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MY YEARS BEFORE THE MAST


 
Memoirs of Chesapeake Bay Waterman William T. Hooper
 

Introduction

Chapter I

 

It has been aptly said from time immemorial the lure of the sea has captured the minds and hearts of men. In my own experience, my life has been one long continuous love affair with this fascinating medium -- particularly the beautiful and bounteous Chesapeake Bay.

I was born and have always lived on one of the Bay islands. The long finger of land called Hoopers Island -- that part of Dorchester County, in Maryland, which lies between the Bay and Honga River. Family history relates that our ancestor, Roger Hooper, came here from England in the early 1600s and purchased this large tract of land -- then principally wilderness -- from the Honga tribe of Indians for a dozen yarn blankets. They agreed to move away and never molest him, and kept their promise. Honga River, which borders the island on the east, is said to have derived its name from this tribe.

Hoopers Island, like all of Gaul, is divided into three parts. The lower island, known as Applegarth, was a thriving community in my boyhood. Uninhabited for years, it has evolved into a kind of hunting preserve.

The Hooper family tree from which I spring is rooted in Hoopersville, or middle Hoopers Island. Erosion by the ceaseless caress of the Bay has greatly diminished the land area, but ours is still a fair-sized community. I suppose we would classify it as a fishing village, since the economy is geared to the products of the sea. However, most of the fish taken and processed now wear shells instead of scales -- namely crabs and oysters. Fin fish are no longer handled here in large commercial quantities.

Upper Hoopers Island, also known as Fishing Creek, is the larger community and is likewise supported by the seafood industry.

Both are thriving communities with every modern convenience, and although each is actually a separate island they are in no sense isolated -- any more than Manhattan Island. Sturdy bridges, sufficient to accommodate heavy trucks, connect all land divisions, so that our island chain is, in effect, a peninsula.

At the age of eighty-five I look back with keen satisfaction and happy serenity on the best of all possible lives. The lure and the love of this place, my work on the Bay and its tributaries, and the waterways of neighboring states, combined to make my career one long satisfying and fascinating adventure. There is no place else on earth I would rather have lived; no work other than that of a waterman ever held my interest.

Life aboard the sailing ships, particularly the schooners on which I sailed as a young man, was rigorous but also exciting, carefree and romantic -- although often fraught with considerable danger. In fact, the life of a waterman is a spartan kind of existence at best, demanding perseverance, self-discipline, and a consummate respect for the vagaries of the sea.

For my contemporaries and me the satisfaction more than compensated for the hardship. Our years before the mast brought us joyous adventure, the means to a livelihood, and a kind of soul-satisfying communion with that part of the universe which fills some indescribable longing in man to be one with nature. A magnetic, even eerie, kind of fascination that perhaps has something to do with man's urge toward mastery and use of one of nature's most turbulent and exacting elements.

However one wishes to philosophize about the fascination or mystic longing for the sea, we were captivated by our lives under sail, and by the beauty, wonder and majesty of our stern mistress -- the Chesapeake Bay.

 

The Bay Area

Chapter II

 

Those unfamiliar with the Chesapeake Bay area may appreciate a brief review of its outstanding characteristics and historical significance.

Chesapeake Bay, which the Indians called "Great Salt Water" was actually created by submergence of the lower courses of the Susquehanna River and its tributaries eons ago by the Atlantic Ocean. The Bay, largest estuary on the United States Atlantic Coast, covers a 4300 square mile area, and reaches inland approximately 200 miles. Bordered on the north by Maryland and on the south by Virginia, it is as much as 168 feet deep in one spot. This deep hole -- the subject of considerable research in recent years -- is off Bloody Point in the Kent Island area. Overall, however, the Bay is rather shallow for a large body of water, with a mean depth of just over twenty feet.

