Caleb W. Jones

Status

Updated 17 June 2024:
A commercial dredge boat for more than fifty years, Caleb W. Jones began sailing again in 2012 after an extensive restoration, but has not returned to dredging. She is privately owned and sails out of Cobb Island, Maryland.

Caleb W. Jones, 22 September 2012

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Background

The heyday of skipjack building was in the 1890s to about 1915, after which oyster diseases, overharvesting and cultural changes made skipjacks less profitable means of making a living on the water. After World War II, however, conditions improved enough that another wave of skipjacks were being built, including Caleb W. Jones.

She was built in 1953 in Reedville, Virginia, by the Rice brothers, Carl and Emmett (one record also says "Hubbard Rice"), at the Rice's railway for Caleb Wesley Jones, who lived on Smith Island and named the boat after himself. Jones put her to work dredging, working with his son Caleb W. Jones, Jr., and brother-in-law. The 1962 roster from a race at Solomons, Maryland, lists her owners as C. W. Jones, J. W. Brimer and Caleb Jones Jr. In 1966, when Jones was eighty years old, he sold her to David A. Williams from Colonial Heights, Virginia. Jones died in 1996, just a month and a half short of his hundredth birthday.

Williams' business partner at the time, Bill Peterson, was on every trip aboard Caleb W. Jones during the three years Williams owned her and shared his memories of that period:

"We initially took Caleb up the James River in company with Captain Caleb, and then on to the Appomattox River all the way to Petersburg, Virginia, where she was the largest vessel in the Appomattox Small Boat Harbor. So Caleb was there in company with my skipjack Freddie for a while to work on them close to work and home.

"David's original idea was to add a cabin over her cargo hold, but after consulting with a number of boat designers, it was felt it would be too expensive to do it in such a manner that would keep her structural integrity. It was considered for a time to gather some backers and send her on a treasure hunt mission, but that faded away. She went back to the Bay for a time and was hauled, painted and housed at the Herman Krentz railway in Ophelia, Virginia. She spent most time sailing about on the lower Bay with a good dose of fish ice and cold beer loaded into the cargo hold.

"David sold her back into the fleet in lieu of doing a half job of converting her, which he thought was the right thing to do for the boat and himself."

In 1969, Clifton Webster paid $2500 for Caleb W. Jones for his son Richard, known as Dicky (in many records also spelled "Dickie"). Originally meant for his brother-in-law, Clifton said that when his son said he wanted the boat, "yer children come first." She was brought over to the Eastern Shore to join the fleet out of Wenona, Maryland. Clifton already owned skipjack Maggie Lee and had bought H. M. Krentz the year before. He sold Maggie Lee and put Caleb W. Jones back to work instead. She was said to be in fairly good shape, but her sails had deteriorated. At this time, she had a new yawl boat built by Roger Hoffman of Wenona. Caleb W. Jones appears in the list of skipjacks participating in the 1970 Chesapeake Appreciation Days races, with Richard Webster as captain out of Wenona.

Dicky Webster owned and worked Caleb W. Jones for almost forty years, preferring to work under sail. However, the hard work of dredging all those years takes its toll on wooden boats, and major repairs and overhauls were needed along the way. In 1984, the aft deck and cabin were rebuilt under Junior Willing's supervision at Scott's Cove Marina in Deal Island. The height of the cabin was raised a couple feet for more headroom. Roger Hoffman also overhauled the yawl boat at that time.

In 1985, it was the front half of the boat's turn for repairs, with the rebuilding of the deck from the cabin to the bow, a new bowsprit and mast repairs. Before work could begin, Hurricane Gloria blew through, toppling the mast but fortunately not damaging the parts rebuilt in 1984. Dicky knew the base of the mast was getting soft, but with several feet removed from the bottom, it would be too short. Instead, he found an aluminum cylinder to cover the base of the mast, which increased strength with no loss of height.

