Rob Temple

Ocracoke's Skipjack Wilma Lee returns to Chesapeake Bay.

They say the two happiest days in a boat owner’s life are the day they buy it and the day they sell it.  Today is such a day for the non-profit Ocracoke Alive, Inc.  This morning at a little after 10 o’clock, Tom Pahl, representing Ocracoke Alive, concluded the sale of the 78-year-old skipjack Wilma Lee to the Annapolis Maritime Museum. 

Buck Buchanan of Annapolis Maritime Museum and Tom Pahl of Ocracoke Alive shake on it.
Buck Buchanan of Annapolis Maritime Museum and Tom Pahl of Ocracoke Alive shake on it.

Built in Wingate on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in 1940 by the famous shipwright Bronza Parks, the Wilma Lee dredged oysters on the Chesapeake for 56 years.  Ever since the 1880s skipjacks have been built up there and worked hard until they rotted apart. Then they’d typically be stripped and abandoned in some backwater creek and replaced with a new one if the owner could afford it.  

Such appeared to be the fate of the Wilma Lee in 1996 when she was rescued by a skipjack enthusiast named Herb Carden of Sandy Point, Va. Fortunately for her, Mr. Carden had not only a love of these traditional old vessels but also one of the largest lumber companies in the southeast. He purchased her from her last working skipper in 1996 and had her totally rebuilt of the finest materials by his employee, the talented shipwright John Morgenthaler. She was relaunched in 2002. As much as Mr. Carden enjoyed having the skipjack in his collection of traditional boats, he had always hoped to see her eventually made available to the public, especially young people, so her proud heritage could continue.  The half dozen or so skipjacks that still dredge Maryland waters in the winter are, after all, the last working sailboats in America.

In February, 2012 Mr. Carden decided to donate the vessel to Ocracoke Alive to be used to provide educational and recreational opportunities to young people from all over North Carolina. 

Meanwhile, back on Ocracoke….

From the summer of 1993 until the winter of 2010, I had offered sailing charters and sunset cruises on the traditional 57’ gaff-rigged schooner Windfall. When it became apparent in 2010 that it was no longer financially efficacious to maintain that vessel to meet Coast Guard requirements, I replaced her with the much smaller schooner Windfall II.  That immediately resulted in a barrage of complaints from former passengers, photographers, and artists who badly missed the fine old classic. Feeling that I no longer had the youthful energy or the necessary funds to purchase a similar sized vessel, I entered discussions with Ocracoke Alive around the idea of acquiring such a boat to be used in an educational capacity as well as privately to the defray the cost of maintaining the boat as well as its aging skipper.  

So in the winter of 2012, Ocracoke Alive took possession of the skipjack and entered a lease agreement with me. An enthusiastic body of local volunteers came forward to help. Were there challenges involved? Is it a BOAT??

Slipjack Wilma Lee immortalized on Ocracoke by artist Mark Brown.
Slipjack Wilma Lee immortalized on Ocracoke by artist Mark Brown.

We had been told that the reconstruction of the boat had involved the oversight of U.S. Coast Guard inspectors so that she would be licensed to carry passengers.  It wasn’t until I had taken possession of her and had her hauled out on a Potomac River railway for survey and USCG inspection that I learned that so much time had lapsed since her relaunching that the Coast Guard no longer retained any records.  We were back to square one!

While the boat was hauled out, Herb Carden generously offered the hospitality of his mansion on the Potomac to me and Al Scarborough who had ridden up with me to drive my car back.  I don’t know what I would have done without Al.  As we encountered one unexpected delay after another, it began to appear that we might never be eligible for a Certificate of Inspection.

“What in the world will we do then?” I asked Al.

“Oh,’” he said, “Don’t worry. It’s all going to work out fine!”

That evening I was talking to my wife on the phone and told her how encouraging Al had been.

“Really?” she said, “Cause he told Jenny [his daughter] you all were crazy to get involved with that boat!” 

Well, as it turned out Al was right, sorta. It did take us more than a year of corresponding with Coast Guard engineers in D.C. and rewiring, refitting, etc. but we finally got her “certificated” (to use the official Coast Guard term). For the next four years we offered educational programs, sunset cruises, and private charters.

But the past year brought the realization that our remote situation imposes limits on how many school groups from around the state could avail themselves of what we had to offer. Maintenance costs were a challenge. The board of Ocracoke Alive began looking for a buyer, preferably in Maryland waters. A few months ago Ocracoke homeowner Doug Tanner put us in touch with friends he knew at the Annapolis Maritime Museum and negotiations began between Tom Pahl, Wilma Lee committee chair for OA, and Buck Buchanan of the museum. 

We sailed her up to Wanchese back in the early spring for the museum to have her hauled and surveyed. That’s where the sale was finally completed this morning.

And I’m beginning to experience déjà vu.  I’m getting calls every day from disappointed former passengers, photographers, and artists asking, “Where’s the Wilma Lee?”  But I have no doubt she’s in good hands. The Annapolis Maritime Museum is the perfect match. I’m sure Herb Carden will agree. See for yourself at