Width of the Bay varies from four to thirty miles. The entrance, which is twelve miles wide, is flanked by Cape Charles on the north and Cape Henry on the south. Several large and important rivers -- and a number of smaller ones -- empty into the Chesapeake. The James, York and Rappahannock flow directly from Virginia. Between Maryland and Virginia flows that sometime stream of contention -- and skirmishes between the two states' "oyster navies" -- the rich Potomac River. From Maryland flow the Patapsco, Nanticoke, Choptank, Chester, Honga, the lovely Tred Avon, and many smaller rivers and streams. Most important of all, through Maryland, from Pennsylvania, comes the mighty Susquehanna. Actually, the Bay drains a combined area of more than 60,000 square miles.

In point of fact, all rivers and streams flowing into the Bay are tributaries of the Susquehanna. Their mouths are tidal estuaries which, when merged with the many smaller coves and inlets, combine with the contour of the Bay to form a shoreline of approximately 4600 square miles.

Influx of the various rivers, actually forty-eight principal ones, with their one hundred or more meandering branches, combine with the irregular coastal outline to exert great influence on the tides, and cause them to vary as much as twelve hours from normal in certain areas.

The western aspect of the Bay's coastline is fairly straight and contains long stretches of high cliffs. On a clear day, facing west across the Bay from our porch, we can see the great chalky cliffs of Calvert County. The eastern shoreline is low and marshy with a highly irregular contour.

The Chesapeake has been an important trade route since early times. After establishment of the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown, Virginia, In 1607, Captain John Smith explored and mapped the Bay area. Soon settlers, including my ancestors, were attracted to the Bay's protected and accessible shores.

The Bay is open all year to oceangoing vessels. The Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, a part of the Atlantic Coastal Waterway, provides an inland water route to Philadelphia. More important, by connecting the head of the Bay with the Delaware River estuary, the Canal shortens the sea route to the large seaport of Baltimore from the north and from Europe.

Excellent harbors and busy ports have made the Bay an important artery of commerce. Baltimore, Md. and Norfolk and Newport News, Virginia, rank among the half dozen leading ports in the country in volume of seagoing traffic. These are also important manufacturing and shipbuilding centers.

Although somewhat depleted in recent decades, the Chesapeake, as far as we know, is still entitled to its claim as the largest oyster ground in the world. Crabs, although fairly scarce in some seasons, are still of major economic importance. Fish, in particular shad, bluefish and rock (striped bass) are still plentiful enough to draw swarms of sports fishermen to the area.

The Bay area is along the Atlantic Flyway, so the low coastal marshes the wetlands abound with waterfowl. There are 100,000 acres of wetlands in Dorchester County alone. A kind of hunters' paradise, although stringent Federal regulations concerning wildlife prevail.

The area has several Federal game preserves. One of the largest is Blackwater Refuge, between Fishing Creek and Cambridge. I feel a special kinship with this one. Its establishment was made possible by a WPA grant (Works Project Administration -- for the information of those too young to remember) during the lean early thirties. I, and many of my friends, worked on it. The wages would make today's youth gasp in disbelief.

The thousands of acres of wetlands and grain fields at the Refuge furnish safe resting and feeding grounds for wing-weary geese and ducks on their way South from the Canadian breeding grounds. Much of the acreage is visible from the highway, and motorists are favored with a roadside vantage point from which to view this drama.

At sunset on a late fall day the graceful takeoff and landing of the Canadian geese resembles the traffic at a busy airport. By the thousands they glide down to the fields to honk, strut around and feed, sometimes just a few feet from the roadway, as if they dared any itchy-fingered hunter to molest them. And woe betide anyone who might be tempted. He would soon find himself in a Federal lockup.

The Chesapeake Bay country has been the staging area for much American history, including military action. Many wealthy planters of tidewater Virginia have honored space in our history books; they played a leading role in America's struggle for independence. The surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781 proved the turning point toward victory in the Revolutionary War.

