Bundled in brightly colored life preservers, pint-size sailors aboard a midday cruise on the Chesapeake Bay gazed lazily over the wooden rails at blue-green water stretching to the horizon. Fleets of little sailboats darted off the familiar Annapolis shoreline.

Some of the young people inspected details of the Wilma Lee, an 83-year-old skipjack in its fourth season as a floating classroom for the Annapolis Maritime Museum & Park. The flat-bottom sailboat started life in a legendary Eastern Shore boatyard and spent decades dredging oysters before being converted for uses more akin to a pleasure craft than a workboat.

A few of the children absorbed the baritone of Capt. Rick Flamand as he enthusiastically described wind, water and what lies below from his perch at the stainless-steel wheel.

“What is the state boat of Maryland?” he asked.

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“A skipjack?” one student piped up.

“Yes! A skipjack!”

This was supposed to be a triumphant summer for the Wilma Lee, bought by the Annapolis Maritime Museum five years ago. It is the only vessel of its kind in Maryland’s state capital since the Chesapeake Bay Foundation sold the Stanley Norman in 2020.

A lease with the city was intended to return this symbol of Chesapeake heritage to City Dock — the waterfront public square of Annapolis — and boost private charters to help keep it afloat.

Instead, leaders and supporters of the museum say they’ve been surprised by interactions with Harbormaster Beth Bellis, a combination beat cop-umpire-first-responder on city waterways since 2016. They’ve asked for changes to make the space work, they say, to no avail.

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“She’s doing anything she can to stick it in their eye,” said Alderman Ross Arnett, who represents the ward where the museum is located. “We’re bending over backward to make it hard for them when we should be bending backward to welcome them.”

It’s not unusual for people to complain about the rules governing a limited resource like Annapolis’ inviting waters. What is unusual is that a nonprofit with a long relationship with the city — the museum pays a dollar a year for the old McNasby’s oyster packing house and a park across Back Creek where it stages outdoor educational camps — is complaining so openly.

“The city is supposed to be our partner, but we definitely feel that this is an adversarial relationship most of the time,” said Alice Estrada, the president and CEO of the museum.

And it’s probably going to get worse. Competition for the waterfront is growing, and as the city tries to balance that competition, nonprofit groups with limited resources may feel they’re not as welcome as they once were.

The city is developing a list of access points to increase public use of its waterways and is about to launch a multimillion-dollar renovation of City Dock. The improvements will make it more resilient to climate-driven flooding but also more inviting to the public on land and water.

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Children aboard the Wilma Lee examine a mussel brought up by the boat's mini-dredge during a midday cruise on the Chesapeake Bay.
Children aboard the Wilma Lee examine a mussel brought up by the boat's mini dredge during a midday cruise on the Chesapeake Bay. (Rick Hutzell)

U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen and U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes are finalizing legislation to create the Chesapeake National Recreation Area, a national park uniting natural and cultural resources across the Chesapeake centered at — you guessed it — City Dock. Tourism agencies are cooperating on a plan to use it as a base for a regional ferry.

The museum itself plans to add more historic boats over the next five years, perhaps a Chesapeake deadrise workboat or a luxury boat built in Annapolis by Trumpy Yachts.

And it’s not just the museum feeling the squeeze.

Organizers of the Annapolis Classic Wooden Sailboat Rendezvous & Race, the race and display set for its 13th year in September, informed Bellis in an email Wednesday that they are canceling the rendezvous. The race itself will go on as scheduled. They complained they weren’t getting the help needed from the city to make it work.

“It’s incredibly frustrating to have to cancel the rendezvous, but it’s clearly the right thing to do,” wrote Tom Gahs, chair of the classic planning committee.

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Gahs could not be reached for comment on the decision, and Bellis deferred questions about her office’s work to a city spokesperson.

“I’m surprised to hear that the Maritime Museum would feel that way,” said Jacqueline Guild, who as deputy city manager oversees the Annapolis Harbormaster’s Office. “The city, we’re partners with the maritime museum.”

