s commitment to honor a father’s love of skipjacks and tradition, and the kindness of a small team of volunteers who share an interest in Eastern Shore heritage