Thomas Clyde

Status

Updated 5 September 2016:
One of the largest remaining skipjacks, Thomas Clyde is privately owned and a working dredge boat.

Thomas Clyde, 21 September, 2013

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Background

The story of Thomas Clyde is a story of families, families with names familiar to those who know the history of skipjacks. Webster. Evans. Abbott. Murphy. The relationships among and within those families have kept this skipjack and her story alive. The credit for much of the tale that follows goes to the great grandson of Thomas Clyde Webster, Andy O'Brien, who shared a narrative passed down through his family with us and allowed its use here.

Thomas Clyde was built in 1911 in Oriole, Maryland. Although it is uncertain who her builder was, William A. Noble and another man named Muir were building skipjacks of this size in Oriole at that time, and it is likely that one or both of them deserve credit. Ringgold Brothers and Nellie L. Byrd, with similar dimensions, were built the same year and may have been sister skipjacks to her.

One of the largest skipjacks still in the fleet, she was built for Noah W. Webster of Deal Island, Maryland, and named after his son, Thomas Clyde Webster. Noah's brother, Capt. Thomas B. Webster—"Capt. Tom"—subsequently bought her, adding her to the fleet of work boats he operated out of Deal Island. Herbie Twigg captained Thomas Clyde for Capt. Tom.

After first Capt. Tom and then Capt. Herbie retired, Thomas Clyde was sold to the Evans family of Smith Island, Maryland. When she changed owners is uncertain, but by 1962, in the Roster of the Famous Skipjack Fleet for a race at Solomons, her owners are listed as R. Evans and A. L. Evans, with Smith Island as her home port.

When the elder Evans died, Thomas Clyde crossed the Chesapeake Bay, sold to Melvin Dunbar of St. Mary’s County. He had her rebuilt by Carl Rice in Reedville, Virginia, in 1965.

As a boy, Charles Abbot Sr. had watched Capt. Herbie bring Thomas Clyde back to port loaded with several hundred bushels of oysters and wanted someday to captain the boat. Finding his opportunity, he negotiated with Dunbar and finally bought the skipjack in 1967, returning her to the Eastern Shore.

The Chesapeake Appreciation Days race roster in 1970 shows Charles Abbott as her captain, with home port Wenona, on Deal Island. Charles Sr. also owned the skipjack Bernice J, 40-feet on deck, but he sailed the much larger Thomas Clyde.

Charles Sr. lost no time in making Thomas Clyde a family affair. He immediately brought his son, Charles Abbott Jr., on board and taught him how to dredge. He also took advantage of every opportunity to have his grandson, Charles Abbott III, on deck to learn the trade.

Even with family helping, though, oyster dredging is tough work and was taking a toll on Charles Sr.'s health. By 1974, doctors told him he had to quit working if he wanted to stay alive. He ignored the advice and continued dredging. "If I couldn’t work, well, I don't think that would be living anyway."

Defying the medical predictions, Charles Sr. still was sailing Thomas Clyde in 1985, when the Deal Island Skipjack Race had some of the highest winds seen for the event up to then. "I knew she could win if there was enough wind," he said, "she's a big boat and she will carry a lot of sail and wind." Taking first place over Somerset and the favored F.C. Lewis Jr. that day, it was both Charles Sr.'s and Thomas Clyde's first win in the race.

It also was Charles Sr.'s last outing on the boat. Before dredging season began, critically ill, he called his son and asked him to take over Thomas Clyde for him. Charles Jr. had no intention at the time of becoming a skipjack captain, but took the boat and his father's crew out on the first day of dredging season.

"We felt it would cheer him to know the Clyde was dredging the bay," wrote Charles Jr. "Oysters were scarce but we had a very good day. We had caught 195 bushels. Jeanne [his wife, Jeanne Webster Abbott] could not wait to call my father at the hospital to report of the day's catch. I am thankful for that day for it brought a lot of happiness to my father."