In the War of 1812, during the British attack on Baltimore, Francis Scott Key wrote our national anthem as he watched the bombardment of Fort McHenry while a prisoner aboard an enemy warship. During the Civil War, the fight between the war vessels Monitor and Merrimac in Hampton Roads, Virginia, is a classic in the annals of naval warfare. Chesapeake Bay, whether navigated by the colorful sailing ships of my youth, or the liners, freighters and military craft of today, has always been of great commercial, military and historical importance. A truly national treasure.

 

Development of Sailing Ships

Chapter III

 

Information on the early development of sailing vessels is somewhat vague, and largely a matter of conjecture. We do know, however, that from the dawn of history men have sailed boats in some manner. Ancient Egyptian vessels, used mainly on the Nile River, were equipped with both oars and a large sail usually referred to as a lateen sail.

By the end of the 14th century sailing vessels were seaworthy enough to go anywhere in the world. Of the squadron which Christopher Columbus sailed to the new world, the Nina and the Pinta were small caravels -- ships noted for their broad bows and high narrow poops. The flagship Santa Maria was a larger vessel, with three masts. All were square-rigged. Columbus' voyage, and the opening of the sea route to India a short time later, brought establishment of permanent colonies overseas. Heavy traffic soon appeared on these routes. The Mayflower, chartered to bring the Pilgrims to America, was a 180-ton ship with a high poop. Similar boats brought pioneer settlers to Virginia, Maryland and to Massachusetts Bay.

By the 17th century, Europeans were using three basic types of sailing ships: the full-rigged ship, which was square-rigged on all three masts (fore, main and mizzen); the brig, whose two masts (fore and main) were square-rigged; and the sloop, whose single mast was fore-and-aft rigged.

The American colonists adopted these three types for their use, and early in the 18th century developed a fourth type, the schooner, which was fore-and-aft rigged on all masts; it had two masts in the beginning, more later. We Americans had a real need for small fast ships in that hectic era. These ships could easily dodge the British cruisers patrolling the seas and sometimes blockading the coasts during the period between the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, when our young nation was struggling to keep her trade routes open.

To fill this need the small fast little schooners known as the "Baltimore Clippers" were designed and built at the Bay port of Baltimore. They were extremely adept at running the Royal Navy's blockade or tangling with their merchantmen. Other American shipyards continued to build these smart little schooners. Typical of those which engaged in the coastal trade until well into the 20th century, and in some overseas trade as well, was the two-masted vessel with foresail, mainsail, topsails, staysail, and one or more jibs.

Larger schooners, vessels of more than two masts, came into use around 1840. From then on into the early years of the 20th century, American shipbuilders constructed increasingly larger vessels with more masts and greater areas of sail.

The 494-ton "Ann McKim," a three-masted vessel built at Baltimore in 1839, is said to be the first of the larger clippers. However, the majority of these larger ships were built around New York and Boston. The pioneer four-master "William L. White," was built in 1880; the first five-master, the "Governor Ames," was built in 1888; and the first six-master, the "George W. Wells," in 1900.

The only seven-master on record, the "Thomas W. Lawson," was built at Fore River, Massachusetts in 1902. This ship was 368 feet long, with a capacity of 5,200 tons. Her sails were raised and lowered with a donkey engine, so the ship could sail with a relatively small crew in spite of her size. She was lost in 1907. On a return voyage to London loaded with freight, she encountered a severe storm in the English Channel, struck a reef and broke in half. We saw the 'LAWSON' once from here on the Island. As she sailed up the Bay word spread around the community of her presence, and many came out to look and admire This beautiful ship, and wonder in awe about what great things or marvels would be done next by the hand of man. People stood on their steps or lined the shore to watch. The ship was a magnificent sight to behold and, of course, she was rather far away -- in the channel of the Bay.

 

Types of Sailing Ships

Chapter IV

 

For the benefit of landlubbers -- and sailors with rusty memories -- let's briefly describe the types of sailing vessels and their variations.

