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Helen Virginia

Status

Updated 26 August 2018:
After an extensive rebuild completed in 2014, Helen Virginia went on to win the Deal Island Labor Day Skipjack Race that year with a precedent-setting all-women crew. She sails out of Deal Island, Maryland, as a working dredge boat.

Helen Virginia, 27 September 2014

More Photos (2009-2013)

More Photos (since 2014)

Background

Skipjack Helen Virginia was built in Crisfield, Maryland, around 1948. Some accounts say 1947, some 1949, but the Coast Guard records give the year as 1948. In any case, she was one of the first skipjacks built following World War II, as the oyster market and economic conditions began to favor the skipjack dredge boats once again. In 1985, she was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Helen Virginia was built by Gus Forbush and designed by Carroll Bozman for his own use. Bozman named her after his wife, Helen Virginia Miles. The skipjack had some unusual characteristics. Marine surveyor Fred Hecklinger said Skipjack Helen Virginia was the last dredge boat built with her cabin forward and no cabin aft, a configuration he said she kept until the 1980s. Bozman also had her winders motor put down in the hold rather than on deck. And while most boats are started upside down and then turned over to work on the topside after the hull is completed, Forbush built Helen Virginia as she was to sit in the water, rightside up.

She originally exceeded the allowed 10-ton tonnage limit for licensing to dredge in Tangier Sound, but was reconfigured to bring her within the acceptable carrying capacity. In 1962, in the "Roster of the Famous Skipjack Fleet" for that year's Solomons Island race, she is listed with tonnage at 10, Bozman as owner and Upper Fairmount, Maryland, as her home port. The 1970 Chesapeake Appreciation Days roster shows Capt. Bozman and port Fairmount.

In an oral history interview, Theodore Cephus had vivid memories of Carroll Bozman and Helen Virginia. "He took care of her," Cephus recalled. "She broke loose in Tilghman one night…and he went over there that next morning and looked at her and she's bust a hole in her side as big as that TV. He cried there like somebody'd lost somebody in the family…. I can see him now, with his hip boots on. He carried on the Helen Virginia and had her rebuilt, put a new side into her. He didn't live more than a couple of years after that… Nice fella."

Capt. Bozman died in 1974 and Helen Virginia was bought by Capt. Jack Parkinson. Parkinson's first skipjack was Claud W. Somers, which he bought from Rev. Linwood Benton, Jr., for $2500. He worked Claud W. Somers for several years before selling her to Thompson Wallace. Parkinson also owned Skipjack America, which he bought from Perry White, using other captains to work her.

On December 6, 1976, Capt. Parkinson and Helen Virginia, along with other skipjacks in the working fleet, were caught in a sudden dry squall off Sandy Point. They first were engulfed in a dense fog then were hit with a wind that blew out the fog and almost took the fleet with it. Skipjack F.C. Lewis, Jr., was hit just before Helen Virginia and capsized. Parkinson saw the Lewis' mast disappear and started to turn his boat, but Helen Virginia was hit before Parkinson got her completely turned, and she almost went over.

Pat Vojtech, in her book Chesapeake Bay Skipjacks, quotes Parkinson. "Half of her was in the water. I thought she was gonna turn over because she set there and trembled." But the boat righted herself and they went running with the wind. However, behind them was F.C. Lewis, Jr., in trouble. "I looked back and they were all hangin' on the side of the boat." He went back to help. With the high wind and six-foot seas, Parkinson knew he would only be able to make one pass. "When I come by there, I guess the luck of the Lord, or skill, or whatever it was…I went down her side, stopped her, and everybody crawled aboard my boat at one time. Nobody got drowned." F.C. Lewis, Jr., was raised the same day and other boats were back out dredging within a half hour.

Paying off the boat and tough economic times often meant postponing needed repairs. Capt. Parkinson said, "Every year I put something into her. Still I can't keep her up." At one point, she had news sails from China, and became identifiable by her distinctive red jib, the color reportedly accidental. In 1994, she sank at the dock in Chance, Maryland, and the local fire company raised her. While he insisted, "I won't let her die as long as I live," Parkinson finally gave her up in 1996 and sold her to Ernie and Christine Barlow.

