She’s Gordon Gladden’s devotion: The Ida May

The skipjack Ida May. (Brice Stump Photo.)

Water trickled from the seam between the bottom planks and the keel of the skipjack Ida May. Owner Gordon Gladden, 79, of Salisbury, hammered the sharp chisel into the wood, forcing out pieces of caulking that had been applied last year to make a watertight seam.

But the seam failed in several places allowing water, and a lot of it, to inch its way up the hold when the skipjack was put overboard just a week earlier.

The dripping water ate into the sand as it dripped into a growing puddle, soaking Gladden’s pants cuff and wetting the side of his leg.

With just days to go before the annual Labor Day Skipjack Race off Deal Island, Gladden was dedicated to the task at hand.

Every summer, since the death of his father, Elbert Gladden, in 1992, Gordon and his brother Elbert, both of Salisbury, have made repairs to the skipjack. Now Gladden is working alone. His brother is weeks away from turning 85 and can no longer work on the Ida May.

The Ida May and the eight or so vintage skipjacks are the precious few survivors of a fleet that once numbered in the hundreds.

The reality of today is far removed from the days of old, when there were dozens of skipjacks working the bay under sail. Even Gladden’s father owned 12, for which he hired seasoned captains to dredge oysters under sail.

It’s been 20 years since skipjacks routinely used sail power.

“He also owned a little bugeye, the Clarence and Eva, that blew up in the Chance-Deal Island harbor,” Gladden recalled.

“The captain and the cook went down one morning and were going to have breakfast before they went out dredging. They lit the propane stove and leaking propane had escaped into the hold, and she blew up into a thousand pieces.

“Fortunately the explosion was away from them, which protected them,” he said. “One of them broke his leg and that was the worst thing that happened to them. Daddy had been offered a fairly large amount of money to buy it from a man in Annapolis, and he turned him down. So he got nothing out of that deal.”

The Ida May was the last skipjack his late father owned among his fleet. “That’s why my brother and I decided to rebuild her, and we spent five and a half years doing so and launched her July 30, 2011. Tommy Daniels, and his brother, Earl, had rebuilt her years earlier in our father’s back yard,” Gladden said.

 “It wasn’t a major rebuild, just rotten wood and regular repairs. My father was wheeled out there every day and he sat in his wheelchair and watched them work on her. It was a great summer for him.” The elder Gladden died in 1992 at 84.

“He had boats in Rock Hall, Tilghman Island, Annapolis and here, but the Ida May was the last that he didn’t sell or let die,” he said.

As long as the Ida May lives, a special connection with their father lives, too.

It was spiritually comforting, Gladden said, working on this wooden link to his father. Under the deep reddish “copper” painted bottom, in an aging beach chair that provided back support as he moved his way, inch by inch, along the keel, the former insurance executive and banker was a boy again.

“When I was a boy we had a specialist who caulked all these boats, a jolly man named Rob James. Whenever a leak was found in a boat, they went over to Deal Island to get him.

“Then there was another guy, Marvin Jones, who was good at scraping the masts and booms. He was hoisted to the top in a swing seat with block and tackle and scraped the mast as he slowly let himself down. He took the old wood down to new wood, made them look like yachts. But we don’t have those people any more. That style of life didn’t attract many people; that’s why there was just two of them then,” Gladden said.

“I was 10 years old at the time, and I just loved being around them, watching them. They never rushed, just one scrape at a time, and at the end of the day they had done their job.”

Under the bottom of the skipjack there was shade, and Gladden found a bit of relief from the burning sun. At least the water dripping from the hold, and the wet sand around him, was cool.

The thumping blows of his hammer on the chisel head mixed with the drone of passing planes, singing cicada, excited chirping of birds and squawking of irritated crows.

The Gladdens have been part of community life for generations. When his great-grandfather moved to Chance, he was George Washington Gladding, and it eventually transitioned to Gladden. “My grandfather never attended school,” Gladden said. “He could not read or write. My father quit school in the fifth grade to work on a boat up the bay.”

Gladden went to school here, remembers when he worked in his grandfather’s country store and his visits to the shipyard in his youth. Yes, Chance is home in his heart.

Gordon Gladden at work. (Brice Stump Photo.)

“Oh, I just love doing this,” he said. “It takes me back to my childhood, takes me back to my grandfather and all these old guys I loved. I remember them coming into the store every night before we got television, in 1954, and they’d talk about being out on the bay in bad times and capsizing boats and catching oysters,” he said above the loud pickups bouncing by with aging, growling mufflers, the grinding of sanders, pounding hammers, and the conversation, hollering and laughing of watermen.

 “This kind of brings me back to all that. What a great feeling to have grown up in a small community like Chance, a place where I knew everybody, black or white. I knew their children, their grandchildren and their grandparents. Working down here now brings me back to all that. It was a heavenly place to grow up,” said the former president of Avery W. Hall Insurance Agency in Salisbury.

It has been commented on before by others who routinely come to Scott’s Cove Marina, that there really is something mystically special about the place. Long-term employee Bob Bradshaw said he can feel a calmness, a timelessness when he’s at work. “I don’t know what it is, but something here just makes you feel better about life in general, a safe feeling, like being at home as a kid again.”

