The Connecticut schooner Suzanne is up on the rails at Cockrell’s Marine Railway in Burgess, Va., getting ready for the State of Maryland’s annual oyster seed, shell, and spat-on-shell planting season.

The 53’ x 18’ x 5.4’ Suzanne, built in 1939, arrived on the Chesapeake Bay in February 2023 along with three other Connecticut wooden schooners. The vessels, Columbia, Bivalve, Robert M. Ute, and Suzanne were brought to the bay to work as seed and shell planters in Maryland’s growing oyster fishery.

The vessels were part of a fleet of large wooden vessels owned by Hillary Bloom Shellfish Co. out of Bridgeport, Conn., who sold the boats as part of downsizing the business. The vessels were used in the firm’s oyster and clam fisheries.

Suzanne was purchased by Jamie Harrington of Captain Phip’s Seafood in Secretary, Md., to plant seed and shell on private grounds and in the State of Maryland’s seed planting program on public rock.

At the yard in March, Suzanne was up on the rails being prepared for the house/pilothouse and top decks to be fiberglass coated. The sides are being caulked and painted; bottom cleaned and finished off with antifouling paint; and the deck hardware will be replaced or rebuilt out of stainless steel.

The fore-and-aft planked, round bilge hull is made out of white oak. “There is not a knot in any of the white oak, anywhere,” says Myles Cockrell co-owner of the yard. “It is the clearest, thickest white oak that I’ve ever seen. All I can tell is that it must have come out of the Garden of Eden. I’ve never seen anything like it.

 “I’m so impressed with the hull,” he says. “The boat was well maintained over the years by those who owned her and I wonder if that salty, cold New England water didn’t help (preserve her).”

Myles Cockrell of Cockrell Marine Railway says the original white oak in the Suzanne's hull "must have come from the Garden of Eden." Larry Chowning photo.

Cockrell’s Marine Railway is one of a few covered railways on the Chesapeake Bay large enough to haul the Suzanne, and it struggled to get her up on the rails. 

“That S.O.B. is heavy,” says Cockrell. “When we got her moving the electric motor started slowing down, so we hooked straps to the cradle and attached it to a Kubota (tractor) loader and she came ahead on her.”

When the boats arrived on the bay, there were questions as to whether or not the round bilge, deep-draft boats would work in the bay’s shoal waters. The Chesapeake Bay is a relatively shallow body of water; shallow-draft deadrise and cross-planked bottom boats are the preferred platform in the bay’s seafood business.

“Suzanne is frame built, round bilged, and heavy,” says Cockrell. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she doesn’t draw 6’ of water loaded and there are not but so many grounds in Virginia where she could be worked in every tide.”

“Maryland does have deeper water (oyster) beds than we have down here in Virginia,” he says. “So, she most likely works better up there.”

Cockrell noted that Maryland and Virginia oyster businesses are growing and there is a shortage of large boats for work in the planting end of the business.

“What is great about this is that the business is giving new life to larger, older wooden boats,” he says. “For a while, I thought the only savior for the bays’ larger boats were the few museums that have the will and means to look after a boat or two.”

“It looks like now the bay’s oyster business is going to help extend the life of some of these boats by doing what they were built to do,” he says.

Workers at Cockrell's Marine Railway are preparing the house/pilothouse on the Suzanne for fiberglassing. Larry Chowning photo.

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Larry Chowning is a writer for the Southside Sentinel in Urbanna, Va., a regular contributor to National Fisherman, and the author of numerous books.

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