Come late March along the Chesapeake, winter often
lingers, reluctant to let go. The pattern is familiar: A
nor’wester shuttles in a cold front from the Canadian plains and thoughts of spring are pirated off to sea. The night air drops to freezing, rebounding just a fraction—perhaps into the low forties—by noon the next day. The sun climbs high and the wind lessens. But the Bay itself remains frigid. Its waters are slow to revive; they stay wintry till May. Only then will hibernating crabs emerge from their muddy repose. Yes, four or five weeks till any market, the locals say. Oyster dredging is over, and the crabs haven’t started to crawl. In the idiom of the Chesapeake, it’s “slack time.” Slack season, especially when the weather is raw.
On one of those cold, slack nights—neither winter nor spring—I drove a little too fast down Route 33 on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the left bank of the Chesapeake, toward Tilghman Island, to board the skipjack Rebecca T. Ruark before she left port. Built in 1886, she was among the last sailboats still employed in commercial fi shing in North America. Only nineteen of her sister skipjacks remained. The wind- powered fleet had just completed another season dredging oysters from the bottom of the Bay—by sail, the only legal way to dredge for these shellfish in Maryland, most of the week. To some an anachronism, to others a symbol of sustainability, skipjacks had been dredging on the Bay since the 1880s, and I had always wanted to see one up close—before they disappeared.
But my mind was elsewhere. The LED numbers on the car’s digital clock warned: 3:10. Rebecca would depart the dock in twenty minutes. I was running late.
The evening before, on the phone, Captain Wade Murphy had said I should arrive at the wharf by three thirty. “We’ll eat breakfast on the way to the orster beds,” he had said, startling me. I had actually blinked. The first time you hear “three thirty” from a “waterman”—the Chesapeake name for a fi sherman—you fi gure he must be talking about the afternoon. But he isn’t. Murphy had said to get a good night’s sleep; tomorrow would be a long day.
I had known Wade Murphy since the early 1980s, when I worked as a biologist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a local conservation group. More recently, as a science writer, I had interviewed him at public hearings on the Bay’s troubled fi sheries, to get the waterman’s point of view. Captain Murphy, fi fty-fi ve, was outspoken— proud of Rebecca and his place as one of the few sailing captains left on the Bay. And since skipjacks were the last commercial sailing fl eet in North America, he had a sense of his place in history as well. When I saw Murphy at the March shellfi sh hearing, where watermen and state officials debated the reality of the oyster crisis, he invited me to observe seed oystering—what they call “spatting”— aboard Rebecca during the annual restocking season.
“Ain’t drudging again ’til November,” he had said at the meeting. “But right now we’re planting seed for harvest in two or three years. If ya’d like to go spatting one day, ye’re welcome to it. Just don’t be late.” Watermen are known for being punctual—it is an obsession, though nothing else in their lives is kept up to date. As keepers of an ancient art, they abide by a different calendar.
At this, their most crucial moment in history—the likely crash of the oyster—the majority of watermen stuck to their old ways: independent, stubborn, distrustful of others. Thus, for two weeks I had been talking to scientists and resource managers, getting only half the story. Oysters, like other Chesapeake fisheries, had peaked years ago (15 million bushels in 1884), and more recently—after years in the 2-million- bushel range—had plummeted, dipping below 200,000 bushels in 1996. Formerly the nation’s largest producer of shellfish, the Chesapeake was no longer king of the American oyster. But what was causing the drop in landings? Overharvesting or mismanagement? Pollution or shellfish disease? The usual suspects. Some environmentalists claimed the fishery would vanish in a couple of years unless a ban on harvesting was imposed. Others said a moratorium wouldn’t work. The camps were divided. But I had not yet heard the waterman’s view, on his own ground—in the middle of the Bay. His opinion would likely be telling. More than the fishery was at stake for the waterman. At stake was his way of life, a lineage for Wade Murphy going back three generations.
So I was quick to accept Murphy’s unexpected invitation—to observe oystermen at work. An equal attraction was the chance simply to ride aboard a skipjack, the last in a long line of oyster “dredge boats” that have plied the waters of the Bay. One thousand boats had fallen to twenty; my voyage was likely to be one of the last. Like a passage to some far horizon, today’s sail held many promises, any one of which was enough justification for me to get up in the middle of a frigid night.
