Skipjack Brought Back to Winning Condition

 Skipjack Helen Virginia in foreground at her maiden voyage, the Deal Island Skipjack Race. Photo by Christian Ennerfelt

Here's Julie Moser's story about the Skipjack Helen Virginia (1949) and how they brought her back to life... and won the Deal Island Skipjack Race!

She arrived at Scott’s Cove Marina in Chance, MD, in May of 2013, a shattered shell of her former graceful glory. Battered by time, wind, Chesapeake Bay waters, and neglect, the Helen Virginia barely survived the 12-hour trip down the Bay from Cambridge, MD, where she had been sitting, waiting for something to happen. She was carefully lifted from the waters she had called home for over 60 years to dry land, while everyone involved held their breath and prayed she would hold together long enough to reach the hard.

Thus began the Skipjack Helen Virginia’s rebirth, which ended on Friday, August 22, as she was launched from the sling at Scott’s Cove Marina. As her captain and part-owner, Katarina Ennerfelt, said, “She even has her lipstick on!” On September 1, just a scant two weeks’ later, Helen Virginia made sailing history as she won the 55th Annual Skipjack Race at Deal Island, MD, with the first ever all-female crew.

 Stoney Whitelock & Jack Willing with Helen Virginia on the dry. Photo by Brice Stump of The Daily Times

The Restoration
“We had seen Helen Virginia up on land in Cambridge for about a year. We asked about her, and were told that a museum had taken on the responsibility to restore her.” Those are the words of Ennerfelt, one of the four owners and captain of the Skipjack during her history-making winning race. Another year went by, and Helen Virginia was still sitting on land; silently falling apart. About that same time, the Flora Price, a Skipjack sitting on the bottom of Cambridge Harbor, was pulled out of the water and put on the burnpile. Not wanting the same fate for Helen Virginia, four people approached her owner about buying her, and in April, 2013, he agreed to sell her.

 For two of those people, Harold “Stoney” Whitelock and Ennerfelt, the Skipjack represented more than just another restoration project (The Kathryn - 1901, currently under restoration in Chance is also their project) when Katarina requested that the purchase and restoration be her Valentine’s present. It took two weeks of hard work to board her up and to try to get the worst leaks stopped before Helen Virginia was ready to be put back in the water. Even after two years of sitting on land, her “smile” at being returned to the water was beautiful, and she fairly leaped out of the sling to make the trip that would begin her rebirth.

It took three days of constant non-stop pumping as she slowly healed enough to be able to make the trip. When she left Cambridge Harbor, several of the crew from another Skipjack, Nathan of Dorchester, were there to see her leave. The word now is that they never thought she was going to make it all the way to Deal Island. “She was one proud Lady though; she toughed it out for the 12 hour trip”, was the comment made by Ennerfelt about the trip where the pumps were still going non-stop and Helen Virginia’s sides were starting to break apart. The plan was to finish the restoration of The Kathryn before work began on Helen Virginia, but local support and many volunteers changed the plan. And . . . there began to be a thought, a dream about creating an awareness of the plight of this last remaining working sailing fleet in the world. A dream about a race.

The Race

 The winning all-female crew of the Helen Virginia at the Skipjack Races. Photo by Christian Ennerfelt

“The decision to sail with an all-female crew came after I was the Captain of Hilda M. Willing for the 2013 Choptank Heritage Skipjack Race in Cambridge”, said Ennerfelt. “We wanted to do this to create some noise about the Skipjacks. There are not many remaining, and to restore the ones we have left is a major undertaking, both financially and physically.” Traditionally, Skipjacks are not sailed by women, and breaking the pattern was something the crew of Helen Virginia hoped would raise an awareness about the vessel that was named the Maryland State Boat in 1985.

Of the nine-woman crew, five had never sailed before, and while there were plenty of ladies volunteering, Captain Ennerfelt thought that “local ladies were the absolute best choice.” Despite hard work and long hours by many volunteers, up until 5 weeks before the race, Helen Virginia did not look like she would be ready to sail by the Labor Day Race. Even if she miraculously made it, 5 weeks was an extremely short time to train a crew who had to work together as a unit, especially with five members who didn’t know the difference between a main and a jib.

Captain Wade Murphy on Rebecca Ruark, and the crew from Nathan of Dorchester took Helen Virginia’s crew out to train them. “Stoney” Whitelock said he thought they were better than some of the all-male crews and that they might be hard to beat. They did not get to actually sail Helen Virginia until Friday, August 29 – just a few days before the actual race. Race Day, September 1 dawned rainy and hot. The forecast was for rain and scattered thundershowers all day, but by 10:13 am, the sky was blue, the sun was out, it was hot, and Helen Virginia was in second place among the 10 Skipjacks that had started the Race.

By 11:45 am, Helen Virginia and her all-female crew were clear winners of the 55th Annual Skipjack Race in Deal Island. Congratulations to her crew: Captain Ennerfelt, Eileen Cross, April Benton, Carrie Day, Josie Brown, April Hall, Melissa Bailey-Descoteaux, Sarah Gleason, and Elizabeth Weglein.

The Reason
Of the thousands of these graceful vessels called Skipjacks that once plied the Chesapeake Bay working under sail power, just a handful remain today. In fact only 20 have actually survived – among them, Helen Virginia. Some of the 20 need help to simply remain afloat; some need help to keep working, and some need help to stay off the burnpile.

 As part of our Maryland heritage, in 1985, the Skipjack was designated the Maryland State Boat. If it were an animal, a bird, or even a plant, the remaining 20 would be placed on an endangered species list. Helen Virginia was built in Crisfield, Maryland in 1949. She sailed and worked from Deal Island until she was sold the second time, where she sailed from Cambridge, Maryland. Last year, she was bought and returned home to Deal Island.

After the 55th Annual Skipjack Race in Deal Island and the 2014 Choptank Heritage Skipjack Race in Cambridge, Helen Virginia will have the honor of representing the Maryland State Boat at the National Sailing Hall Of Fame in Annapolis during the US Sailboat Show in October. She will then return to Deal Island, where she will be ready for the dredging season this year. She will again be doing what she was built for, and she will be one of the last working Skipjacks . . . one of Maryland’s endangered species.

 Photo by Christian Ennerfelt