 

Square Rigger - Developed and built by Europeans in the 17th century. These ships usually had three or four masts, rigged with only square sails stretched on arms between the masts and at right angles to the deck. They were especially adaptable for long hauls on the open seas. However, because of the greater number of sails, which must be handled separately, larger crews were required to operate them. On coastal waterways, they were more difficult to maneuver than a fore-and-aft rigged vessel. But surely this was the most beautiful sailing ship ever built.

 

Clipper - The term "Clipper" applied to a ship that was fast and streamlined. All clippers had speed and fine lines and were sometimes referred to as the 'greyhounds of the sea.' The sharp, fast, slender Baltimore Clippers, developed and built at Baltimore, were small schooners with raking masts. They were used wherever speed and maneuverability were of prime importance.

 

Packet - A "Packet" referred to a ship with special function. Actually, any fast sailing ship chartered to carry passengers, mail or freight. Used extensively in the 19th century, their use marked the beginning of the 'line' principle in shipping; that is, vessels sailing on regular schedules on particular routes. Our country's first ocean liners were the sailing packets that operated scheduled runs to France and England out of New York. Beginning with the Black Ball Line in 1818, the hardy Yankee captains kept driving these sturdy, fast ships carrying passengers, mail and freight as fast as they would go across 3000 miles of the roughest seas in the world -- the stormy Atlantic Ocean. They began to lose their importance with the advent of steam navigation in 1833.

 

Schooner - A commercial boat developed and built principally in the Chesapeake Bay area, although some were also built in New York and New England. Each region built their boats with some variation. The fore-and-aft rig enables a ship to sail closer to the wind than is possible in the square-rigger. Schooner-rigged vessels are more maneuverable; also, more economical to operate because they can be handled with smaller crews.

A typical schooner of the 18th and 19th centuries was the two-masted vessel which engaged in the coastal trade, and to a lesser extent in oceangoing commerce. Larger schooners were usually built for the foreign trade. When I was a boy there were perhaps a half dozen five-masted vessels operating out of the Bay area. Many of these larger ships were used in the fruit trade out to the Bahamas Islands.

 

The Two-masted Schooner - The vessel most favored for the coastal trade in the Bay area. There were two types:

The Two Topmast Schooner rigged with a mainsail and main topsail, foresail and fore topsail, standing jib and jib topsail, and a flying jib.

The Main Topmast Schooner had a main topmast over the mainsail, but no topmast over the foresail. She was rigged with a mainsail and main topsail, foresail, standing jib and flying jib.

 

Three-masted Schooner - had a mainsail and main topsail, foresail and fore topsail, spanker, and spanker topsail, standing jib, jib topsail, and flying jib.

 

Four, Five and Six-masted Schooners - much larger vessels, with a correspondingly larger number of sails.

 

Ram or Balltop - Actually a three-masted schooner with a slightly different sail rig: a mainsail, foresail, spanker and standing jib. Very seaworthy and economical to operate. The last ram on the Bay was converted to an excursion boat, operating out of Cambridge, Maryland. Some years ago she ran aground off Sandy Point during a hurricane and broke apart with the loss of several lives.

 

Pungy - Another schooner-built boat with a somewhat different hull design: broad shallow hull, with raking stem, and a broad shallow transom stern. It had no centerwell but did have a large keel and, therefore, deeper draught. The bottom was rounded, and the absence of a centerwell made more room in the hull of the ship for freight. When a pungy was loaded there was little of her left above water. This boat had two masts, but was smaller than the two-masted schooner. She was rigged with a gaff foresail and mainsail, a gaff main topsail and a large standing jib.

The pungy Twilight, one of the largest on the Bay in my youth, operated out of Hoopersville with my friend Alan White as captain. She was considered a smart sailer. Alan told me that once when he had her loaded with oysters, the Twilight and two schooners left in a strong north wind, bound for Baltimore. It was so rough in Chesapeake Bay that night the two schooners anchored in Patuxent; he took his vessel on up the Bay. He did allow, however, that night the Twilight was under the water almost as much as on the surface. Their hull design and watertight hatches enabled these boats to sail in that fashion.

