Brice Stump: Restored Somerset is back in business

Bob Fitzgerald, who’s working to rebuild the City of Crisfield, watches as Justin Messick, center, and Sean Messick apply fiberglass to the bow of the Somerset that’s being rebuilt at Scott’s Cove Marina in Chance.

When Salisbury businessman Bobby Leath Jr. decided a year ago to rebuild the Somerset, even he didn’t know it meant that more than 80 percent of the skipjack would be replaced.

Leath, owner of Fat Boys Crabs, was up to the task.

Then again, few knew in November 2019 that Leath would buy the iconic oyster boat and be on the Chesapeake dredging oyster a week later.

Leath, who never captained his own skipjack before, was the new captain.

He put together a six-man crew — four of whom were not seasoned oystermen and none of the four had even been on a skipjack.

Then the incredible happened.

No one, including Leath, knew that in just two days pulling dredges from the bay bottom, he would catch enough oysters, at $40 a bushel, to pay the $10,000 cost of the boat (which, as part of the deal, came with a much smaller fishing boat).

Built in 1949, the Somerset has always called Deal Island home and is full of miracles.

When Leath decided to rebuild the boat that was owned and captained for many years by the late Walton Benton of Mount Vernon, who died in 2019, Leath knew he wanted quality lumber for the job.

In a coincidence that borders the unbelievable, just what he needed was in his back yard.

“I had some old growth pine and white oak trees on my farm and we set the mill up in the field, cut the trees and milled them out on the spot, more than a year ago, just to build this boat,” Leath said.

Not far from where the skipjack sat at Scott’s Cove Marina in Chance, an industrial-strength planner was set up and the lumber was custom planed, one board at a time.

If the incredible, the coincidental and the miracles weren’t enough blessings for the first-time skipjack captain and owner, there were still more inexplicable lucky things in the stars for him.

For months it was a crew of four or five working on the boat. All of the deck, sides and bottom were removed as well and replaced.

How could it be that three house carpenters, and a handyman, could turn rough lumber into a finished skipjack, the job so perfect it would elicit words of praise from seasoned watermen and carpenters?

Important direction

House carpenters Tim Merritt and Jason Ramsey relied on Leath for direction.

Merritt, who had worked for Leath in house construction in the past, learned on the shipwright job.

“But all are workin’ off my plans,” Leath said.

Also helping are seasoned oysterman Herbert Jones and carpenter John Earhart Jr.

“Johnny Erhart used to be my bother-in-law. Married to my sister about 40 years ago. He’s been my friend all these years,” Leath explained.

Somerset owner and captain Bobby Leath Jr., in front, advised his crew on their work to rebuild the Somerset. From left, Jason Ramsay, Tim Merritt, Boyd “Ducky” Wallace, John Earhart Jr., Kevin Laird and Herbert Jones.

Late in the rebuilding process Leath got Tom Daniels and his son, Aaron, involved. The two have years of experience repairing skipjacks.

The elder Daniels has considerable experience in rebuilding them.

Their first task was to reshape, refinish and reduce the height of the 70-foot mast that was 16-inches at the base.

The pair took 3 feet off the top and used electric planners and hand tools to taper and shape the mast — as it should have been.

“That’s a hunk of wood there, man,” Leath said. “Walt didn’t work ‘er on bad days, but he would have wrung ‘er in two with that thing on there.”

It was so tall, so heavy and the wood surrounding it so weak, Leath feared it would have to crash to the deck. “It was just too much mast for this boat,” he said.

Benton had installed the mast years ago, and was originally a pressure treated “telephone pole.”

In addition to the mast, the boom had to be reworked and repaired.

Then the Daniels team worked on rebuilding parts of the deck and hull where the mast would sit. 

‘Incredible’ work

Next, they rebuilt the rudder.

Now they are aboard the boat in Messick’s shop working on installing railing details.

By the time the rudder was finished in late September, the Somerset was transformed. All of the deck, sides and bottom were removed as well as the infrastructure that joins all the elements together.

The replaced new cabin top needed to be redefined, made lower so Capt. Leath can watch the crew and winders better as they dredged.

In less than six months a new skipjack was erected in and under the shadow of the original Somerset.

It was, said former industrial arts teacher Bob Fitzgerald,  “An incredible piece of work.”

Fitzgerald and Harold “Stoney” Whitelock are still finishing their extensive repairs to the skipjack Anna McGarvey which they started to rebuild in January 2019.

For weeks over the winter, just two men, Fitzgerald 82, and Whitelock 71, made the impossible happen.

No funds, grants or loans. Out of pocket cash paid for the supplies.

Leath’s team, with considerable shared positive chemistry, transformed piles of lumber into what Fitzgerald called “a work of art.”

The Somerset is officially launched last month.

