excerpted from the Marylander and Herald, Thursday, July 20, 1978


by Ben Evans


Skipjack Races (Workboat Races)

The idea to bring back the Skipjack Races (Workboat Races) to the Bay started on an afternoon in the Fall of 1959 while I was sitting with a group of watermen on the front lawn of Catp. Art Daniels' Wenona (MD) home.

Most of the men were skipjack captains or owners--Captain Art Daniels Jr., Jessie Thomas, Clifton Webster and others. The talk turned to the Workboat Races of the "Twenties" and in particular the year it was held in Tangier Sound off Deal Island. Mentioned also was the crowds of onlookers and the fun the community had.

We were bemoaning the fact that little interest had been shown in sailboats and their races since then. Ever so often a few boats would race up the Bay, but genuine interest seemed to be lacking throughout the Bay Country.

I asked those present if it were possible to get sponsorship and publicity would they enter their boats in a revival of the affair the coming summer. All captains present agreed.

The first Race Day was set for Saturday, September 10, 1960. Later this date was changed to Labor Day (Monday) the following year so it would not conflict with the Crab Derby at Crisfield on the same day.

Race Day! It was a perfect day except for one thing--a most important thing, described as one captain remarked, "There wasn't enough wind to flicker a match!" Yet wind or not, the crowds came.

Cars were bumper to bumer on the the Island. Hometown folks who had not been home for years were there. This of course, was what we had hoped for. The shore lines were dotted with visitors, raceboats were loaded with friends and relatives.

Captain Eldon Willing had aboard his skipjack the Robert L. Webster, largest in the fleet, over 60 feet in length, about 55 persons. Small and large craft were anchored along the triangular ten mile course fronting on the Island.

When William B. Matthews, the starter fired the cannon, 14 boats crossed the starting line. I should say drifted across the line for that is what it turned into--a drifting contest.

Despite the lace of motion the spirits of those aboard didn't flag. Some like myself took a swim to cool off. It was hard to keep up with the boats or even pass them swimming.

For about 5 hours the boats drifted, then when about a mile from the finish a thunderstorm struck. High winds drove the boats before it with captains displaying great skill in handling their craft, each with "a bone in their teeth!" as they swept past the finish line. Captain Orville Parks of Cambridge brought his boat, The Rosie Parks in first.

These races go back many years. A few years ago the Crisfield Times printed a story about a race held in 1871 from Tangier Sound to Baltimore between schooners, but it was not until 1921 that the races were organized.

Prior to 1921 they were just local affairs, in this year sponsoring the "Workboat Races" began. They were held in different ports each year, moving up and down the Bay. At this time schooners, skipjacks, bugeyes, sloops, pungies and Rams were a common sight on the Bay. Boats were raced in their respective classes.

By 1960 there were 40 skipjacks left out of a fleet of over 1500. They have now dwindled to 30. Some were pulled into creeks, there left to rot. Some can still be seen there. Others were purchased from the watermen by "Dry-landers," rebuilt and turned into pleasure craft.

The late Captain Orville Parks sailed in all the races before his death. Certainly his skipjack, The Rose Parks, built by his brother, Bronza Parks in 1955 was one of the most photographed and best known boats to ever sail the Chesapeake.

Captain Orville Webster, now 81 years of age has also sailed in all the races, winning like Captain Orville a goodly number of races.

These races have been written about by newspapers and magazines throughout the country and given exposure on television and radio.

Each of the ten years that I spent as race director we made it a point to always invite some of the retired captains as guests on the official boat. It was most interesting to watch their reactions and hear their comments as they yelled advice to the young skippers.

As many church members were expected to attend the races, we asked the Reverend William Hankins, minister at St. Johns Methodist Church and members of the church if they would hold a special service on Sunday prior to the race and name it Joshua Thomas Day in honor of the famed "Parson of the Islands," who preached in the Old Thomas Chapel in the mid-1800's. They heartily agreed to hold the services.

A group of persons under the guiding hands of Mrs. Emma Bennett Webster and Mrs. Lola Wheatly made it a day to remember. This day Joshua Thomas Day is still reverently observed. It is held on the Sunday before the races.

Last year a direct descendent of the Rev. Joshua Thomas preached at the services. After the services those who attended are invited to a free covered dish at the Community Hall sponsored by the Church's members.

The grave of the Reverend Joshua Thomas lies beside the old chapel. It is visited by many persons. A Maryland historical marker has been place opposite the church to inform people of the grave's location and its historical value.

This Labor Day will mark the 19th year for this popular Bay event. Starting out as a non-profit homecoming affair for the people of the Somerset county area, it now brings people from all over the state. It is still sponsored by the Deal Island Chance Lions Club. Other races have been added bringing a number of pleasure craft from the Salisbury area.

After 13 years as a coordinator of the Chesapeake Appreciation Day and Skipjack Races I feel that it is time to call it a day. I will never forget the friendship of the captains of the Oyster Fleet. As I sail with one of them in this year's race I will surely remember too, those who are no longer with us.

In fond memory I recall Captain Junior Benton, his dynamic personality is remembered as we sailed up the Potomac River to the Smithsonian Festival. And riding with Captain Orville Parks to those TV shows in Baltimore and Washington listening to his interesting stories of this youthful years spent aboard his dredge boat. There too was Captain Gene Wheatly, a man for whom everyone had a good word.

Also Captain "Bunk" willing with a cigar at a jaunty angle, enjoying every minute of the races. Captain Thomas Wallace's willingness to always take another spectator aboard. Captain Willis Windsor's friendly "Back home" manner. And Captain Carroll Bozman's warm hand clasp accompanied by a friendly smile.

Among so many others there was Captain Ira Thomas--Captain Paul Benton, Sr., Captain William Thomas--Captain Walter DeVaughn and others. They, fine watermen, all will live forever in our memory.

The captains should be very proud of the interest they have "stirred up" in the bay country since that afternoon in Capt. Art's yard when we all said: Let's have a race!

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