Celebrating 75 Years of Service
SHELL ROADS AND PICKET FENCES
THE PAN AMERICAN CLIPPER’S 75TH! By Dale Greenwell
Today we cruise down Beach Boulevard, gazing out at fast moving boats, and occasionally revisit the water front we once knew—a few generations ago. Once in a while various experiences of our youth resurface over a cup of coffee. Not rare are tales of our first excursions to Ship Island.
My first trip to Ship Island by an excursion boat was in 1955 on the Pan American Clipper. That day a Piper Cub crashed into a dune on the south beach, less than 200 feet from me. Barefoot, I started running to it but abruptly halted when I buried a catfish spine in my foot. That’s another story.
Recently, I had the pleasure of revisiting the legacy of the Pan American Clipper with Peter Matthew Skrmetta, son of the original Captain Pete. This time we weaved through the history of the Clipper, which is a fascinating subject. Allow me to share some of it with you.
Many years ago Peter Martin Skrmetta left his home on the island of Brach, Croatia, and ended up in Biloxi during its bustling seafood industrial days. Laz Lopez, one of the industry’s tycoons with whom you are probably familiar, very impressed with Pete’s work, inquired of Pete if there were others like him in Croatia.
Impressed by Pete’s response, Laz promised jobs to any he could encourage to emigrate. Five cousins responded at once and were soon followed by their families.
(As a side note: A dozen years ago Jim Wetzel and I went to the little town of Bobovisca on the mountainous Croatian island Brach. It was so peaceful, quiet, green with olive and other trees and white with limestone—and very old. The headstones behind the church carry the names that are so familiar to Biloxians. You should go there if the opportunity avails itself.)
Peter, recognized for his work ethics and knowledge of the sea had purchased a piece of land at the east end of Ship Island, where he began an excursion business catering to tourists and locals. He had the Pan American, a tour boat built in 1926 at Martin Fountain’s boatyard on Back Bay. At the other end of the island the American Legion operated a visitors’ concession at the old Civil War Fort Massachusetts.
Several years later the Pan American was separated mid-ship for an additional 20’ of hull, giving it a total length of 64’11’.
While drawing tourists to his excursion business, Pete drew the attention of the American Legion. The organization encouraged him to transfer his concession to the west, by Fort Massachusetts, where the two would complement each other in the tourist trade. In 1933 he accepted their offer.
John Mavar, Sr. and Pete partnered in the excursion affair. John would pick up the cost of a new boat; Pete agreed to operate it and the island concession. The new boat, built by Adolph Toche at his boatyard next to DeJean Packing Company on front beach, christened the Pan American Clipper, was launched in 1937—75 years ago. It replaced the older Pan American that was built in 1926 and sold to an out-of-towner who converted it to a houseboat.
In 1947, John Skrmetta bought Mavar’s interest in the excursion business, and six years later Captain Pete bought John’s share. The captain and his sons replaced the old Pan American (not the clipper) with a new Pan American in 1963. Built at Covacavich Shipyard, this one is best remembered as the excursion boat to Ship Island operated by Jimmy, one of Pete’s sons. You will remember it at the Biloxi Harbor and later next to the Buena Vista.
On Pete’s passing in 1967, his son Peter Mathew, a marine veteran of the Korean War, inherited the helm of the Clipper, which was and remains based in Gulfport. After years in service to tourists and locals alike, and having suffered the damages to the hull from oxidizing galvanized parts and nails (such as happened to the Shawnee, now undergoing reconstruction at Buddy Jumonville’s place in D’Iberville), Pete out-hauled the Clipper at Covacevich’s Shipyard in 1985 and performed extreme reconstruction. Its huge diesel engine was replaced by two smaller A71 GM engines. It left the yard a new boat with better fittings and a stronger hull. It remains in top shape.
How many times did you take the Clipper, or its sister ship Pan American, to ship island? Then you walked on the south shore of that historic island.Now another question: Any idea why the island’s name? Of course, ships anchorer there. Well, let’s putflavor in this trivia.Do you remember its first name? Well if you had walked that same shore 3,759 months ago, you would have had sand between your toes from L’Ile de Surgeres. I’ll retell that story later. For now let’s pick up the story on the Pan American Clipper. People who worked the boats more than a half-century ago were governed by nature in every nautical way, every day. Long before the railroad introduced the local seafood boom in the 1870s, men and women had their next twelve-months on the calendar. There were no vacations listed.So why mention that when we’re talking about a vessel employed to haul visitors from near and far to anoffshore island, not barrels of shrimp or oysters? Hmmm! Well let’s see.
From its beginning in 1937 the Clipper was destined to serve Captain Pete Skrmetta through the tourist rush —and each shrimp season. Built for tourist transport, it was far from a typical shrimp boat. For shrimping the bench seats on the deck platform over the boat’s hold (yes, hold) were removed, opening the belly for barrels of shrimp that would keep the family in funds until the next tour crowd returned. Having neither mast nor boom to drop, drag and pick up the trawl, a friction was brought on board to pull and let the towlines of the trawl in and out. This was performed on one side of the boat. After a drag, the trawl would be pulled in and against the hull where the crew used scoop-nets to transfer the catch to the hold. The catch would be unloaded at Mavar’s. Captain Pete’s son was one of the crew during shrimp season, when the boat wasn’t hauling tourists. Paul Hire and his sons were part of the crew as well, during the season. (Incidentally, Corky Hire is recovering from surgery and doing fine.)