Claud W. Somers

Status

Updated 14 January 2022:
Claud W. Somers is a Coast Guard inspected passenger vessel, owned by the Reedville Fishermen's Museum in Reedville, Virginia. She sails for educational and tourism purposes and welcomes new crew volunteers.

Claud W. Somers, 6 March 2009

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Background

[Thanks to Capt. Gerhard Straub and the Reedville Fishermen's Museum for providing much of the following from the Museum's training manual.]

Skipjack Claud W. Somers and Capt. Gerhard Straub
Claud W. Somers and Capt. Gerhard Straub
Photo courtesy of Reedville Fishermen's Museum

In 1911, Edward Thomas Somers commissioned Tom Young to build three skipjacks at Young's Creek near the settlement known as Clam, Virginia, just north of Onancock. Somers was a merchant trader who owned a fleet of boats used to haul goods from the Caribbean north to Baltimore. This first skipjack was named Claud W. Somers after Edward's son, Claude Williams Somers. While the vessel's namesake spelled his name "Claude," it's thought that when the boat was initially registered, the "e" was inadvertently dropped, and she's been "Claud W. Somers" ever since.

She measured 42.6 feet on deck, 14 feet on the beam and "sited" a crew of four. Though Young was just thirty-five, he had been building boats for twenty years and had a reputation for fine craftsmanship. Unique to Chesapeake Bay, skipjacks are beamy, sturdy boats with a hard chine, low freeboard and a centerboard that gives the hull a shallow draft. Oak hoops carry a leg-o-mutton main sail up the single, noticeably raked mast, and a club-footed jib is self-tending. This design, refined by the 1890s, enabled a small crew to work the waters more easily while having the enormous sail power needed to pull two oyster dredge rigs over the bottom. Rather than lofting or drafting blueprints, "rack-of-eye" was the design mode skipjack builders used, and Tom Young had a good eye for a beautiful boat.

In a book about her grandfather's boats, Tom Young's Skipjacks, (Evans-Coates Printing, Inc., Delmar, DE, 1995) Mrs. Effie Young Lewis wrote, "At the time [1904], little notice was given to the fact that the design was unique from skipjacks of the day. All of Tom Young's skipjacks originally had fore and aft planking on the stern portion of the bottom, a technique not generally employed by most builders."

With diminishing oyster harvests, Maryland changed its laws to limit dredging under power, while Virginia continued to allow power boats to work the oyster bars. Consequently, many of the Virginia skipjacks ended up being sold to Maryland captains. Claud W. Somers went to Capt. Curwin Evans of Ewell, MD, in 1925.

Young built fast skipjacks. In September 1931, Claud W. Somers, with Captain Evans at the helm, won the annual skipjack race sponsored by the Baltimore Sun. Depression and war suspended the races after that until the 1960s, when the then-55-year-old Somers again won the first of the resumed annual contests at Deal Island in 1966 under Capt. Linwood Benton.

During her almost 90 years in private hands, Claud W. Somers would change owners repeatedly as individual fortunes changed. At various times, her owners and captains included Loudy Horner III, John Tawes Tyler, Raymond Evans Ralph Gladden, Rev. Linwood Benton, Jr., Jack Parkinson, Thompson Wallace, Darryl Larrimore and Garey Lambert. Like many hard-working skipjacks, she survived her share of close calls and one real tragedy.

The tragedy struck in March 1977 when a fearsome storm caught the skipjack and her crew on the way back to her home port of Wenona, MD. The owner and captain, Thompson Wallace, developed engine problems in the pushboat. While black skipjack captains were once numerous on the Bay, Wallace was one of only two who still skippered these vessels at that time. Wallace had bought the boat, his first skipjack, the year before from Jack Parkinson. That workday in March was a family affair. The crew included Wallace's son, brother, nephew and wife's cousin, along with another unrelated crew member.

A passing workboat captained by Buddy Jones offered first a spare battery then a tow. With no heavy towing hawsers available, the light lines they had kept breaking and the strain and storm began taking their toll on Jones' boat. He encouraged Wallace to abandon the skipjack, offering to take the crew on board and back to port, but Wallace and the crew chose to stay with the boat. With the storm having intensified into 75-mph winds and 15-foot seas, Jones barely made it back safely himself. Claud W. Somers sank in fifteen feet of water in Hooper Strait. Wallace and the other crew members perished. Within two days, Somers had been raised, was repaired at Tilghman Island and quickly returned to oystering.

D. K. Bond bought the boat soon after. Then she went to Darryl Larrimore in 1979. Larrimore described her as being in rough shape, but with a good set of sails. He nailed her back together and put her to work dredging once more, considering her too small to be worth rebuilding. Still, she caught her share of oysters. Darryl's uncle, Capt. Stanley Larrimore recalled seeing Claud W. Somers return to port one day with a full load. "It was only 150 bushels on deck," he said, "but since the skipjack was so small, it looked like she had a million bushels."

Darryl had his own close call with the boat. Hit by a nor'wester in the Choptank River with a hundred bushels on board, she barely managed to make it safely back to port. Fortune smiled on him doubly that day, as the seas washing over the decks thoroughly rinsed the oysters, which had been dredged from a muddy bed, and earned him an extra $2 per bushel when sold.

In 1983, Alfred Garey Lambert of Towson, MD, purchased Somers for $16,000 and labored over the next 17 years working weekends rebuilding and restoring the vessel. Lambert wanted the historic skipjack to go to a museum at his death. After he died in 1999, his childred, Caroline Lambert Benson and Robert Lambert, selected the Reedville Fishermen's Museum as the new steward of Somers. In May 2000, they donated the vessel as a memorial to honor their father and his dedication to the preservation of Somers.

