Barbara Batchelder

Status

Updated 29 October 2015:
Barbara Batchelder was built as a recreational skipjack in 1956 and still sails from Rock Hall, Maryland, with her original owner, now 95 years old, at the helm.

Barbara Batchelder, 20 May 2009
This photo caught the lovely yacht as she was just getting ready for sailing season.

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Background

While Rosie Parks, Martha Lewis and Lady Katie are known as the "Three Sisters," built alongside one another by Bronza Parks, it is often overlooked that Bronza began a fourth sister before those three were completed. However, this sister was never meant to work for a living. Barbara Batchelder was designed to be a lady of leisure, the only skipjack yacht Bronza Parks built. She has spent her life thus far with her original owner, a rarity among skipjacks.

Irénée du Pont Jr. commissioned Bronza to build the skipjack for him. "The Rosie Parks and the Martha Lewis were named for mothers of the owners," explained du Pont in 2009. "The Lady Katie and the Barbara Batchelder were named for wives. Katie Parks was a lovely lady, trim, vivacious and totally devoted to her 'Bronzy.' She was 58 when he was killed. Barbara is a lovely lady, trim and vivacious, now 84 and still giving great pleasure and comfort to her 'Brip.' It is good for women to have skipjacks named after them." An October 2015 note from Mr. du Pont amended this quote only to update his wife's age as 91. Her "Brip" is 95.

"Brip" du Pont's own words, an article he wrote in 2003, best tell the story of Barbara Batchelder's beginning, along with a bit of the spirit of the times in Dorchester County, Maryland. We thank him for sharing it with us:

Negotiating for the Skipjack Barbara Batchelder

How to buy a sailing yacht at the grocery store with a junk car and a college thesis
by Irénée du Pont, Jr. 3-30-03

In August of 1955, Barbie and the kids were in a rented house on Nantucket Island. On weekends, I toured the Eastern Shore of Maryland looking for an old boat for sale, hopefully a skipjack that might be made into a pleasure boat. In Cambridge, MD, Mr. Orville Parks offered to sell me his 50-foot skipjack Joy Parks, built in 1936. She was well maintained, but larger than anything I had in mind. He suggested I talk to his brother who was building him a new skipjack in Wingate, MD. "To meet him, go to the Acme Market on Saturday morning. He does his shopping there at 9:30."

The next Saturday, I was at the Acme Market in Cambridge well before 9:30. I asked the girl at the checkout counter if she knew Mr. Bronza M. Parks. "Yes." "Would you point him out to me when he comes in?" "Yes." I took up a position by the cigarette vending machine. In a short while, the checkout girl pointed to a fast-walking, broad-shouldered man coming in the door. I introduced myself, told him my interest, and received his card with an invitation to visit his boat yard a week from tomorrow.

On Sunday, August 14, 1955, getting to Wingate was not easy. It was raining hard when I left our house in Wilmington, DE, in our 1936 Oldsmobile. I had packed a lunch "just in case" and felt confident, but as I approached Kennett Pike, there was a very faint grumbling sound from the left rear, a familiar signal that a rear axle bearing was coming to the end of its life. My 19-year-old car had taught many lessons, one of which was that its rear wheel bearings last about 40,000 miles. In the life of the car, I had replaced at least five of them when they got noisy, before they completely broke apart. As I continued on the journey, I thought this one should last for a while.

The hundred miles to Cambridge, MD, was slow because of the heavy rain. Wingate was another thirty miles through Dorchester County marshes, and it was approaching noon when I passed Church Creek, where the road went under water. Fortunately, there was a yellow line painted down the middle of the road, which was easy to follow while driving very slowly in low gear.

As I went over a little bridge, the water got deeper, which caused me to stop and see how the water level was doing around the Oldmobile's electrics. As my shoes were already wet and the rain had stopped, there was no penalty in getting out of the car and raising the hood.

