Oyster Catcher (Connie Francis)

Status

Updated 13 January 2017:
The skipjack Connie Francis was converted into a cruising motor vessel in the 1990s and rechristened Oyster Catcher, barely recognizable as once being a skipjack. She was acquired by a couple in Gloucester Point, Virginia, in 2015. They converted her into a buyboat and are fitting her with hydraulics so she can go back to work as a dredge boat.

Oyster Catcher
Oyster Catcher (former Connie Francis), December 2016
Photo courtesy of Julie Ann Hedricks

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Background

Francis Goddard built his first boat at age eleven in 1943 and his first skipjack in 1979. For much of the time in between, he lived a double life as boatbuilder by day and oyster pirate by night, experience that shaped the skipjacks he ultimately built.

While he was earning his public reputation as master boatbuilder in Piney Point, Maryland, Goddard was illegally power dredging for oysters in the Potomac River from the 1940s until 1975, taking a break for a few years in the 1960s. "They started shooting at us in the sixties," he recalled, as quoted in Pat Vojtech's book, Chesapeake Bay Skipjacks, noting that he narrowly dodged one bullet by only about a foot.

In the mid-1970s, though, Goddard gave up illegal dredging and decided to try the legal kind. He built his first skipjack, Dee of St. Mary's, for his friend Jackie Russell, but health problems forced a six-month time off before he could begin his second skipjack, Connie Francis, for himself.

The delay gave him time to think about the details of the design. He used his insight into the declining dredging profitability of the time to design a boat that could be used for multiple purposes. However, even he probably did not expect the transformation that he would later make in the vessel.

Connie Francis under construction
Connie Francis, under construction,
Calvert Marine Museum newsletter 1983.
Click on image to enlarge.
Note Francis Goddard standing center.

Like the Dee, Connie Francis was and is a big boat. Built not just for winter dredging, Goddard expected to use her to carry seed oysters in summer months and potentially also do passenger charters. With that in mind, he designed her about two feet wider in the beam than Dee and with a deeper draft. Connie Francis could carry 1500 bushels or more of seed oysters. "She sails wonderful," said Goddard, "but she comes around slow."

By the time he got to building Connie Francis, the price of lumber was rising more than Goddard had anticipated. He and his son, Wayne, found a tract of land with virgin pine in St. Marys County, made a deal with the owner, and cut trees themselves. They ferried the timber to Piney Point, where they built the boat in Goddard's back yard. They built the bottom upside down, then turned it over to finish.

For the mast, they cut an 80-foot longleaf pine. The 45-foot keel came from a Douglas fir trucked in from Oregon, cut to a massive 16 inches square.

Marine surveyor Fred Hecklinger remembers Connie Francis as "a gorgeous boat," noting that her yawl boat was hauled up and stowed fore and aft, unlike most skipjacks that carry their pushboats sideways across the stern.

The boat took three years to build, costing Goddard $160,000. She was finished in 1984 and Goddard had one good year of dredging with her before the oyster diseases spread up the Chesapeake Bay and harvests crashed.

By 1994, Connie Francis was up for sale. Robert Garvey and his wife's grandfather, Myron Hokin, were looking for a wooden workboat that they could turn into a river cruiser. Hokin was owner and founder of the Bitter End Yacht Club in the British Virgin Islands. Garvey's wife, Dana Hokin, is still the yacht club's managing director and CEO.

Garvey read that Goddard's buyboat, Poppa Francis, and skipjack Connie Francis, owned by Wayne, were both for sale. Garvey and Hokin negotiated for the buyboat and worked with Goddard on a design for the new passenger cabin before a title problem cropped up and Goddard suggested contacting Wayne to buy the skipjack instead.

They reworked the cabin drawings to fit the skipjack, but another title glitch held up the conversion process for a year. The delay allowed all the plans for the cabins, bunks and dining salon to be finalized, with the help of marine surveyor/engineer George Zahn and naval architect Whitey Laurier. The Goddards did the conversion work.

According to Garvey, "Wayne and Francis built a beautiful cabin. They worked like artists, often making the woodwork more detailed than I expected. The handrail on the main deck is a good example. I expected an oak rail with steel stanchions, but they built a work of art. It has several courses of oak, copper colored stanchions and hammered brass fasteners."

The conversion included installation of twin John Deere 130-horsepower diesel engines. Thousands of pounds of counterweight in the hull offset the added weight and wind surface of the two-story cabin. A 40-foot mast could fly a 350-square-foot steadying sail.

Myron Hokin died before the conversion was finished, but Garvey and his wife decided to keep on with the project. They took the converted skipjack to boatbuilder and master craftsman Clinton Midgett of Virginia for the interior finishing touches, including designing and building furniture and finalizing the trunk cabin layout.

Eight years after Hokin and Garvey began their search for a boat and five years after the conversion began, Connie Francis was officially rechristened "Oyster Catcher" on October 5, 2000, in Annapolis, and went to work as a Coast Guard certified passenger vessel. She could take up to ten guests in three staterooms for overnight charters or up to 49 day-trip passengers. She specialized in Civil War history cruises and spent time working the Intracoastal Waterway and barrier islands, under ownership of Garvey's Century Cruising LLC.

Since her conversion, Oyster Catcher has been serviced on the Jordan Marine railway at Gloucester Point, Virginia, so the marina owners, Charles Duke II and Julie Ann Hedrick, were well familiar with the boat. But in recent years, there had been little maintenance done on Oyster Catcher, and she had been sitting idle at the marina. Duke and Hedrick approached the owners and in December 2015 bought the boat.

According to Julie, while the hull was in excellent condition—"tight as a drum"—the top cabin was rotting and past saving. Instead of just dismantling her, they decided to reconfigure Oyster Catcher to a buyboat.

They built a rounded, buyboat-type wheelhouse at the stern, leaving the forward deck open for oysters. The restoration was completed in late 2016, and as of January 2017, she was being fitted with hydraulics to go back to work as a dredge boat.

So the "gorgeous" Connie Francis has undergone yet another makeover, but her name remains Oyster Catcher. "Connie Francis" may have to wait for her next conversion.

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