Restoration:
During the summer of 2000, volunteers began research on skipjack construction, started fund raising and searched for talent and a place to work on the boat. In November, Somers was towed to Cockrell's Marine Railway on the Little Wicomico River. She had no mast, boom, deckhouses or bowsprit. The deck was in poor shape and the only thing showing above the deck line other than a protective awning rigged by RFM volunteers was the steering gear. Somers was hauled and placed in a shed where work could proceed during the winter.

Bottom planks were removed and numbered so they could be replaced later. Many side planks were replaced, and the deteriorated keelson and horn timber were removed and scrapped. All new wood was cut and shaped from local pine trees using Cockrell's sawmill. A new keelson and horn timber were installed, the bottom replaced and a new oak mast step was installed. Each deck beam was replaced, and a new bowsprit was cut, shaped and installed. After getting a protective coat of paint, the boat was towed back to Reedville, where it was berthed in Wendell Haynie's boathouse in the spring of 2001.

During the late spring and summer, a new deck was laid. Two-inch wide strips were cut from pine planks and installed on their sides to make the deck two inches thick. Each strip was clamped into place, caulked and fastened. With the deck complete, volunteers towed Somers to the dock behind the museum for construction of the cabins and rails and installation of electrical and bilge pump systems.

In October 2001, the boat was returned to Cockrell's to receive the mast and boom, which volunteers had labored since late summer to shape from donated Norwegian spruce logs. With the mast and boom in place on a Tuesday, Somers was towed back to RFM where volunteers worked all day Wednesday and most of Thursday tuning the rigging and bending on the sails. Late Thursday afternoon, the boat was towed into the Great Wicomico, and for several hours, Claud W. Somers was under sail for the first time in 18 years. After returning to RFM for more tuning and last-minute repairs, she was readied for her first passage in her new role as a historic skipjack. There was no wind the following day, so she was towed down Chesapeake Bay and up the Rappahannock River to the Corrotoman River, where she would race in the Yankee Point "Turkey Shoot Regatta" on Saturday and Sunday. Despite ancient, well-worn sails and a green crew, Claud W. Somers showed she still had the qualities Tom Young had built into her hull. Unbelievably, she won on both days, handily defeating the skipjack Virginia W.

Her adventuresome story does not end there, though, and shows that even a museum vessel can offer excitement and danger. At the Yankee Point Turkey Shoot Regatta in October 2004, a sudden gust of wind caught her, and she capsized in 28 feet of water on the Rappahannock. This time the incident ended happily, with her eight crew members rescued within minutes by nearby boats. She was towed into shallow water and raised two weeks later.

The restoration that brought Claud W. Somers back to life under sail was spearheaded by long-time museum supporter Wendell Haynie, with able support from Museum President Aubrey Henry and Museum Director Angus Murdoch. In addition to the three generations of Cockrells and Taylor Dawson, some 30-35 volunteers spent many hundreds of hours working on the boat. Volunteers still dedicate many hours each week maintaining and sailing the boat.

Incident to the restoration, a number of changes were made to Claud W. Somers' original design. The old dredging machinery was removed, 39½-inch steel handrails were added around the deck, a collision bulkhead was built forward, and three watertight compartments were created below to enhance watertight integrity. Most of these changes are necessary to comply with Coast Guard regulations applicable to passenger-carrying vessels.

Skipjack Claud W. Somers
Skipjack Claud W. Somers
Photo courtesy of Reedville Fishermen's Museum

Most of the wood used in restoration was local pine, cut at Cockrell's and treated at Wood Preservers in Warsaw. Exceptions are the oak around the mast step, and the mast and boom, which are of Norwegian Spruce donated by the Forestry Department, State University of New York (Syracuse). The hatch covers are of cherry.

Operations:
In her oyster dredging days, Claud W. Somers carried a winch (manual or powered) just forward of the main cabin, and there were vertical and horizontal rollers where the entry gates are now. This equipment controlled the oyster dredges that were dragged along the bottom. When the dredges were hauled up, the oysters were dumped on deck and sorted by hand. The keepers were piled on deck, not stowed below, because the below-deck space was used as living accommodations, not a cargo hold. The oysters were off-loaded onto buyboats periodically, and skipjacks sometimes remained on the Bay for several days at a time. The boat was fitted with a galley stove, and the crew included a cook. They ate and slept below. Without the watertight bulkheads, more space was accessible forward from the main cabin. When they were not employed in dredging oysters, skipjacks sometimes carried other freight such as fruit or lumber between various ports on the Bay.

The boat has no engine but carries a yawl boat or pusher for auxiliary power. The original pushboat was built by volunteers in 2002 and carried a Westerbeke 4-107 diesel (about 40 hp). A new pushboat was constructed by the museum's Boat Shop in 2019. It is equipped with a Beta Marine 43-hp diesel.

Reedville Fishermen's Museum has restored Claud W. Somers to high standards and will operate the vessel to advance appreciation of maritime history themes, to serve as a goodwill ambassador representing the museum at various waterfront festivals, and to attract attention to the importance of restoring and maintaining the health of Chesapeake Bay and its living resources.

[Additional sources: Tom Young's Skipjacks, Chesapeake Bay Skipjacks by Pat Vojtech, National Register of Historic Places, Deal Island Skipjack Race programs, Chesapeake Bay Magazine.]

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