 

Bugeye - Another schooner with some variation in hull design, sharp at both ends, with all sails sharp. She was fitted with two masts of almost equal height, raked sharply aft, and carried a mainsail, foresail and jib. This boat was also economical to operate, since few were needed in crew. The larger ones were used for freight; smaller ones for oyster dredging.

It has been said that this vessel got its name from a sometime practice of painting a large eye on each side of the bow. Perhaps so; but it had to be before my time. I cannot recall ever having seen any such decoration on a vessel.

 

Bateau - The hull design is similar to that of a schooner, only smaller and half-decked. Fitted with two masts and three sharp sails. Used for oystering and crabbing. Usually not large enough for any kind of freight. My brother-in-law and I owned and operated a bateau named Lucifer for many years.

 

Sloop - This is another schooner-built vessel with one mast, and rigged with four sails: large mainsail, main topsail, standing jib and flying jib. Large enough for light freight hauling, but mostly used for oyster dredging.

Of the sloops that operated out of Hoopersville, the Henry W. Ruark stands out in my mind, probably because I worked on her one season. She was large as sloops go, and was built by my wife's grandfather Capt. Tom Ruark and his brother at Flag Cove. She was rebuilt several times. I believe she is still in use, rigged as a sharp sailboat and owned by Cambridge interests.

 

Skipjack - Schooner-designed with a clipper stem, broad transom stern, and V shaped bottom. Fitted with one mast and two sails, mainsail and jib. Used principally for oystering and crabbing; sometimes for light commercial work. Also, sometimes fitted and used as a small yacht. The most popular work boat ever used on the Bay. Some were quite small. Others quite sizable. About sixty years ago I dredged oysters in the Potomac River one season in my two-masted bateau Defender. I tied up at night beside a large skipjack named the Flora Price, out of Deals Island. That vessel would carry 1200 bushels of oysters.

 

An occasional bugeye or bateau may still be seen in the Chesapeake Bay area. The skipjacks, however, are the only sailing craft left in any number. They are mostly engaged in oyster dredging in the few areas where this operation is still permitted. The majority of the oyster grounds were closed to dredging years ago, in order to conserve the dwindling supply. Only tonging is permitted now over most of the beds. Oyster tongs are giant rake-like pick-ups with large metal teeth set in slender wooden handles twelve to eighteen feet long. Manipulation of the handles in a scissor-like motion causes the metal teeth to tear oysters loose from whatever object they have seen fit to attach themselves. Probably the best known of the skipjacks left in service is the work-racing vessel Rosie Parks, out of Cambridge, owned and operated by Capt. Orville Parks. Capt. Orville and my brother, the late Henry James Hooper, were in the same Company in France during World War I.

 

The Changing Scene

Chapter V

 

When I was a boy of ten or twelve years, fishing in the Bay with my father -- this would be in the mid 1890s -- we would sometimes see three or four square-riggers at a time plying the Bay in the distance.

Gradually, as the years passed, the square-riggers were seen less and less frequently. They began to be replaced by the more "modern" ships described earlier; those without the many arms and sails of the square-riggers. These schooner-built vessels, as previously mentioned, were easier and more economical to operate. They could sail with smaller crews, since their sails could be raised and lowered from the deck.

So, with the advent of steam navigation in 1838 (competition which dealt them a severe blow), and the development of these newer vessels, square-riggers were gradually relegated to long hauls at low freight rates.

Some nations shifted from sail to steam more quickly than others. The United States was one of the last strongholds of sail. At the time of the steam boom, around 1870, the Americans lacked the industrial facilities to build steamships, comparable to such countries as Great Britain, so they allowed much of their overseas commerce to be taken over by foreign steamers. They still used their big "Down Easters" (square-riggers built mostly in Maine, and commanded by Maine men) in the grain trade from California around Cope Horn to Europe.