Christine's father was a dredge captain, Charles Todd, Sr., and had his old dredge license. She said they bought the boat mainly for him. Between the purchase price and repairs, which were finished in 1998, Christine said it had cost them $122,000. Still, by 2001, Helen Virginia was listed as one of the 13 skipjacks eligible for restoration through Maryland's Skipjack Restoration Program at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. Eligible, but then the program ran out of money before all the boats on the list could be restored.

When Capt. Todd died in 2006, the Barlows sold Helen Virginia to Robert Wilson. Just before the sale, while she was in the basin in Cambridge, a big power boat, whose owner apparently had been drinking at a local restaurant, came out of the dock, turned around and broke off Helen Virginia's bowsprit. Wilson took her up to Queenstown, Maryland. At that time, he said she needed new sails and he replaced some wood and made changes to the cabin and hatch. His plans were to return her to working condition, do some dredging and perhaps some eco-tourism, but a 2008 news story by Anne McNulty indicated that Wilson was not then dredging commercially. Helen Virginia had sailed over to Annapolis from Queenstown that year, with Shawn Ridgely as captain, to dredge for a few bushels on the last day of oyster season.

By 2010, there were more repairs and the boat was for sale again. New king planks and Samson post had been installed, but she needed decking and rail work, according to the sale notice. She also had hull damage from ice. Surveyor Fred Hecklinger described her then as badly hogged, with her longhead cracked right through the trailboard.

Helen Virginia spent a couple years up on land in Cambridge before she finally was bought by Stony Whitelock, Katarina Ennerfelt, Richard Long and Frank Antes. According to Stoney, "I'll tell you the truth, I asked my girlfriend [now his wife], Katarina Ennerfelt, 'What do you want me to get you for Valentine's Day, honey?' and she said, 'The Helen Virginia.' So I went up there and got 'er. She loves these old boats." So, of course, does Stoney, who seems to collect them like barnacles. "We've got to save them, it's our legacy…. The Helen Virginia was goin' to end up being burned."

By August 2013, Katarina had her skipjack. They stuck enough plywood to the boat’s sides to tow her down to Deal Island, and then put her up on land for restoration.

While preparing for the 2013 Deal Island race, during which Katarina was captain on Hilda M. Willing, they began joking that when Helen Virginia was restored, they would sail her with an all-female crew. The idea took on a life of its own. Until about five weeks before the 2014 race, it looked like the boat would not be ready. But when it became apparent that the boat might just make it in time, Katarina put together a female crew and started training at the dock and on the water on other skipjacks until her own boat was back in the water and rigged.

Helen Virginia has been a regular participant in the skipjack races and has some wins to her name. In 1971, she won the Deal Island race with Carroll Bozman, Jack Parkinson won one of the Sandy Point races with her, and in 2004, Ernie Barlow and Helen Virginia won the Choptank Heritage Skipjack Race in Cambridge.

In 1960, when the first Deal Island Skipjack Race was held, superstition held that having women on skipjacks was bad luck. Capt. Stanford White, Jr., who won the race ten times with skipjack F.C. Lewis, Jr., would not even let women family members aboard.

However, only good luck was with the ladies in 2014. Not only were both Helen Virginia and the crew ready in time, but the women outsailed the rest of the fleet and won the race. The historic winning crew consisted of Capt. Katarina Ennerfelt, Melissa Bailey, April Benton, Josie Bailey Brown, Eileen Cross, Carrie Webster Day, Sarah Gleason, April Hall, and Elizabeth Weiglin.

By 2016, Stoney was ready to focus on other skipjacks, notably Minnie V, and Helen Virginia was sold to Capt. Art Benton, who works her out of Deal Island in the winter and took her down to Crisfield for tourism and heritage trips during the summer months of 2017.

Helen Virginia may not be one of the earliest-built skipjacks still sailing, but she still is a survivor, having had a succession of owners who have cared enough about her to rescue her at times from near death and keep her going. Let's hope the good luck stays with this winning lady.

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