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History in Their Hands

Location: Chance, Md.

May 07, 2014
Experiential learning takes many forms at Washington College, but this form—in the shape of a 113-year-old Chesapeake Bay skipjack—has to be one of the more unique among them.

Studying the maritime culture of the Chesapeake Bay wouldn’t be complete without looking at a skipjack, one of the Bay’s most iconic indigenous working and sailing craft. But helping restore one? That’s hands-on learning in the most literal sense, and that’s what a group of students were doing one day this spring in a boatyard in Chance, Md., on the lower Eastern Shore.

“I thought it was amazing,” says Barbara Fisher ’16, one of several students in the anthropology special topics class called maritime cultures. “My major is chemistry, but this really spoke to me.”

Mark Wiest ’05, a lecturer in anthropology who taught the class, asked students to consider the challenges that face the Chesapeake’s maritime culture locally, while applying those same concepts to maritime communities anywhere in the world. Students met local watermen, traveled to Rock Hall, Md., to visit a seafood plant that has found new life as a maritime business hub—after residents shot down a proposal to turn it into a high-end conference center—and studied specific challenges to maritime cultures locally and globally including environmental and economic issues.

Mark D. Weist ’05, a lecturer in anthropology, explains planking to Barbara Fisher ’16.Mark D. Weist ’05, a lecturer in anthropology, explains planking to Barbara Fisher ’16.

“Reliance and vulnerability, adaptation, the tragedy of the commons, shared resources—all are issues that affect maritime cultures or cultures located on large bodies of water,” says Sam Snyder ’15, an anthropology major and sociology minor. “Everyone learns about environmental issues and that stuff, nobody ever really talks about how it affects people. So that’s what we talked about in this class; how those issues really affect the people who live on the Bay and make a living on the Bay.”

Helping restore the Kathryn, Wiest says, gave the students a chance to spend time in a working Bay boatyard (there were four skipjacks undergoing work there, as well as a range of other indigenous workboats and recreational craft), use tools and shipwright traditions that have been handed down for generations, and work with Mike Vlahovich, founding director of the Coastal Heritage Alliance, which is overseeing the skipjack’s restoration.

In 2002, the National Trust For Historic Preservation named the Chesapeake Bay’s skipjack fleet—the last working boats under sail in the United States—as one of the nation’s “Eleven Most Endangered Historic Places.” Built in 1901 on the Eastern Shore to dredge oysters, the Kathryn is designated a National Historic Landmark Vessel.

After showing the students the basics, Vlahovich handed them tools and put them to work helping trim and fit new planks for the boat’s hull. Fisher was fascinated by how traditional shipwrights built these boats without any written plans.

“It’s so detail oriented, but they don’t take measurements,” she says. “They don’t say, ‘This board has to be eight-by-ten,’ or something like that. They actually take it down, put it up, take it down, like 30 times, and make it just right until they finally say, ‘OK, that can go on,’ and then they nail it in.”

Another aspect of the maritime cultures seminar will be an interactive exhibit at the College’s Sandbox gallery in downtown Chestertown, based on images and interviews the students did throughout the class. The exhibit was expected to be installed in mid-May and remain through late spring.

View full gallery http://www.washcoll.edu/live/galleries/2508-restoring-skipjack-kathryn

Instructors and students of the maritime cultures class, a special topics course offered in Anthropology, pose in front of the skipjack Kathryn.Instructors and students of the maritime cultures class, a special topics course offered in Anthropology, pose in front of the skipjack Kathryn.


Last modified on Aug. 20th, 2014 at 11:56am by Nina Fleegle.