In the protected coastal trade, schooners were to find employment for years yet in hauling seafood, lumber, stone, lime and assorted other freight. It may be interesting to note here that the last important naval vessel to see action under sail operated during World War I as a German raider. The big square-rigger "SEEADLER," under the command of Count Felix von Luckner, counted quite a few sailing vessels among the shipping she destroyed. The fisheries industry was a field where sail held its own until well into the 20th century. By its very nature the work involved adapted to sail propulsion. Most of the fishing activity was, of course, carried on in local waters. Some hardy souls from Europe, however, continued to sail all the way to the Grand Banks below Newfoundland, an area rich in codfish. Even as late as the 1950s the Portuguese continued crossing to the Banks in their big schooners.

My career on the Bay and neighboring waterways actually got underway toward the end of the 19th century. In the beginning I sailed on the freight schooners, usually two-masters, which hauled lumber, coal, oysters and assorted other freight between Bay ports, and oysters to New Jersey.

The greater number of years under sail, however, were spent in fisheries activities, principally the taking of crabs and oysters in the Chesapeake Bay area; sometimes in such neighboring waterways as the Delaware Bay and off the New Jersey coast.

 

First Voyage Before The Mast: The Annie Hodges

Chapter VI

 

I am the sole survivor of the thirteen children born to Samuel Thomas and Susan Meekins Hooper. At the age of fourteen it was necessary for me to quit school and go to work with my father, who was a waterman -- as was my grandfather -- in order to help make a living for our large family. From that time until I retired two years ago, I worked on the water, or as we said then "followed the water," on the coastal freight schooners as a very young man; later, in the fisheries business of oystering and crabbing.

When I was seventeen I sailed with Capt. Ellie Phillips on the schooner Annie Hodges. The Hodges was a main topmast schooner; that is, she was fitted with a mainsail, main topsail, foresail, standing jib and a flying jib. She could carry around 2000 bushels of oysters. Capt. Ellie, his sons Amos and Goldsborough, and I made up the crew.

I was cook. What could I cook at seventeen? Anything that came aboard; an assortment of good things: fish, ham, pork, beef, beans, potatoes, hominy, many kinds of vegetables. I cooked all we ate. Did the crew enjoy my cooking? They did indeed! It was all devoured.

The pay was $15 per month, and all the good food we could eat. Capt. Ellie told us that when he was our age he sailed for $10 monthly. His father, Capt. Gus Phillips, was also captain of a vessel in the coastal trade. Capt. Ellie ran oysters in the spring and early summer, and in the late summer and early fall hauled freight over the Bay: railroad ties; wood from Baltimore to Philadelphia; coal, lumber, etc. between various other Bay ports. In the late fall and winter the boat was used for oyster dredging. Although my official job was cook, and this was my first responsibility, I also had other duties. When not busy with cooking I worked on deck, handling sails, steering the boat, loading and unloading freight. When Amos and Goldsborough were not busy on deck they helped me prepare the meals. We helped each other, and worked well together. Capt. Ellie treated me as if I were his own son. I am the only one left of our little crew.

During the three seasons I sailed on the Annie Bridges we ran oysters from the James River in Virginia, to Maurice River Cove, near Port Norris in New Jersey. Port Norris was a beautiful little town of about 5000 population.

May and June made up the oyster planting season in that area. However, sometimes we ran oysters up there as early as the latter part of March. Capt. Ellie hauled the oyster plants for a man who lived in Port Norris, to be planted in Maurice River Cove on leased bottom. On arrival, the oysters were shoveled onto pontoons brought out to the vessel by scow. When a pontoon was loaded it was poled out to the planting ground and the oysters were shoveled overboard.

We received an extra $3.00 for every load of oysters we helped to shovel off the vessel. There was usually extra help. Capt. Ernie would get boys who were hanging around the beach; at times some of our own boys from here on Hoopers Island could be found there, and brought aboard to help. They also received $3.00, and their meals that day.

