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Fletcher’s took delivery of three new boats late Tuesday morning. It made my heart glad. They arrived stacked upside-down like turtle shells on a rickety trailer driven 100 miles from Cambridge, Md., by Tom Egeberg, owner of Egeberg Boats. The rig had wheels the size of the ones on a Weber grill. The boats were secured by nothing more than a couple of come-along straps. Egeberg acknowledged that the trailer had “swayed around some” in the winds on the 4.3-mile-long Chesapeake Bay Bridge but didn’t seem unnerved by it.
Fletcher’s has been around for more than 150 years, but its future has been uncertain since the Fletcher brothers sold the concession to the National Park Service a few years back, which in turn let the contract to Guest Services Inc. The cove the boathouse sits on is almost silted in—the result of manmade “improvements” over the years—and the overall condition of its fleet of 14-foot wooden skiffs has likewise suffered. The boats are working Chesapeake Bay skiffs of the sort turned out by legendary builder Johnny Beall, who made more than 10,000 of them over a 40-year career. Generations of Fletcher’s boaters and anglers have loved these sturdy, no-nonsense craft. They’ve got three seats and are stable, maneuverable, unlovely things. There’s nothing fancy about them. Every part—rails, chines, stem, transom, and framing—is made from AA marine-grade fir plywood or yellow pine. But, boy, do they excel at their job.
Danny Ward once told me he took a woman who was visiting from out of town decades after her father had died to Fletcher’s. She burst into tears at the sight of of the boats. “That’s the boat Dad took me fishing in as a little girl,” she said, overcome by a flood of memories. You’d have to spend years around the place to fully appreciate these piles of wood. There’s no way you can explain to someone that the boats are to Fletcher’s what consecrated bread and wine are to the church—an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. I know the place is sacred. I feel it. I just can’t explain it to you.
Wooden boats are nowhere near as cost-effective or friendly to the bottom line as plastic or aluminum boats. They require care and regular maintenance. On the other hand, nobody ever wept over a plastic craft they haven’t seen in 30 years.
Anyone who would swap out Fletchers’ venerable work boats for something else meets—at least in my mind—Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic as “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
I’m especially grateful to Gerard Gabrys, head of Guest Services Inc., for having the vision to acquire these boats and to begin rehabilitating others, which Mr. Egeberg towed back to his yard in Cambridge to repair. It is to be hoped they will soon be back out on the Potomac.
As the boats were carried out onto the dock, cormorants cruised out the water, already feeding on herring, gulls and raptors circled above them, and two shad fishermen—knowing it was still probably too early but unable to restrain themselves any longer—were out fly-casting in the bright sun.
You could almost feel the earth exhale. At that moment, I felt spring arrive.