Hilda M. Willing


Updated 23 July 2023:
Hilda M. Willing is privately owned and had been sailing out of Tilghman Island, where she was available for passenger sails and dredging commercially. She was sold in June 2023, with Deal Island as her new home port.

Hilda M. Willing, 21 September 2013

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Skipjack Hilda M. Willing was built in 1905 in Oriole, Maryland. While records do not indicate the name of the builder, there is a report that she was named in memory of the builder's deceased daughter and that the boat cost $3,000 to build. Her original homeport was Crisfield.

Much of what is known about her early years is thanks to research done by Ralph E. Eshelman for her nomination as a National Historic Landmark, a designation she received in 1994. She is one of three skipjacks, with Kathryn and Rebecca T. Ruark, to have been awarded that designation.

While her earliest owner(s) are unknown, by 1926, she was owned by Samuel L. Laird of Oriole, who sold her in 1927 to Thornton Webster of Wenona. By 1929, Roland Bozman of Wenona owned her. He later sold her to R. E. Hoffman, who sold her by 1941 to Addie M. Jones.

In 1943, she was owned by T. Rayner Graham who later abandoned her in Annapolis. This was the fate of many skipjacks during the war years. At some point, Leslie Pope of Oxford bought her for $400, making her homeport Cambridge.

It is after World War II that Robert F. "Pete" Sweitzer enters the story of Hilda M. Willing. Pete's parents were farmers on Tilghman Island; but when Pete came back from naval duty in the war, there was little land on the island to farm, so he went to work on a dredge boat before buying Hilda M. Willing for $1600 from Leslie Pope in 1947. Pete would own her for the next 53 years.

Marine surveyor Fred Hechlinger described Pete as being "very conscientious" about taking care of the skipjack. Pete once challenged Fred, "I'll give you $200 if you find any rot in her." Pete did most of the repairs and maintenance himself. His son Barry remembered watching his father in the family's Tilghman Island yard, stripping the bark off a pine tree for the boat's boom.

By the time of her National Historic Landmark designation, she was described as retaining essentially the same physical appearance as the original boat, although some significant changes had been made over the years. Pete had a reputation for not always doing things the way other watermen did but rather doing things the way he thought best. Fred said that Pete kept everything simple: the pushboat and winders were small, and the boat didn't go fast because he wasn't going very far.

In 1949, Pete was the first captain to install an automobile engine on a skipjack for hauling in the dredges. Most captains before then had replaced their hand-winders with smaller, one-cylinder Hettinger engines that shook the boats greatly as they ran.

He also raised the sides of the boat for better stability, added a longer boom and deeper centerboard, a 2-inch by 8-inch skag to the keel, and took the rake out of the mast. Pete said he "made a dumb boat into a smart one." The historic landmark nomination noted that she was "the only skipjack which can come about without use of the centerboard. She is noted for her ability to dredge in light air and her ability to dredge in heavy wind without her jib—a feat not many skipjacks can follow."

In 1952, her original trailboards were replaced with ones carved by Pete following the original pattern. At the time of the nomination, these were still on the boat. An eagle figurehead that had been under the bowsprit deteriorated and was never replaced. In 1978, hydraulic gear replaced the boat's original Lake steering gear.

Pete rebuilt Hilda M. Willing twice during his years of ownership. One surveyor described the boat as being as clean and well kept as a yacht. In addition to the National Historic Landmark designation, the boat was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985 along with many of the other surviving early skipjacks.

By the 1980s, when the Lady Maryland Foundation's Save Our Skipjacks program began offering restoration to some of the deteriorating vessels of the fleet, Pete felt the program only benefited those who had neglected their boats, letting them deteriorate instead of putting money into necessary repairs and maintenance. When consideration for historic landmark designation began in the early 1990s, of the surviving skipjacks built before 1943, most of the others were in poor condition or no longer working as dredge boats. The ones in better shape were less than fifty years old.

Pete Sweitzer not only kept his own skipjack alive, but he also played a significant role in a rule change that likely kept the whole fleet from early extinction. In the late 1950s, when skipjacks still were not allowed to dredge under power, one season started with a devastating three weeks of calm in November and December, when captains try to make the most money before winter conditions make it harder to get out on the water every day. With no wind to power the sails, the fleet was suffering. Pete was determined that the 1865 law against power dredging had to be changed.

He went to state legislator and fellow Tilghman Islander Randolph Harrison, who once owned a skipjack, and convinced him to support a change allowing dredging under pushboat power two days a week. Pete's fellow captains were divided on the subject. Deal Islanders, who were struggling with depleted oyster beds, were mostly for it. Tilghman Islanders, who feared power dredging would wipe all the oyster beds clean, were mostly against the change.

However, the lobbying worked. In 1966, a change permitted power dredging on Mondays, and a few years later, Tuesdays were added. Captains could now have confidence that they would make at least some money each week. Pete said, "That's the only damn thing that saved dredging. Without that, these dredge boats would have been gone twenty years ago."

Pete finally gave up the boat in 2000, selling it to his son for $30,000. Barry Sweitzer said he bought Hilda M. Willing to keep her in the family. He worked the boat only part time, a couple days a week out of the Magothy River, "not to make money but to keep the heritage alive." She was only at work for one season before he spent the summer of 2001 rebuilding her at Reedville, Virginia, with his father’s help.

By the time they finished, they said the only parts still dating to 1905 were the sheer clamp, anchor, davits and part of the keel. That summer, they replaced the cabin, stern, rudder, bowsprit, king plank, wires, rigging, most of the sides and part of the deck. She was listed as eligible for the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum's skipjack preservation program in 2001, but other boats used up the available funding.

Barry worked Hilda M. Willing for about a decade before oyster harvests got so low in the northern Bay that it was hard to make any money at all with her. In 2005, new sails and wood to replace some rotting boards cost $35,000 for a boat that had originally cost $3,000 to build entirely. He started the 2010 dredging season hauling in a hundred bushels on the first day. The first day out in the 2011 season, he barely got two dozen. In reply to a suggestion when he started thinking about selling the boat that he turn her into a tourist vessel, as has been done with other skipjacks, he said, "It's a work boat, and it needs to go to work."

Barry sold her to David Whitelock and Katarina Ennerfelt in November 2011. They brought her back down the Bay to work out of Deal Island. Surveyor Fred Hechlinger said that Barry had been just as conscientious as his father in his care of the boat, and Hilda M. Willing was said to be in excellent condition at the time of the sale. The boat reportedly had belonged at one time to David's great, great grandfather.

In 2014, David sold her to Wade Murphy III, whose father then owned Skipjack Rebecca T. Ruark, and Hilda M. Willing returned to Tilghman Island for her homeport. As with most of the skipjacks, she was not idle during the off season. Whether taking out sailing parties, participating in the races or planting oysters with Phillips Wharf Environmental Center volunteers, Wadie kept her busy.

But time and toil are hard on a wooden boat. She snapped her mast on the way home from Deal Island in 2021. Wadie wanted to sell Hilda M. Willing and take over Rebecca T. Ruark from his father, but neither of the Murphys was quite ready to give up his boat.

Finally, a drunk driver was the catalyst of a decision when in late 2022, a man ran his pickup truck through a piling and half onto the stern deck of Rebecca, causing significant damage. It was too much for Wade Jr. He gave the boat to his son, and “Lil” Wadie sold Hilda M. Willing to Philip Holland in 2023 to pay for Rebecca's repairs.

Hilda M. Willing went back down the Bay with Holland, who is now working her out of Deal Island. Phil said his dream always was to own one of the original working skipjacks. Now he owns two, having bought Skipjack Lady Katie in 2022.

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