Despite mast controversy, skipjack has a new life

Posing with the homemade mast of the Somerset, the crew includes, from left, John Earhart III, Jerry Bloodsworth, Joe Faber, John Earhart Jr., Herbert Jones, Greg White, Levi Jones and Capt. Bob Leath.

The Somerset, one of the iconic skipjacks of Deal Island, Chance and Mount Vernon, has a new owner and a new captain.

The boat had been owned by Capt. Walt Benton of Mount Vernon for decades until his death last June. Benton dredged oysters each fall with a five- or six-man crew.

Upon his death, his son, Walt Jr. decided to sell the skipjack. 

Bob Leath Jr., owner of Fat Boy’s Crabs on Old Ocean City Road in Salisbury, came forward and purchased Benton’s skipjack the first week of November. With the deal came Benton’s fishing boat for $10,000. Leath planned to dredge oysters during the 2019-2020 season.

There was one problem.

Well, two.

First, Leath had never captained a skipjack.

As a teenager he worked aboard the Howard, culling oysters, when it was owned by Stan Daniels, who recently died. He also worked aboard the Ida May with Clyde Webster when he was 16. By the time he was 22, he said, he retired from working on the water.

Second problem was that he didn’t have a crew.

Remarkably Leath was able to “get together” a “six-head” crew, in a few days, which included his grandson, Chase Moore, a nephew, John Earhart III, and Earhart’s father, John Earhart Jr., Herbert Jones and Greg “Biggy” White. “And there’s another guy. Don’t even know his name, somebody I picked up,” Leath admitted with laughter. “I don’t have a clue what his name is.”

By the second week of November, he was on the Chesapeake Bay dredging. Only White and Herbert Jones were seasoned oystermen.

In recent years, with restricted oysters grounds limiting bay bottom for dredging and oyster numbers down,  watermen have struggled to hit their daily catch limits. This season skipjacks can bring in 100 bushels twice a week using pushboat power.

The first of his two days dredging, Leath had problems with the winder that pulls the cable and dredge from the bottom of the bay.

“We only caught 80 bushels that day. The second day we caught 100. And today we have 100 again. I paid for the boat in two days,”

“I really don’t know this boat too well. This is the first time I’ve even been on it, but she is rough. For safety reasons I took the mast out of the skipjack, didn’t want it coming down on top of nobody.”

Benton replaced the mast years ago, putting in a treated “telephone pole,” instead of the traditional, custom made mast. At 70 feet, Leath thought it was too much mast for the skipjack’s present condition.

Levin Jones, foreground, and Greg “Biggy” White are shown at the bow of the skipjack Somerset with the makeshift, but apparently legal, “mast.”

Leath said he called the Department of Natural Resources asking them if it was ok to take the mast out and still dredge. Maryland regulations specify that a skipjack can have no inboard power source and must be able to get underway using sail power only. “When I told them I would be rebuilding the Somerset this summer they said they thought it would be ok to dredge without a mast.”

Yet, Leath soon discovered, there’s many a slip between the cup and the lip.

On the bay dredging, he was served notice he had to have a mast.

The vagueness of DNR rules allows for loopholes. Leath said the rules don’t specify the size of the mast. 

So, in true old fashioned Eastern Shore ingenuity, Leath came up with a solution. He put in a “major substitute” mast — one that’s 4-by-6-inchs by 16-feet tall, with a 4-inch-by-4-inch 10-foot boom.

“I started to put  a big pair of drawers on it for a sail,” he said, laughing so hard his words were barely understandable. 

The mast in a boat, with no internal power source, enables skipjacks to rake in considerably more money than smaller workboats with inboard engines.

Salisbury businessman Bob Leath Jr. is the new owner and captain of the skipjack Somerset.

This year each skipjack is allowed to catch 100 bushels, whereas the workboats can only harvest 10 bushels per day per oyster license, and only two licenses can be used on a boat, usually held by the captain and his mate. That’s 20 bushels compared to 100, and at $40 a bushel that skipjack is pulling in $4,000 a day, to be divided among the crew, as well as a portion for the skipjack.

“I don’t know why I’m doing all this. I’m getting ready to turn 60, right, but this is something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve had to spend most of my life doing something other than working on the water to make a decent living. I left at 22 because I had to get a better job and now I can afford to come back to working on the water. Makes the experience a whole lot nicer. I like working on the water and I like skipjacks.

Already Leath is laying plans for the skipjack’s future.

“This boat is going to be totally different come Labor Day,” the captain said.

There’s good news for the Somerset coming this spring and summer. Real good news.

“I’m going to rebuild her,” the owner said.

“I’m going to put a new bottom on new deck and most of the sides. Replacing pretty much all the boat. Then I’ll rerig the thing and get a new suit of sails. In five months he hopes to have the Somerset ready for the annual Labor Day Skipjack Race.

“I thought I knew how rough she was, and I was right,” he said, laughing.

While others restoring and rebuilding have made equally optimistic predictions on finishing schedules, Leath’s background suggests he’s up to the job and the timing.

He’s already replaced the badly damaged wooden chock, the wooden “bumper” and guide at the stern of the skipjack that allows the nose of the push boat stern to “dock” into to push the dredge boat, Leath replaced it with a stainless steel, homemade unit, that he made and welded. In the heating and air business for 30 years the skipjack entrepreneur is also a millwright. For a decade he built houses, handled rental properties and ran laundromats. He’s a Renaissance man at the wheel of the Somerset. “But dredging this skipjack is really the most fun,” he said.

He expects to be hands-on with the rebuilding of the boat. “My nephew is an excellent boat carpenter. Hey, I come from a family of men who built boats. My grandfather built boats and Isaac Somers, my great-grandfather, built the last bugeye to sail the bay.

“As long as my health holds up I’ll be doing this. But I’m planning on turning this over to me nephew. I’m teaching him right now. He’d never been aboard a skipjack until we started in November. Except for “Biggy” and Herbert, none of the crew were ever on a skipjack. In a week I taught my nephew how to handle a push boat. In one week. If it gets too cold out there my nephew might get the boat early,” he said, laughing.

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