The last known example of Smith Island’s indigenous netting skiffs has finally returned to its roots.
There must be countless Smith Island crab netting skiffs that have mulched unceremoniously into the marshes and mud of the Bay’s creeks and guts over the decades, but at least one has managed to elude such a fate. In fact, this nameless, rough-shod little boat has recently assumed a place of honor on the island of its birth. In a quiet, no-nonsense exchange just before Thanksgiving, the Calvert Marine Museum handed the netting skiff over to the Smith Island Cultural Alliance, where it took on front-and-center status.
“We carried it over, and that day we put it in the museum, put it right in the center, and that’s where it will stay,” says Steve Evans, a member of the alliance’s board of trustees and a netting skiff aficionado. “It will be great for people to look at it, because it’s originally where it came from. It looks nice there and fits very well.”
If a boat ever had a patron saint, Evans is this one’s. Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons Island, Md., had owned the boat since 1986 but had run out of room to display it. Built by renowned netting skiff builder Lawson Tyler sometime in the 1920s or ‘30s (no one knows for sure when, says Richard Dodds, CMM’s curator), the skiff measures 18 feet 8 inches long with a slender beam of 3 feet 8 inches. Skiff lovers have known for years the museum had the boat, so when Evans set out to build his own netting skiff [see “New Old Boats,” Channel 9, August 2000], he traveled to the museum to take its lines. That’s when he learned she was in storage.
“I suggested to him [Dodds] that if they’re not showing it in the museum, maybe they should give it back to Smith Island. He didn’t say a whole lot about it.” But Evans persisted, and finally Dodds and other museum staff traveled to Smith Island to see what kind of home the skiff might have with the cultural alliance - which built a new museum on the island five years ago. The new digs evidently passed muster. “We felt it certainly was an appropriate request since it was built there,” Dodds says. The boat is on a three-year renewable loan to the alliance. “She’s in pretty good shape,” Dodds says. “She certainly shows signs of long use. All the wood is painted over, so we’re not sure what it was made of.”
Evans says none of Tyler’s family has taken up their patriarch’s trade, but Tyler’s grandson and great-grandson still have his old workshop and tools. Evans is working on obtaining a grant to purchase the entire shop and have it moved to the Smith Island museum, and Tyler’s family will loan the tools. The museum is open daily May through September.
Meantime, the group of netting skiff mavens of which Evans is now president - the Smith Island Crab Netting Skiff Association - has about a dozen newly built skiffs that are holding annual races on the Bay. Last year they raced in Oxford, St. Michaels, Tilghman Island, Deal Island and Crisfield, and they plan to do the same this year. Stay tuned for a race schedule.