The tides in that area behave in a most disconcerting fashion, with an ebb and flow of from seven to nine feet. On one of our runs to Port Norris in the Hodges we anchored off shore in approximately eight feet of water, and after the vessel was unloaded decided to go ashore awhile. While we were on the beach the tide went and left the vessel high and dry, resting on the bottom. We walked back to the boat and climbed aboard on a ladder. Why the hurry to get back aboard? It was supper time and we were hungry. The first rush of incoming tide may be several feet; and it comes in strong, sometimes with enough force to sweep a man off his feet. A vessel left resting on the bottom would refloat in about two hours.

When the tide went out, local fishermen would drive out in their horse and wagon rigs and set traps made of poultry wire. After the next tide receded they drove out again and fished them. They caught an abundance of many kinds of fish including large trout and flounder. When we were in the mood for fish they would supply us with a large basket full. We offered them oysters in exchange, but they always declined. There were plenty of oysters on the beach; and at low tide one could pick up plenty of them and clams too from the bottom.

To addition to the fish, they sometimes caught a wagon load of king crabs, measuring eight to fourteen inches each. These were piled on the beach to be used as compost.

The fish made good eating, and were especially delicious with the hot bread I made. We called it yeast powder bread, made with white flour, salt, baking powder and plenty of lard to make it tender and flaky. Our saddle-back stove baked it beautifully, with the loaves browned as evenly on the bottom as on the top.

The saddle-back stove was one especially designed for use aboard a vessel, and particularly adapted for cooking in rough weather. It was square, with rods built across the top structure to hold cook pots in place. Either wood or coal could be used as fuel.

We always had plenty of good food on board, and healthy hardworking men had the keen appetites to consume it. We cooked and ate in the forepeak, in the bow of the vessel. The cabin, aft, in the stern section, provided sleeping quarters.

 

Other Voyages on The Hodges

Chapter VII

 

On one trip to Maurice River Cove in the Annie Hodges we had picked up a cargo of oysters from James River for a man who lived in Bivalve, New Jersey. It was late afternoon when we finished loading and got under way, so we stopped for the night in a harbor at Great Macomico, near Smith Point Lighthouse. Next day we continued our journey up the Bay to the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. We entered at Chesapeake City, locked out at Delaware City, and continued on down the Delaware Bay. Night overtook us as we rounded Bennie's Point -- a familiar landmark, near the mouth of a creek by the same name -- not too far from Maurice River Cove. Delaware Bay has a narrow channel -- it did in those days, anyway. Since the route from there on in was full of bars and shallows, and we were heavily loaded, Capt. Ellie felt it would be too hazardous to try to make it in the dark. He decided to anchor in Bennie's Creek for the night. There were quite a few boats already anchored there. It was a good and a very popular anchorage, with water six to eight feet deep.

It was a crisp, pleasant evening; calm and clear. We let go our anchors and went to bed. At that time the vessel was smooth, or as we would say then "still" in the water. She was low in the water, too. This was around the last of March, and the oyster season was almost over in the Chesapeake Bay area, but we were loaded to the gunwales with large fat oysters for our buyer.

About an hour before dawn the wind struck to the north, that is "down," on the flood tide. The tide runs strong in there when the wind is down as much as five or six miles an hour, which tended to keep the vessel side to the wind. We were awakened with a jolt -- I should say a series of jolts -- as the boat rolled wildly, throwing us around the bunks and knocking down objects in the cabin and forepeak.

We jumped from the bunks and headed for the deck to see what needed attention on the vessel. Sometimes the strain of such a blow would cause the guy ropes to slacken around the sails; or cause the boat to drag her anchors -- an extremely dangerous situation.

We rode the blow out without any difficulty, but did have one minor casualty in the cabin. As Capt. Ellie scrambled to put his pants on the boat went into a particularly heavy roll and tossed him to the floor. No injury -- except to his dignity. By that time we boys had reported from the deck that all was well. He took his time then, and lit his pipe before he came on deck. Nobody went back to bed. It was much too rough for sleep; and it was necessary to keep a close watch for the safety of the vessel. Sometimes when a heavily loaded vessel was being tossed around in such a manner while riding at anchor, the cargo would punch a hole in her hull, or loosen planking -- especially if she was not a new boat. We felt some concern about these possibilities that night. Capt. Ellie kept the Hodges in good shape, and she was a smart sailer, but she had some age on her.