Given the new bowsprit that year, it was perhaps the 1984 Deal Island Skipjack Race that author Christopher White writes about in his book Skipjack. He describes Caleb W. Jones giving chase to skipjacks Rebecca T. Ruark and City of Crisfield, coming in third despite splitting her bowsprit on the upwind leg to the finish line. But by 1985, she apparently was spruced up enough again that Dicky started taking out sailing parties at that year's Deal Island race. Over the years, she won the 1999 Deal Island race, came in second the next year behind skipjack Nathan of Dorchester, and also won three match races at Sandy Point.

The 1984-85 repairs shored up the topside, but the bottom was another problem. A 1988 survey found a lot of rotten wood. On 1 April 1992, the skipjack sank while planting seed oysters for the state of Maryland, a common off-season income-producing task for the fleet. Dicky's brother Ted was captain that day. A windy day, the boat was overloaded with spat and taking on water when the pumps clogged. Ted managed to get her to a sandbar where she sank in about six feet of water. They got her refloated the same day and back to harbor. Within days, she was welcomed as the first boat to take advantage of the Lady Maryland Foundation's new Save Our Skipjacks program for which she was towed to Baltimore. Students of the Living Classrooms Foundation finished restoration by autumn of that year, having replaced just about everything except the keelson and deck after rot was found in the planking and frames. Owners shared part of the cost of their boats' repairs as part of the program, and Dicky staged a crab feast and other fundraisers, helping to raise an additional $13,000. He was able to put Caleb W. Jones back to work dredging for the 1992-93 season.

That overhaul lasted barely a decade. By 2001, she was eligible for the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum's skipjack restoration program. However, with only $150,000 in Maryland Historical Trust funding committed, along with a little more from other sponsors, there was not enough to repair and restore all thirteen of the vessels on the list of those eligible.

Dicky continued working the boat, keeping her together as best he could. Back when hauls were larger, he recalled a storm that came up with the skipjack loaded with 150 bushels of oysters. By the time he got to harbor, half the haul had washed overboard, and one crew member immediately quit. But by the 2000s, harvests were dwindling and costs increasing. While she could hold 500 bushels, Dicky's largest catch in 1996-97 was only 70 bushels. "I couldn’t make enough money to keep the boat up," said Dicky in a Baltimore Sun quote from 18 January 2009. "It just needed a lot of things."

In 2008, he sold Caleb W. Jones to Michael J. Sullivan of Mount Victoria, Maryland, who subsidized her restoration with an idea to potentially use the boat for youth educational cruises. Sullivan was not a sailor himself, but his great grandfather had worked the water and owned a schooner, Eunice D, although he said he really bought Caleb W. Jones just to save a skipjack.

The new restoration began in 2008 at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum under the supervision of Mike Vlahovich of Coastal Heritage Alliance, which found further funding and corporate sponsorships. This restoration took almost three years. Mike V spent more than a year restoring the topside before hauling her out of the water to rebuild the hull. While known for historically accurate restoration work, Mike V said Caleb's restoration was not quite to original specs. The cabin was once again redesigned, built "larger and plusher" than before for the comfort of passengers. Ninety percent of the wood was new and the mast replaced with one made from a seventy-foot loblolly pine from Pocomoke State Park. And the boat was now powered by twin electric motors run by a bank of solar and regular batteries. The cost? Mike V said he stopped counting at a quarter million dollars but added that Caleb had received more restoration efforts than any other skipjack in Maryland over the previous twenty years.

Around 5,000 hours of paid and volunteer time went into that latest restoration. She was relaunched in 2010 and the following year received the Maryland Historical Trust's 2011 Maryland Preservation Award in the project excellence category.

Since then, under Sullivan's ownership, Caleb W. Jones seems to be leading mostly a well-earned, pampered life of leisure, sailing out of Cobb Island, Maryland, on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. A 25 April 2012 Washington Post article reports her being used for a heritage tourism on-the-water class, training watermen in using tourism as a way to stay working the water in the face of declining harvests. That year she also participated in the skipjack races, with Casey Copsey as captain. But Sullivan decided not to pursue Coast Guard passenger certification and the boat is still listed as a commercial fishing vessel. As of 2023, Sullivan reported her to be in great shape and on a regular maintenance schedule, but little used. He hoped she would be participating in races again, with Casey Copsey once more as captain.

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