A boatbuilder crafted a dream boat, and his son drove her to glory in his memory.
For Oxford, Md. boatbuilder Dickie White, no one surpassed Captain Lawson Tyler of Smith Island for creating the slender, speedy little Smith Island “nettin’ skiff.” So when White turned his gifted hands to building his third such skiff, he named the beauty Capt. Lawse (which is what everyone called Tyler) for the man whose talents he so admired. Bittersweet it was, then, when White’s son John ran Capt. Lawse to win the second race at this year’s annual skiff races at Crisfield over Labor Day weekend. Dickie White died unexpectedly last winter, and his son John accepted the inaugural Dickie White Memorial Trophy after beating five other skiffs on the Little Annemessex River.
"Dickie White’s demeanor was so self-effacing that if you didn’t know what he did you would tend to overlook him, which is why the race committee here in Crisfield felt it was so important he be recognized," says Sue Lehman, a member of the committee. "He was just the most remarkable person."
It was largely White and Doug Hanks Jr. of Oxford who, in 1997, decided to build a Smith Island skiff and challenge the folks in Crisfield to a race. White had already built one skiff just for fun years earlier: "I’d take that little boat out when it was so rough there was thirty-eight-foot boats that wouldn’t go out," White said. He and Hanks felt that starting a racing series would help keep the skiff’s design and history alive and well.
So one cold winter day, White showed up at the Tawes Museum in Crisfield to donate a model of a Hooper Island drake- tail he had carved for his late wife, Kathryn. "He was just a grizzled old waterman, and he popped in with that model," then-director Jack Paul says. "Then he said, ‘I got something better than that.’ He takes this old work glove out of his back pocket and throws it down on the desk and says, ‘I’m throwing down the gauntlet.’ And that’s when he challenged Crisfield to race against the Oxford syndicate."
"It was Dickie’s idea to issue the challenge, it was Dickie’s idea to build the boat," Hanks said later of Slippery Eel, Oxford's entry in that first skiff race.
Since then, a little over a dozen skiffs have been built and race each summer in various locations on the Eastern Shore. Two years ago Hanks died, and the competitors raced in his memory during the 2002 race at Crisfield. When they learned White had died last winter, the Crisfield race committee decided on a separate, handicapped race to memorialize White. White had always wanted to race the boats as a handicapped fleet, Paul says, because no two were quite alike and there were some hot debates over fairness. The race committee used the results of the first race at Crisfield this year to handicap the boats for the Dickie White Memorial that followed. Each boat was given a head start based on the time difference between its finish and that of the winner in the first race; in other words, the slower boats would get to start first. "It really made for an exciting race," Paul says. "You got a little more seamanship, like how close do you cut the buoy and things like that."
There was a kind of deservedness in John White's win aboard Capt. Lawse. "That was Dickie's last boat," Lehman says. "It is pure elegance. It is gorgeous."