Tilghman Island—home port to more than half the remaining skipjack fleet—lay twenty miles down the road. From the landscape, each mile traveled could have been another ten years regressed into the past. After bypassing the town of Easton and the Black & Decker power tool plant, the road to Tilghman had become more rural and serpentine. Streetlights vanished. Shoulders disappeared. Years peeled away. Under the moonlight, empty fi elds stretched away from the road like black cloaks. A river appeared to the right—the Miles—and a hump of an old bridge took me over Oak Creek. The car shimmied with a gust of wind.
Up ahead the Victorian architecture of St. Michaels, a former watermen’s haunt, loomed into view. Gingerbread houses. Antique stores. Real estate offices. A maritime museum. The residents of St. Michaels no longer lived exclusively off the water. Here Chesapeake workboats were artifacts of history, not the living skipjacks I expected down the road.
I recalculated the distance: twelve miles to go. The clock said: “3:15.” Fifteen minutes left. Three small bedroom communities were perched along the hooked peninsula between St. Michaels and Tilghman, a limblike appendage known as Bay Hundred. Gabled homes from the days of schooner captains loomed in the moonlight.
The last five miles to Tilghman Island lasted forever. The clock gave me nine minutes. Watermen houses now lined the highway; crab pots overflowed from pickup trucks onto front lawns. Then, up ahead, I spied the tall masts of the skipjacks across Knapps Narrows, the slim channel dividing Tilghman from the peninsula. The half- dozen, fi fty-foot sailboats rose out of the dark water like white ghosts. The drawbridge was down. On it a sign offered fresh bait: eel and bull lips and a phone number. Tilghman Island, one of the last authentic watermen villages around.
As I sped across the drawbridge, the iron grates clanked under my tires. Looking left toward the Choptank River, I saw the running lights of a dozen low-lying workboats getting under way. Beyond them, two tall skipjacks were silhouetted in the moonlight near the eastern entrance to the narrows. To my right—west toward the Bay—the treelike masts of four more dredge boats lined the channel, their white sails aloft. My heart raced a little. I had stepped back into the Age of Sail. Like a time traveler, I had entered another world.
Each of the six skipjacks was over seventy-five years old; under the spotlights of the wharf, they looked their age. After a long winter of dredging in storms and ice, the two-sail wooden boats needed dry dock and a coat of paint. Their former bright-white sides were a dull gray. The gold leaf on their trail boards and nameplates had peeled, and the vintage dredges were rust-red. But despite being rundown, they had assembled in Knapps Narrows for one more task before retiring for the summer—carrying seed oysters (spat) thirty miles up the Bay, to plant them for eventual harvest. The state would pay for their trouble. For the past two years dredge boats had moved young oysters from saltier southern waters, where a shellfi sh disease was rampant, to northern, where they were more likely to grow and survive.
The wharves resembled a nineteenth-century painting and were brimming with activity. Men, in pairs, lifted baskets onto the boats. Captains called on their crews to hurry. Hand over hand, men raised sails to dry them out from yesterday’s rain. Others ran down the rickety pier, the boards warped and buckled like broken piano keys. The whole entourage moved in concert, with the purpose of a racing crew. The air smelled of brine, and I inhaled it deeply, leaving the window down as I scanned the docks for Rebecca. I spotted her southwest of the bridge.
Thanks to strong currents, the narrows was ice free throughout the winter. For this reason, during much of the past thirty- two years, Wade Murphy has tied up his fi rst skipjack, Sigsbee (1901), and (more recently) Rebecca, to Buck Garvin’s dock on the narrows. It was shallow there, and the captain had to raise each boat’s centerboard to gain clearance. I pulled into Buck’s yard, grabbed my thermos, and ran toward the dock. Sails were flapping in the breeze, the rigging rattling against the mast. These gentle sounds were suddenly interrupted by a loud backfire as an engine gasped, sputtered, and then conked out.
My wristwatch glowed “3:25 a.m.” as I crossed the deck of Sigsbee and jumped aboard Rebecca, spanning three feet of open water, just as the crew cast off the bow line. “Well, it’s about time,” the captain barked through the dark. He was tall and lanky, like a teenager, and clean-shaven. The rest of his features were obscured by the night. I said good morning to Captain Murphy, noting that I was five minutes early.
“Heading out a bit arlier than expected,” he called out above the slapping of the sails. “Put that gear below. We’re having a few problems and ya might learn something.” Surrounding me were the tackle and trim of a sailing ship—three- pulley wooden blocks, oak deadeyes, varnished spars, brass fittings, mast hoops—enough nineteenth-century hardware to make an antique dealer swoon. Setting my hand on the cabin top, I discovered it was slick, coated with ice. I regretted leaving cap and gloves in the car. With the wind chill it was well below zero.