“People been tellin’ me we’re doin’ a good job. The crews acts like the like workin’ on this boat,” Leath said.

Kevin Laird, 59, of Oriole has always joined the team as “chief sander.”

It was an opportunity it didn’t want to miss.

“My father helped a little bit with skipjacks, but my, and grandfather, Clifford Laird and great-grandfather, Thomas Laird, helped build skipjacks right at the mouth of that gut in Oriole. I was told my grandfather was the youngest captain, when he was 16, that’s what I’ve been told, that sailed a bugeye from here to Baltimore and back.

“Me and Bobby, we’re related and skipjack building is all through the family. His grandmother, and my grandfather, were brothers and sisters. I told Bobby, ‘I want to help you work on this boat to say I’m the fourth generation to work on a skipjack.’”

A few weeks ago, the skipjack was moved into the shop of Sean L. Messick Marine at Scott’s Cove Marina, and the bottom was — in almost record turn-around time —  fiberglassed to the waterline to move it another few days closer to November first, the opening day of the skipjack dredging season.

Common sense

As the deadline draws near, so many right things seem to be falling in place for Leath.

“I don’t have any background experience in any boat building, It’s just common sense. I used to build houses — Eastern Builders — and that was common sense stuff.

“My grandfather, Hoyt Somers, used to build boats. Didn’t go to school, couldn’t even write his name. His father, Isaac Somerset, of Oriole, built the last bugeye that was on the bay,” he said.

 “I quit school the day I turned 16 to go to work as a painter. Before my 17th birthday I was shaft tonging in the Bay.

“By the time I was 17, I bought a boat. I quit working on the water when I was 22 ‘cause I couldn’t make much money. I was into the heating and air business for almost 40 years, and the laundromat business, too,” he said with laughter.

Working with the Somerset is a pleasure.

“Most people wouldn’t have believed it, that I’d buy a skipjack at 60 years old. And people wouldn’t have believed I’d catch any oysters, I was catchin’ 100 bushels a day, and then they wouldn’t believe we could rebuild the boat. Now we’ve just about got ’er done.”

At one point, Leath said he had 11 people actively working on some aspect of the Somerset.

Together, they have replaced at least 80 percent of the boat. “It was a hefty payroll each week,” he said.

Pricy undertaking

From scratch or rebuilding it by working from existing patterns, the cost of the project has run into the tens of thousands of dollars.

“Hey, I knew it was goin’ to be expensive.”

Fortunately he had the lumber. Yet it wasn’t “free.”

Leath said the milling bill was about $10,000.

Almost daily, someone rides by to take a look at the “new and improved” skipjack.

“She’s still the Somerset, still the same boat we just rebuilt ‘er and brought ‘er lines back, too,” Leath said.

Improving the lines meant replacing the deck with a slight roundness to keep water from laying on the deck.

Leath said he believes that starting from scratch would have been faster and more cost efficient. “If we started from scratch we wouldn’t have to tear nothin’ apart. I wouldn’t be intimidated by starting from nothin’. I guess I wasn’t smart enough to know I couldn’t to somethin’,” he said, laughing. “I just got common sense, that’s all.”

“That’s right,” said Eldon Willing, co-owner of Scott’s Cove Marina. “People all over the Chesapeake Bay have built and are building boats using common sense. — and God-given talent. You got to have both to do anything good.”

Willing, respected for his extensive knowledge of skipjack construction, is relied upon by Leath, and other skipjack owners, for advice on construction details.

“There’s no doubt they’ve done a good job rebuilding her, and really fast,” he said.

Dredge sailing

The last “I can’t believe this” factor is Leaths’ plans to “sail dredge” the Somerset.

In a day when almost all working skipjacks dredge just two days a week with push-boat power, Leath is going to grab two additional days working on the bay by taking advantage of the state’s provision that skipjacks can also dredge using sail power.

“I’m goin’ to re-rig the whole thing and get a new suit of sails. I want to dredge with sails,” he said. “When I was in my 20s, I liked doin’ that. Was good at it.”

When he was also in his 20s, he was captain of the Ida May.

“I was on it for one year, and that was my only captain experience,” he said.

For one winter he, and Art Benton, now owner of the Helen Virginia, dredged aboard the Somerset with Benton at the wheel.

Getting a crew together is tough enough for most captains, but getting a crew to work with sail is especially tough, as hardly any oysterman working today have experience in using sails.

Leath said he will teach them fast enough. Some crews in the past said that the considerable work required to dredge with sails offsets the financial gains for them because the daily take is expected to be down.

Leath is confident and optimistic that the catch cash will win over skeptics.

“The crew won’t be complaining using sail ‘cause we’re goin’ to be catchin’ our limit doin’ that too. We’re goin’ to have a good boat under us now,” he said.

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