Volunteer crew Brian Fleming, left, and Philip Smith stow the mainsail aboard the Wilma Lee, an 83-year-old skipjack operated by the Annapolis Maritime Museum & Park.
Volunteer crew Brian Flynn, left, and Philip Smith stow the mainsail aboard the Wilma Lee, an 83-year-old skipjack operated by the Annapolis Maritime Museum & Park. (Rick Hutzell)

Ten or 15 years ago, a historic vessel like the Wilma Lee could always find space at City Dock. But, even when access was easy, there were conflicts.

Jan Miles, longtime captain of Pride of Baltimore II, said his historic clipper ship replica faced resistance when it sought to dock in Annapolis from commercial tour and charter companies that saw it as competition.

“Pride of Baltimore II became a target of for-profit operations relative to access to City Dock,” Miles said, speaking while aboard the boat as it sailed down the northern Chesapeake. “It also got into a fracas over what is unfair competition for use of City Dock … It’s an age-old story in the United States.”

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Nonprofits can still dock for free if they reserve space early in the year under a relatively new city scheduling process. But accepting free space prevents them from selling cruises or even merchandise intended to raise awareness.

The Annapolis Maritime Museum wanted to do all those things, so it signed a first-of-its-kind nonprofit lease with the city. It got specific weekends at the Burtis Dock, which offers deepwater berths. The lease costs about $1,500 a weekend, and the Wilma Lee sometimes gets to tie up next to Susan Campbell Park, a high-traffic plaza on the water, or a harder-to-reach slip next to the Naval Academy.

The results have been disappointing, Estrada said. Limited foot traffic drops to nothing when the boat is on the Naval Academy side. Attempts to put up a kiosk to draw more attention have been rebuffed because it wasn’t part of the original lease and requires approval by other city agencies.

“We’re losing money,” Estrada said.

Pearl, one of the summer campers aboard the Wilma Lee, reaches out to Ollie, a moyen poodle who serves as the official boat dog for the historic skipjack.
Pearl, one of the summer campers aboard the Wilma Lee, reaches out to Ollie, a Moyen poodle who serves as the official boat dog for the historic skipjack. (Rick Hutzell)

Another dispute is feeding those bad feelings. As part of the city approval for a dock at the park where the museum runs its summer camps, the museum agreed to move five city mooring buoys. A contractor will start work in October, but Bellis has started issuing citations.

“Instead of calling and saying, ‘What can we do to work this out,’ they just start issuing these damn citations,” said Alan Hyatt, an Annapolis attorney who represents the museum in the dispute.

Guild, the deputy city manager, said the city worked hard to give the museum everything it asked for in lease negotiations. The city took control of the dock from the state two years ago.

“We really, really bent over backward to consider every aspect of what they are trying to do there,” she said.

She said City Dock hosts increasing numbers of events every year, and that requires time and compromises. She said Bellis and another city staffer put hundreds of hours into working out a plan for the wooden sailboat rendezvous but couldn’t waive all of the fees for all of the boats.

“When I took over administration of the Harbormaster’s Office, I was pretty amazed at the breadth of issues they have to cover,” she said.

Miles, the longtime Pride skipper, said the Annapolis experience is reflected in other ports of call along the East Coast. The city has developed a system for booking space far in advance, but that only lessens the conflict instead of addressing the underlying problem.

“I think nonprofits can feel like they’re unfairly maligned,” he said. “It’s a popular dock for any vessel that can actually fit there, nonprofit or private. Annapolis is a great place to go to, so you have growing pains.”

The Annapolis Maritime Museum & Park logo adorns the mainsail of the Wilma Lee, an 83-year-old skipjack.
The Annapolis Maritime Museum & Park logo adorns the mainsail of the Wilma Lee, an 83-year-old skipjack. (Rick Hutzell)

rick.hutzell@thebaltimorebanner

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and we're we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom. 

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