The weak last summer breeze that found its way around the stern was heavy with humidity. In the trees across “the ditch,” the only waterway in and out of Scott’s Cove Marina, came the shrill singing of cicada which cut through the rigging of the four skipjacks here. Fall was in the air, with chilly early mornings, and warm afternoons. Just the way summer has always waned in Chance.

It’s in late summer and early autumn that repairs are finished up on skipjacks before the opening of the dredging season in November. The Ida May had some major repairs a few years ago when the white oak they had put in the skipjack years before turned out to be red oak, and it rotted. Truth is, the upkeep never stops.

Gladden tugged on a roll of tobacco-colored oakum beside the chair and near his knee. He tore pieces from the thick rope as he worked. He rubbed it between his palms, making it compact and uniform to pound in the leaking seam.

Tommy Daniels, working on the Helen Virginia, ambled over to talk to him. Daniels, who has been dredging aboard skipjacks for decades, talked about characters of the past above the sound of an annoying sander grinding off paint on a workboat, just feet away. It provided a loud and all-too-convincing impersonation of whining mosquitoes from the nearby salt marshes.

Over the years, Daniels has helped with repairs on the Ida May, and advised Gladden about the use of oakum in the leaking seams.

Daniels mentioned the upcoming race, noting the sails were already on the Ida May.

A set of custom-made sails for the skipjack rings up at about $10,000. There are no off the shelf one size fits all sails for a skipjack, Custom means just that, hand-crafted main sail and job for a specific skipjack.

Made of wood, metal, epoxy, stainless screws and ribbons of oakum, the Ida May is a living relic of the past. That’s what makes her so special to the Gladdens: She is living history, a direct connection to their father.

The Thomas J., left, built in 1948, is a Chesapeake buyboat. Traditionally, buyboats met tongers and dredgers on the water to collect and haul oysters for sale. The Ida May, right, built in 1906, is a skipjack. Skipjacks were built specifically for dredging oysters in the Chesapeake. Owned by Gordon Gladden of Salisbury, the Ida May, captained by Shawn Ridgely and owned by the Gladden family, won the Choptank Heritage Skipjack Race, last weekend in Cambridge, for the third straight year. (Carrie Samis Photo.)

Over the years, since his passing, the brothers have spent at least $150,000 keeping this spirit of the past alive. As the two age, the burden of what to do with the Ida May grows heavier.

She may be a wooden sailing craft to others, but to them, she is family.

So now the time is nearing, Gordon said, to make preparations for a transition. She will be given away to a non-profit organization.

Perhaps, Gordon hopes, the some entity will care for the aging queen. Ideally, they hope, she can stay in the Deal Island area and be used to educate and entertain generations of visitors.

Gordon and Elbert are preparing to have the bottom and deck fiberglassed, an expensive but trusted procedure that guarantees the new owner will have years of maintenance-free service from the skipjack. Over the years he has seen many of his father’s other skipjacks die, a fate he wants the Ida May to escape.

Surely, the two Gladden brothers couldn’t possibly let anything happened to their father’s beloved Ida May on their watch. They are looking forward to the transition.

As the years pass, more and more of the original Ida May has been lost. “There’s not wood piece left of the original 1906 skipjack,” he said, “not one piece. The wheel and the davits are genuine pieces, but the skipjack body that was, is now a ghost.”

Every year, two weeks before Labor Day, the Ida May is dry-docked at Scott’s Cove Marina in Chance, and Gordon performs repairs that he can do, or hire others. Problem is, he and the other skipjack owners, Delmas Benton of the Fannie Daugherty; David Whitelock of the Kathryn; David’s father, Harold “Stoney” Whitelock of the Minnie V, (and the recently restored Anna McGarvey); along with Art Benton of the Helen Virginia, rely heavily on marina co-owner Eldon Willing to keep their vessels and push boats in operating condition.

Should anything happen to Willing, Gladden explained, finding another highly skilled craftsman in the area would be almost impossible. Willing’s role in keeping the skipjacks going is so crucial, that, without him, some captains say, they could face losing their boats.

“Used to be a time when you could hire helpers down here, but now it’s really hard to get good workers. Consequently I’m doing a lot of things I’m really incapable of doing well, or things I don’t want to do, only because I can’t find anyone else to do it,” said.

With each passing year, it also gets harder to find volunteers wanting to work on the boat. There’s always something to repair on the 42-foot-long, 14-foot-wide icon of the bay.

“I only work on the Ida May now when it gets to be Labor Day time,” he said.

Gladden does what he can to keep costs down, and he says, because he loves it.

So, summer after summer, the former banker can expect to be drenched in sweat with August’s humidity for two weeks.

As they explore getting a new owner for the skipjack, the brothers keep the Ida May alive and well.

When the Ida May was named winner of this year’s Deal Island race, it marked the fifth time she consecutively had won top racing honors at home and in Cambridge. As expected, the Ida May sailed to victory in last week’s skipjack race in Cambridge.

Shawn Ridgley of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and captain of the skipjack Stanley Norman, which runs out of Annapolis, was at the wheel both times when the Ida May sailed into race history. She is a skipjack for the ages.

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