March 28, 2012
UPDATE: Donated skipjack Wilma Lee arrives at Ocracoke

By CONNIE LEINBACH

The skipjack sailboat, the Wilma Lee from Virginia, which is now owned by Ocracoke Alive, rolled into Silver Lake Harbor on Wednesday afternoon, March 27.  

“It’s a very nice ride,” Captain Rob Temple said as he and his crew of two moored the 47-foot sailboat. “It’s like a ferry.”

“It’s almost as tall as the lighthouse,” noted Amy Howard of the 64 foot mast.  The Ocracoke lighthouse height is 70 feet.

About two dozen islanders greeted the Wilma Lee around 3 p.m. and climbed on board for a look, while Temple, who piloted it from its Virginia home in Kinsale, talked about the next steps for this vessel that will be both for educational and commercial purposes.

Tours of it and paying passenger trips will not be available until all the certifications are received, which may take a couple of months.

The Wilma Lee was donated to Ocracoke Alive in February by Herb and Liz Carden of Kinsale.  According to Ocracoke Alive press material, the Cardens have restored several historic vessels, including the Wilma Lee, which they wanted to be used to educate young and old about the seafaring past and inspire a love of boating.

They knew of Ocracoke and when the learned about Ocracoke Alive, they decided to donate the boat as a cultural and educational exhibit.  It also will offer paid rides.

“It didn’t come with an endowment,” said David Tweedie, president of Ocracoke Alive.  “So, we had to have a business plan before we accepted it.”

That plan, which involves leasing it to Temple, is still being worked on, Tweedie said.  But, according to press materials, Temple will do sightseeing tours for about 30 paying customers. 

Temple will pay for advertising, dockage, and basic maintenance and repair, according to an FAQ recently released.  “A portion of the gross proceeds will be returned to Ocracoke Alive to be used for cultural and educational programs and to establish a contingency fund to pay for unexpected costs and major repairs,” the release says.  

As a wooden boat, the Wilma Lee will need constant attention.

Some among the local business community have cried “unfair.” 

“They’re not paying a (loan) payment like charter boats are paying,” noted Wade Austin, owner of the pontoon boat, Native Son, that offers trips to Portsmouth for ATV and eco tours, Beacon Island, the sandbars out in the sound, and sunset cruises.

“They got something for nothing,” he said. “No one could afford to buy a boat like that.  There’s no local support for it. There’s more to it than what’s out there.”

Tweedie noted that Ocracoke Alive’s interest in having this boat is the programming it can provide to the community.

“We are trying to be fair,” he said, adding that the advantages Ocracoke Alive has as a non-profit will be turned into community programming.

“There are some folks in the community with legitimate concerns,” added Tom Pahl, Ocracoke Alive treasurer.  “We’re attempting to address them. “

He added that one of the provisions of Temple’s lease with Ocracoke Alive is that Temple cannot set a ticket price below the market rate.

“Also, what he’s paying us to lease it is comparable to paying a loan,” Pahl said. “It’s a significant amount. It’s no sweetheart deal.  We want to assure that the benefits go to the community and not Rob Temple. We’re keeping the business arrangement at arm’s length.” 

Tweedie and Pahl stressed that they welcome anyone with concerns about how the Wilma Lee will operate under Ocracoke Alive to talk to them. 

Austin noted that skipjacks are not an Ocracoke boat.

Historically, this type of commercial sailing boat was used chiefly in the Chesapeake Bay for oyster dredging in the 1800s.   

Although schooners were more common in the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds, skipjacks made appearances because of their shallower draft of 3 feet with the centerboard up.   At least one skipjack, the Ada Mae, was built in Hyde County in 1915.

“I talked to an old guy in Manteo whose dad oystered on a skipjack out of Belhaven,” said Pahl, who helped crew the boat from Kinsale to Manteo.  “He remembered seeing hundreds on the Pamlico Sound.  For some reason, there’s not a lot of record about that. So, we’re looking into that.”

“Activity of the skipjacks in this area is a hidden part of history,” added Marcy Brenner, Ocracoke Alive secretary.

Temple, too, did some research on skipjacks.  One book he found, titled “The Chesapeake Bay Oyster Wars,” detailed the sometime nasty history of oyster-catching in America, he said, which includes tales of the use and mistreatment of slaves to catch oysters.

Temple, who operates the Windfall II, which can take only six paying passengers, has donated trips on his boats to community efforts in the past.  He and his nephew, Charles Temple, are the only island residents certified by the U.S. Coast Guard to operate a commercial sailboat carrying paying passengers.

Temple does not think that his and Austin’s clientele are the same, and he said that he gets many calls by large groups wanting to go out on the Windfall II but can’t because of its limited passenger capacity.

“There’s no other (large) commercial sailboat here,” Temple said, adding that a Coast Guard employee told him he had heard of someone else wanting to come to Ocracoke and offer rides on a large sailboat.
 “So, if we weren’t going to do this, someone else would,” Temple said.

Norma Sigal, a local resident was one of locals on hand for the arrival.

“This boat is an interesting thing for the island, maintaining the maritime traditions,” she said. “It’s a good thing for the island to have more attractions. The more we can do to keep the community vibrant, the better.”


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