Somerset

Status

Updated 12 August 2016:
Somerset is privately owned as sails as a commercial dredging vessel out of Deal Island, Maryland. She regularly participates in the Deal Island Labor Day Skipjack Race.

Somerset, 2 September 2013

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Background

Somerset began her working life as one of a Deal Island fleet owned by Elbert Gladden Sr. While Gladden's usual method of skipjack acquisition was to carry around enough cash to purchase boats on the spot as their owners decided to part with them, in 1949 he commissioned C. H. Rice of Reedville, Virginia, to build him a new skipjack. Rice built City of Crisfield that same year and Caleb W. Jones a few years later.

Gladden ended up owning a dozen dredge boats in his lifetime, as many as nine at once. In addition to Somerset, he once owned Mamie A. Mister, and his last skipjack was Ida May.

Especially in the early years, fleet-owned boats often didn't fare as well as those whose owners had a larger portion of their livelihood at stake in the only skipjack they had. When oyster harvests declined, fleet owners frequently reduced the number of their active vessels, pushing the idled ones up into a marsh to mothball them for a year or two until harvests rebounded. Unfortunately, a couple years in a marsh creates ideal conditions for rot in a wooden boat. Many of those skipjacks never returned to work and were lost forever.

Ultimately, though, it came down to the individual owners—whether of one or a dozen or more boats—and whether they had the time, money and sometimes just plain luck that ended up keeping many of the remaining skipjacks alive.

Somerset is one of the survivors, but like many of the boats, the demise of another skipjack helped outfit her. Somerset inherited her first dredging equipment from Hattie Lloyd, another Gladden boat, when the older skipjack was pushed up into the mud to die.

By 1960, Somerset had been sold out of Gladden's fleet and into the Evans family of Smith Island. She competed that year in the first of the Deal Island Annual Races, under Capt. Elmer F. Evans. She is listed in the 1962 "Roster of the Famous Skipjack Fleet" for a race at Solomons, with tonnage at 9 (see tonnage explanation) and Evans as owner. He still is listed as her owner in 1970 for that year's Chesapeake Appreciation Days.

She had changed hands again by the mid-1970s, by which time Somerset was back at Deal Island and owned by Capt. Clifford Parkinson, dredged by his uncles, Donald and Johnny "Boy" Parkinson.

Capt. Walton Benton had dredged for a few years with his father, Capt. Norman Benton, on Fannie L. Daugherty (now owned by Capt. Walton's brother Capt. Delmas Benton) and a couple more years with another brother, Capt. Clifton Benton, on Susan May. Capt. Walton wanted to buy Ida May from Gladden and had the $15,000 asking price in hand when Gladden decided he didn't want to part with the boat after all.

That's when Somerset caught Benton's eye. It was 1977, and she was on a railway at Whitehaven in Wicomico County, Maryland. Parkinson happened to be asking a convenient $15,000 for the boat, but she needed work and Capt. Walton offered $10,000 to have some money left for the repairs. He still owns her today.

Hattie Lloyd's dredging gear was not the only hand-me-down that came to Somerset. When Capt. Walton bought her, she needed a new mast, among other repairs. Capt. Jesse Thomas had a telephone pole that was meant to be a mast for his skipjack Sea Gull. It was too short for Thomas' boat but just right for the somewhat smaller Somerset. Somerset also later got a yawl boat that had been built for Sea Gull by Roger Hoffman, but was sold to Capt. Walton when Thomas sold Sea Gull.

Somerset even benefited from a train wreck. A load of motors was involved in the wreck and couldn't be used in the cars for which they were intended. Jack Willing at Scott's Cove Marina got six of them. Two went to Somerset, one for the yawl boat and one as a deck motor to haul the dredges.

Still, with the need for new sails and replacing the centerboard three times, the first few years of owning Somerset used up a lot more than the $5,000 Capt. Walton had kept for repairs. As a hard-working dredge boat, the years continued to take their toll on her.

In January of 1991, she sank in the Magothy River while tied up overnight. She was raised and finished the rest of the dredging season. By 2001, she had made the list of most endangered skipjacks, compiled for the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum's skipjack restoration project, and was among the boats that received repairs under that program before its funds ran out.

Somerset continues to work the oyster beds out of Deal Island and still participates in the skipjack races there. She never has won, but has come in second or third a number of times.

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