Preservation of maritime history, traditions and treasures is big in Delaware

The Lightship Overfalls once served as a floating beacon to help ships navigate at night.

The Lightship Overfalls once served as a floating beacon to help ships navigate at night.

Delaware folks seem to have a special passion for the preservation and celebration of maritime history, traditions and treasures.

Along Delaware’s southern coast one can have a close encounter with the one-of-a-kind remains of a 1798 British shipwreck, explore a lightship and lighthouses, take a leisurely ferry ride from one state to another and indulge in locally prepared savory seafood. Along the way one can’t help but rub shoulders with individuals with a love for the sea and the life that came and continues to come with it.

Aboard the Cape May Lewes Ferry—a transport that shuttles passengers and vehicles between Lewes, Del., and Cape May, N.J.,—Michael DiPaolo, director of the Lewes Historical Society, spoke of Lewes’ founding in 1631 as a Dutch whaling settlement and how the British, in pursuit of fresh water, fired on Lewes in 1813. At one time, DiPaolo said, Lewes was the largest fishing village in the country. Today, the population stands at 3,000.

As the ferry cut through the waters, DiPaolo described Lewes as “Ellis Island before Ellis Island” as it served as a quarantine station in 1884 for immigrants fleeing Europe.

DiPaolo’s talk is an example of how ingrained maritime history is to the fabric of this community. Informal presentations on marine life, history and development along Delaware’s coast are held regularly aboard the vessel.

On the bridge of the ferry, Captain George Nason talks with pride of the ferries’ (there are three) 365-day-a-year operation that carries more than 320,000 vehicles and 1 million passengers a year.

“It is an important transportation link,” Nason said. “We feel the ferry is important to the economy of both sides.”

Notably, the Port of Cape May is the second largest scallop port on the East Coast.

The 17-mile, 85-minute cruise between the states is plenty of time to relax, photograph lighthouses and view other vessels in the distance and keep watch for seabirds and dolphins. Shuttle buses and bicycles are available at the dock in Cape May for those who interested in exploring the shops, dining and architecture of the Garden State’s National Historic Landmark seaside resort.

Even on land, maritime treasures can be found in some unexpected places.

A third of the hull of the HMS DeBraak, a Dutch cutter seized by the British, is now housed in a nondescript shed in Cape Henlopen State Park in Lewes. The vessel escorted and protected a convoy of British and American merchant ships before it capsized in a storm and sank off the Delaware coast in 1798. The splintered wood and part of the frame of the hull are kept wet by an automatic spray for preservation purposes. The rest of the hull fell apart or was consumed by marine organisms.

“In this building since 1990 we have tried to control the environment,” said Chuck Fithian, archeologist with Delaware’s department of historical and cultural affairs. “It represents important events shaping the Atlantic coast.”

Tours are offered on Mondays between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Groups are limited to 10 people or fewer. Cost is $10 per person. Reservations are required. Visit www.history.delaware.gov for more information.

Although this artifact, which has been called part of one of Delaware’s most famous shipwrecks, was raised in 1986, it has only been open to the public since last June. (The state acquired it in 1992.)

Also in Lewes, anchored adjacent to Canalfront Park is the Lightship Overfalls, one of only 17 lightships remaining out of 179 that were built from 1820 to 1952. Lightships are just what the name implies, ships with lights on them that serve as floating beacons to aid in navigation at night and equipped with horns that warn vessels in foggy conditions. The Overfalls Lightship never operated in the Delaware Bay but did serve in Connecticut, Cape Cod and Boston with a crew of 12 working two weeks on and two weeks off.

Guided tours of the Overfalls are provided and give visitors an idea of how the men worked and lived aboard the vessel.

Guide Dave Tracey said his goal is to “give you the feeling that you are aboard a lightship that’s still in operation and ready to go.”

Touring the lightship involves climbing down the metal stairs backwards to view where the crew performed duties, ate and slept.

The Lightship Overfalls is one of seven lightships currently open to the public.

Tours are available from Memorial Day to the end of October Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. Cost is $5 for adults, free for children. For group and off-season tours, call (302) 644-8050 or email tours@overfalls.org.

The restored Vinyard Shipyard in Milford, Del., is obviously a massive labor-of-love project for husband and wife and Joan Sudler Lofland. They not only restored the dock and maintain the property where visitors today can check out an old machine shop, woodworking shop and vessels in various stages of restoration, but they live on the property as well. Vinyard was once one of seven shipyards in Milford and produced military boats, tugboats, Coast Guard ships, sailboats and yachts. The Loflands have spent years restoring several ships including the Augusta, a yacht they relaunched in 2010, and hope to put back in service again this spring.

“This is the only place I kept,” said Sudler Lofland, a retired funeral home director and savvy real estate investor who liquidated his investments at the height of the market. “When I bought this place, I thought it was the coolest place in town,” he said.

The couple have worked on several vessels in the last few years. One they are especially proud of is a 1951 48-foot cruiser, the Vignette, which was the last yacht built at Vinyard. The vessel has been stripped down to its base wood, new fiberglass ribs installed and some 3,000 screws refastened, according to Sudler Lofland.

Joan Lofland, a retired social worker, is also passionate about preserving Milford’s maritime past.

“I call them the girls,” said Joan Lofland of the vessels. “I got hooked on the history.”

She said she wants this “wonderful legacy” to remain intact so people can see the significance of Milford’s shipbuilding heritage.

Vinyard Shipyard is available for tours May through October. Visitors must make reservations in advance by emailing Joan at ebby781@aol.com or calling (302) 422-0321 or (302) 270-0853.

For more information on visiting Lewes, go to www.visitsoutherndelaware.com.

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