In the cabin below I poured the last of the hot coffee from my thermos, forgoing the Nescafé instant that was crusted in a jar next to the propane stove. Four blue flames from the burners gave off some welcome heat. Over one sat a kettle, which was letting off steam without a whistle. Ripe with the odor of decay, the cabin was strewn with oilskins and rubber boots and gloves, as if the crew had shed their skins in a hurry. But no one sat on the benches. Then someone twitched in a quarter berth. I looked left, then right. Two of the crew were fast asleep, nearly hidden between wool blankets and the unpainted hull. Carved on the bulkhead was the year “1886.” Another man came below as I headed up through the hatch. He was wearing a Baltimore Orioles’ cap, bringing me back to the twentieth century. On the Chesapeake Bay, centuries don’t follow each other; they coexist.
“I’m David,” he said in answer to my question. “So ya come along for the ride. A piece of advice for ya: keep out of the captain’s way.” David gathered several quarts of oil out of a box and reascended. I followed. The captain was shaking his head, studying the engine in the yawl boat off the stern. (A yawl, or “push,” boat about the size of a rowboat is used to propel a skipjack in and out of the harbor. By law, this auxiliary must be hauled out of the water when sail dredging begins.) Murphy had been fiddling with his new Oldsmobile 350 engine since three o’clock, and it still was not making quite the right noises. It was also guzzling oil. With a rusted knife, the captain cut the corroded lead off the posts of a recharged twelve-volt battery and reattached the wires. Out in the narrows another dredge boat motored by, its sails flapping and flashing white and black between moonlight and the shadows.
Murphy squinted into the dark. “Nellie Byrd,” he said, meaning Daryl Larrimore, the boy captain, had headed out even earlier than we had. “Make it quick, David. I’ll be damned if anybody gets to the seed area before me.”
David Fluharty, today’s first mate, leaned over the stern railing and poured oil into the crankcase of the yawl- boat engine. The yawl boat hung off two steel arms, called “davits,” extending beyond the stern like the lifeboats on Titantic. Murphy leaned over and jiggled the battery-cable leads again. They sparked against the night, as if they were shooting stars. Encouraged by that, he reached for the key on the instrument panel. Pop. Pop. Brrrrr. The engine blasted thick smoke into the air and came to life. Captain and fi rst mate unhitched the bow and stern lines that held the yawl boat on the davits and lowered the tender into the water. The yawl boat was now ready to push the skipjack, like a tug.
At the captain’s order, I tossed Rebecca’s stern line onto Sigsbee. Wade Murphy had put Sigsbee up for sale, but so far there were no takers. Not many watermen had the skill to captain a skipjack—an art passed down from father to son. And with oysters on the decline, it was not the wisest investment. Sigsbee’s substitute skipper hired by Wade Murphy that day, Patrick Murphy, a cousin, had not yet arrived.
Captain Wade threw the transmission into gear and revved the throttle. The nose of the yawl boat lurched forward against our stern. Rebecca’s bow inched away from the dock, westward toward open water, but there were more obstacles to overcome. Buoys dotted the narrow channel. Slapping the hatch cover, the captain hollered sharply into the cabin. A second man emerged, wiping the sleep from his eyes. He walked around the cabintop, across the middle deck, toward the mast. Murphy shoved a six-volt fl ashlight into my hands and pointed me forward. I took it up to the man on the foredeck, Bunky Deale.
In front of the mast, at the base of the bowsprit, was the Samson post, which held the bow lines (and anchor chains, if need be). A horseshoe was nailed to it—a large one, probably from a draught horse. Striking up a conversation with Bunky wasn’t easy with buckets of ice-cold spray assaulting us each time the bow dropped over a wave. They were salty to the taste. I handed over the light. Bunky shined the spotlight on the buoys that marked the western mouth of the narrows, identifying their position for the captain. I pointed to the horseshoe.
“We’ll need more than luck to get through this day,” Bunky said. “Look at that full moon— you can bet Wadey’ll have his fangs out.” The skipper’s reputation preceded him all over the Bay: the irascible captain, a common affliction among professional (and even amateur) sailors. “In town, he’s Mr. Wadey, a real nice guy, man of his word,” said Bunky, “but out on the water he’s Mr. Hyde. Just stay out of his way. You bet. Every day he singles out one guy to pick on. Last week it was me.” Spray from a rogue wave slapped his face.