Charles Sr. died soon after, happy that his son had taken over the boat. Charles Jr. carried on his father's legacy until the winter of 1989, when declining oyster harvests forced him to tie up the boat at Deal Island and return to tonging.

However, he continued to believe Thomas Clyde was meant to sail and be seen by the public, so he still took her to the races at Deal Island and Chesapeake Appreciation Days at Sandy Point, Maryland. The boat's significance to the nation's heritage was recognized in 1985 when she was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

When Charles Jr. finally put her up for sale, he wrote, "The Thomas Clyde is very important to me and my family because of her historical value and her sailing ability and beauty; more important was the love my father had for his boat." He said his father always used to end statements about the boat with the words, "I love this old boat…. It has been my life."

In 1991, another of the great skipjack family names came into her story when Lawrence Murphy bought Thomas Clyde from Charles Jr. for $25,000. He brought her up the Bay and began working her out of Tilghman Island, Maryland. The Murphy family includes Lawrence's cousin Wade Jr., who owns Rebecca T. Ruark, Wade’s late brother Bart Murphy, who owned Nellie L. Byrd, and Wade’s son “Little Wadie,” who owns Hilda M. Willing.

Lawrence had hand- and patent-tonged for oysters and clammed, but had always wanted a dredge boat. He had only owned Thomas Clyde a few weeks, though, when he got a warning of the hazards of dredging under sail. He was working the Choptank River when crewmember Mike Irwin fell overboard while tying in a sail reef on the breezy day.

While it was warmer than usual for December, there still is little time to waste when the water is about 40 degrees and the man overboard is dressed in heavy dredging gear and boots. As the wind carried Thomas Clyde away from Mike, Lawrence radioed Wade Jr., nearby on Rebecca, whose crew only took a minute to drop sails and get the pushboat going.

Meanwhile, Thomas Clyde's crew had thrown a tattered life jacket to Mike, who was able to reach and cling to it. It kept him afloat long enough for Rebecca to get to him and her crew to pull him aboard. They caught up with Lawrence and transferred Mike back to Thomas Clyde, cold and wet, but unharmed. Wadie was as happy as Lawrence at the successful rescue, as Mike had lived with Wadie's family as a youth, working with Wadie crabbing in summer.

Thomas Clyde's National Register listing says that "she has been repaired over the years in true Chesapeake fashion." Lawrence made his own contributions to her repair history when he rebuilt her in 1994, making significant changes to her original design.

The skipjack had been built with an outboard, barn-door-type rudder, requiring the pushboat to be mounted off-center when underway. For better maneuverability, Lawrence completely changed the steering system to allow a spud rudder—under the boat—which doesn't interfere with a center-mounted pushboat.

The steering gear change meant the cabin had to be moved a few feet forward. He also sistered many of the frames and replaced side planks, the mast and boom. In further work in 2014, he replaced Thomas Clyde's stem. While the boat was eligible for some grant funding for hull work under a 2001 skipjack restoration program at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, other boats in worse condition took precedence before the funding ran out.

Most of the owners of these boats think about selling them from time to time, especially when repair bills are multiplying and oysters aren't. At one point, Lawrence considered selling Thomas Clyde, but his young teenage son, Michael, persuaded him not to. The boy wanted it for when he grew up.

He never got his wish. In 2005, the 14-year-old was killed in a tragic accident, unrelated to the skipjack. Lawrence kept the boat.

The following year, he and Thomas Clyde won the Deal Island skipjack race, the boat's first win since Charles Abbott Sr.'s farewell victory. The boat knows when winning means the most.

Thomas Clyde continues to be part of the Murphy family, sailing from Tilghman Island along with Wadie's Rebecca and Little Wadie's Hilda. There is plenty of competition within that family, especially between Wadie and Lawrence, whether it's in the races or just trying to beat one another back to the dock at the end of the day. Lawrence took first place at the Choptank Heritage Skipjack Race in 2009. Wadie came back to win four of the next five years. Family only goes so far.

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