Students onboard the school skipjack Elsworth at sunset on the Chester River. Photo by author.
Throughout the Chesapeake when the weather is fair, wooden vessels are plying their trade—but it isn’t shellfish they’re capturing, or finfish, or even blue crabs. Rather than bushels of the Bay’s bounty, their decks are awash in kids. These are the Chesapeake’s school ships: once built for working the water, they are now floating classrooms, taking out school groups to experience that old Bay magic, up close and personal.
It’s a trend that’s extended to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, with the buyboat-turned-educational-vessel Winnie Estelle, to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and their skipjack Stanley Norman, and to Living Classrooms onboard the skipjack Sigsbee and the buyboat Mildred Belle. These beamy working beauties, so perfectly adapted to Chesapeake waterways, provide the perfect space for learning on the water— and as modern watermen turn almost universally today to fiberglass vessels, it’s a second chance at life for these traditional Bay boats that might otherwise have ended up as just another rotting hulk in a remote Bay marsh.
A fine day for exploring the Chester with a full class of students onboard the Elsworth. Photo by author.
The skipjack Elsworth is one of these Chesapeake river school boats. Owned and operated today by Echo Hill Outdoor School, she was originally built in 1901 in Hudson, Maryland on a tributary of the Little Choptank River— ground zero of the Bay’s historic oystering industry. After a long career of oystering, the Elsworth was acquired by Echo Hill in 1988. For the next eight years, she continued to work for her keep, taking students out in the warm months and then dredging during the “r” months to earn the funds needed to pay down the loan for her aquisition. In 1996, after almost a decade of working the Bay’s oyster bars for Echo Hill Outdoor School, she was rebuilt and re-purposed as a purely educational vessel.
Captain Andrew McCown in his element. Photo by author.
The mastermind behind this successful gambit and the man who captained the Elsworth during those hard dredging winters is a passionate educator, conservationist, and all-around Chesapeake environmental expert— Captain Andrew McCown. A native of Kingstown, Maryland, just across the Chester River from Chestertown, McCown has dedicated his life to inspiring learners of all ages with the Bay’s environment, culture, and traditions. McCown’s father was a dedicated outdoorsman, and as a boy, McCown grew up fishing, hunting and exploring the dense marshes and hardwood uplands of the Chester River. These simple experiences would be so elemental to McCown— yet as an adult, he found fewer and fewer of the children he encountered could share them. The solution would become Echo Hill Outdoor School, founded in 1972 by Peter Rice, where McCown and a team of environmental educators could introduce children to the marvelous magic of quiet Bay coves, the cathedrals of old growth forests, and the freedom of wet, muddy and entirely hands-on outdoor learning.
A bevy of wooden-workboats-turned-school-vessels rafted up on the south Chester River. Photo by author.
Throughout the spring, summer, and fall, the Elsworth is joined in her on-the-water learning experiences by several other wooden Chesapeake craft in the EHOS fleet—the buyboat Annie D, two 20th century workboats, Spirit and Twilight and two bateaux, the Ric and the Mr. Lewey (both named after seminal characters in Gilbert Byron’s classic book, much beloved by Capt. Andy, “The Lord’s Oysters.”). These six vessels are deployed throughout the fine months to ferry students to the heart of the river action—the best holes to seine for silversides or to cast a line to maybe hook dinner, the muddiest gunkholing spots, quiet places where the purple spikes of pickerelweed attract the tiny jewellike bodies of mating damselflies.
Students from Washington College join EHOS Captain Annie Richards in an
up-close-and-personal look at watermen pound netting on the Chester
River. Photo by author.
These are not chance destinations— rather carefully chosen Chester River classrooms, where students can encounter the wild beauty of the outdoors and educators can shape meaningful environmental experiences. A morning trip after sunrise to a poundnet becomes a discussion about sustainability, watermen, and invasive species, and Capt. Andy holds up a diamondback terrapin he plucks from the net announcing, “I think this is the most beautiful turtle in the Chesapeake.”
He means it. As
your bateau bounces on the chop and the students around you push to get a
better view of the turtle or the watermen, there isn’t a shred of irony on this little wooden workboat. Capt. Andy is genuinely passionate about
the turtle in his hand and the watermen we’re watching, and every student is
too. Pure unadulterated enthusiasm, you understand, is a powerful teaching
Students enjoy a lunch crab feast of fat river crabs, and best of all, no need to worry about clean up. Photo by author.
Powerful, too, is the unfettered sense of freedom on these Chester River expeditions. Instead of cafeteria lunches, crabs, caught in the morning as the sun rose, are eaten for lunch directly from the bushel basket and cracked on the Elsworth’s broad decks. School uniforms are exchanged for old tee shirts and shorts or even better, bathing suits. And rather than paper, pencils, and books, students are encouraged to learn with their hands, their eyes, and and by making real-world connections— meeting watermen, raising sails, swabbing decks, and catching crabs. The study the ecosystem by literally immersing themselves in a marsh, as an environmental educator discusses the plants, animals, fish and insects they see. There is learning going on constantly, but it feels like play— the kind of play Andrew McCown so vividly recalls from his childhood on this same Chesapeake tributary.
The Mr. Lewey takes McCown and a few students out to explore the evening river. Photo by author.
A bluebird day of active environmental education ends with a audacious sunset, a repast of fried fish caught by students that afternoon, and possibly a quick trip out in one of the bateaux to cast one last line before last light. As the students settle into sleeping bags on the deck of the Elsworth, McCown, Captain Richards, and crewmate Aaron Thal pull guitars and a ukelele from belowdecks. Together they put on an inpromptu concert, singing Chesapeake-inspired songs and reading river-inspired poetry as a million stars slowly coalesce into a white river overhead mirroring the dark one lapping at the hull. “My sweet heaven on the Chester,” McCown sings in his fine voice, and the students onboard drop slowly onto pillows, to rest for another challenging day at outdoor school.
My thanks to Andrew McCown, Annie Richards, Aaron Thal, Echo Hill
Outdoor School and Washington College for the opportunity to join an
overnight educational program onboard the Elsworth.