Bunky, all of six feet with short-cropped hair and a Norman Rockwell face, pointed the light at a green beacon, just ahead of us. Seeing this, Murphy spun the wheel to avoid it, and we fell off (downwind) a little, then made for the open Bay. Perched on the deck that night was like standing at the edge of a vast wilderness. The territory ahead was unknown to me. Rebecca sliced through the water as had the countless boats and ships that had charted this coast, from John Smith’s day on down. Now she was nearly alone. I was mesmerized by the expanse of black water, by the moon and the lights on the far shore. Inexplicably, there was a feeling of safety. Rebecca seemed to know her way across the water.
The captain broke the silence by ordering all crew on deck. “Okay, boys, let’s heist the main.” As three men hurried forward, I followed, taking off the sail stops as we went. The stops held the furled mainsail to the fifty- two- foot- long boom, which, longer than a telephone pole, reached well aft of the stern. Two men hauled in the main halyard, hand over hand, while a third held the down- haul line taut to keep the three-pulley block from hanging up at the shrouds. Quickly, the halyard climbed the sixty-nine-foot mast, pulling the huge sail upward. The men puffed through the last few feet, and two of us hung by our hands, feet off the ground, to make her tight. A figure-eight wrap around a wooden cleat made the halyard fast. Then, quietly, the men sauntered below for another hour’s sleep before we reached the oyster beds.
Still cold, I offered to pour a cup of coffee for the captain as an excuse to warm up in the cabin. Murphy declined, telling me a story about his reticence over hot drinks from the boat’s galley. When he was a teenager crewing on his father’s skipjack, they kept an enamel pot of hot chocolate on the stove. One day, the pour spout became clogged and, to clean it, Murphy lifted the lid, only to fi nd a dead rat floating in the hot brew. He dropped the pot. The crew, he quickly realized, had been drinking from the pot for days with the fanged “beast” inside. Since that day, Murphy told me, he had never drunk a cup of hot chocolate.
I passed on the coffee.
The captain announced we were heading to Stone Rock, an oyster bed just this side of Sharps Island Light. Oyster beds are regularly called “bars” or “reefs” by scientists. Rarely called reefs by watermen, however, hard-bottom oyster beds are more often referred to as “hard bars” or “rocks.” There are hundreds of oyster rocks throughout the Bay and its major rivers. This one, he said, was named for the baseball- to boulder-size stones embedded in the reef. They made dredging difficult, but the state had planted old oyster shells here last summer, around spawning time, in order to host larval oysters, which can swim, as they settled on the reef. The settlers, called seed or spat, attach to the oyster rock. Adult oysters are sedentary, glued to each other or anything that’s handy— especially old shells and stones. Both the plantings and spawning had been a success, and the “spat set,” the gathering of seed oysters, had yielded a record count. The Stone Rock nursery was the watermen’s best hope for a future harvest.
I had to wonder why the oyster was in jeopardy. From the beginning its survival seemed assured, for as early as 1865 the Maryland legislature passed a law limiting dredging of oysters to sail power. With the potential arrival of steamships, it was one of the earliest conservation statutes in the country. Its continuance has been the equivalent of favoring the horse-drawn plow over the tractor, in what has been termed “enforced obsolescence,” to preserve the reefs. Skipjacks are inefficient— that is their saving grace. The measure had its early hurdles, however, with almost every sailboat in the Chesapeake rerigging for dredging through the 1880s. After the inevitable boom and bust, the harvest settled into a sustainable 2 million bushels for almost forty years. A few hundred dredge boats worked within the limits of the fishery—in startling contrast to overworked fisheries elsewhere around the world. Then, in the 1960s, along the Bay, the fabric began to unravel. What upset the balance? Perhaps my voyage that day would tell.
In the last minutes of moonlight, two dredge boats passed us by. I asked the captain the name of the skipjack to our right. He cupped his hands around his eyes to shield the moon. Only a dark silhouette glided along the water, mast and sails reaching toward the stars. “Lady Katie,” he said. “That’s Daryl Larrimore’s uncle, Stanley. Thar’re only a few drudging families left.” Six skipjacks
Excerpted from Skipjack by Christopher White.
Copyright © 2009 by Christopher White.
Published in November 2009 by St. Martin's Press.
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