With the generator and distributor still safely above the water, I continued barely above walking speed for six miles before the road came up for air. The only person I met was a local man stalled with a 1936 Oldsmobile exactly like mine, even to the paint job. Mine was running, his was dead, so I towed him to a gas station, happily at the point where the flooding ended.

As I rolled into Wingate ready to ask directions to Mr. Parks' boat yard, the harbor bulkhead was a beehive of activity. After several days of rain, people were bailing and pumping their workboats. Some guys were fussing with a portable fire pump, trying to free a fishing boat that was perilously close to foundering. The pump motor was running, but the device that was meant to prime the pump wouldn't suck out the air.

My college thesis was on using exhaust energy to create a vacuum for drawing cooling air over motorcycle cylinders. Instantly, I recognized the priming device on the fire pump and why it wasn't working. It had simply slipped partly off the engine's exhaust pipe. I jumped down into the boat, picked up an oar and swatted the device back into place, causing the pump to give forth with a mighty stream of water. Some smiling onlookers pointed out Mr. Parks' boat house with his name in large letters on the roof.

By the time I got to the yard, word of the fire pump incident had preceded me. Mr. Parks looked at the old car and said I was the only one who had gotten into Wingate since the flood. That made me a double hero who seriously wanted a boat.

We talked about the kind of boat I wanted and he agreed to design a smaller skipjack with an extended cabin. He seemed delighted that anyone would want the kind of boat he wanted to build. He showed me three partly built oyster dredges (50-foot skipjacks)—one for his brother, one for his wife's brother, and the third on speculation. (Later on, they became the Rosie Parks, the Martha Lewis, and the Lady Katie.) He showed me lots of old photographs and said, "Counting the little 'uns with the big 'uns, I have built over 450 boats in my time. Give me a couple of weeks, Honey, (he called all his friends 'Honey') and I'll show you what we can do."

It was getting late afternoon when word came that, with the outgoing tide, the road to Cambridge was now clear. I took that as the signal to head home. The grumbling sound in the left rear of the Oldsmobile was much louder now. As darkness fell, it got quite alarming.

On approaching the junction of U.S. 50 and U.S. 213, there was a terrible crashing sound with squealing rubber as the left rear brake went on hard. The car would go no further. I found it would move backward, so I backed under a security light, beside an establishment that was closed for the night.

With plenty of tools and the spare bearing I had bought months ago when the other side had gone bad, it took about two hours to do the job. Since the security light wasn't much help under the car, the worst part was bleeding the brakes single-handed with a dim flashlight. I got home about midnight.

June 19, 1956, we sailed away in the 40-foot skipjack Barbara Batchelder to begin a lifetime of sailing pleasure. The Barbara Batchelder is starting her 48th season [in October 2015, just finished her 60th season] and counting. Barbie and I still have the Oldsmobile, too.

Barbara Batchelder has the same V-shaped bowsprit as the other Bronza Parks boats, along with the same distinctive stern. Bronza likely modeled the stern from builder Tom Young's skipjacks, such as Joy Parks, which Young built for Bronza's brother Orville.

However, the basic skipjack design was revised to accommodate living more than dredging. Barbara Batchelder has an inboard diesel engine. Her enlarged cabin extends through the traditional mid-ship dredging area and includes four double bunks, four single bunks, two heads and a galley, sleeping 12 as comfortably as 12 can sleep aboard a skipjack.

There are two 40-gallon tanks for fresh water, but lighting is barely more than one would find on a working skipjack. In addition to the navigation lights, there are three bulbs—one in each head and one in the galley. Crew family and passengers make do with flashlights.

As with any wooden boat, she has needed her share of repairs and restoration over the years, but Barbara Batchelder has been well cared for and is in excellent condition. Bronza Parks' son-in-law, Ralph Ruark, maintained her until his death in 2002 and would sail her with his family. Ruark's second marriage and honeymoon took place aboard her.

The boat's log for 60 years of sailing fills 19 volumes, and the 95-year-old Irénée du Pont is still sailing Barbara Batchelder. We wish them many more volumes of fair sailing together!

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