As we prepared to weigh anchor that morning, the man for whom we were hauling the oysters had himself and the men he had engaged to help unload the cargo ferried aboard; he had guessed we were harbored there for the night. The wind had moderated by that time, so we proceeded to Maurice River Cove and threw off the oysters.

Afterwards, we continued to Bivalve, put the men ashore, tied up and went to bed. Bivalve is just a little way up the Maurice River from the Cove.

Next morning we set sail for home. On up the Delaware Bay to the C&D Canal again. Entered the Canal at St. George's and locked out at Chesapeake City into an area known as Back Creek, and on into Chesapeake Bay and down past Swan Point. By that time it was blowing a stiff breeze to the northeast. We were bound home light, so had a good sail down the Bay that night.

Unfortunately, by early morning the wind had practically died out on us. We could have used some of that mischievous breeze that bounced us around Bennie's Creek the previous night. That morning another happening, in a lighter vein, further served to lift this voyage out of the ordinary.

I cooked breakfast, and called Capt. Ellie and Amos down to eat while Goldsborough and I remained on deck. The wind had died out calm by that time; there was scarcely a breath of air stirring. We were in the stern of the boat, with Goldsborough perched on the stern seat; I was at the wheel. As he casually leaned over the rail he noticed some corks bobbing on the surface, moving along with the boat. He said "Will Hooper, what do you suppose is hung up in that rudder? Maybe we hooked a shad seine as we passed Swan Point."

We decided to launch the skiff and have a look. I put the wheel in the becket. (A becket is a device for holding the wheel in a pre-set position. It usually consists of a length of rope attached to the deck beneath the wheel, with the other end of the rope forming a loop which can be slipped over a spoke of the wheel). The vessel was so becalmed she was scarcely moving; there was no danger in leaving the wheel unattended for a short time. The skiff launching attracted Capt. Ellie's attention, and he poked his head from the forepeak to ask what was going on. Goldsborough replied we were just going to paddle around a bit.

We took the boat hook -- a large metal hook set in a handle about twelve feet long -- and rowed around to the stern to investigate. It was indeed part of some poor guy's shad seine! We removed it from the rudder with the boat hook and were pleasantly surprised to find three large roe shad entrapped. They weighed about six pounds each. The Swan Point fishing ground was also a busy traffic lane, plied by all kinds of commercial and pleasure craft. The fishermen had been warned to put their nets deep enough so that boats would clear them -- whether light or loaded. If they failed to heed this warning and lost their nets they could blame only themselves. Although we sympathized with the owner's misfortune, we did enjoy his fish. We cooked one shad, and all the roe, for dinner. Capt. Ellie salted down the other two for our enjoyment later.

 

Hairbreadth From Eternity

Chapter VIII

 

Probably the nearest I came to having my career ended prematurely -- at the tender age of 19 years -- was the day I fell overboard from a moving sail skiff, wearing boots and oilskin clothing.

A number of us were crabbing in the cove below the steamboat wharf that morning. We were using trotlines. A trotline is one of the oldest devices used to catch crabs, and is still in use. As used today, at predetermined spaces in a stout line of desired length, a loop is put in the line, a piece of bait placed in the loop and the line pulled tight to close the loop and hold the bait in. We used a variation of this technique. Instead of the loop, we tied small nooses of line six to eight inches long on the main line, then tied our bait to the dangling ends of the nooses. The baited line is payed out between two weighted buoys, or poles stuck in the bottom, with the line submerged to the desired depth -- that is, whatever depth one thinks necessary to have crabs become interested in it. A rack, usually made of wood, is attached to the side of the boat. Beginning at one end, the line is hooked through this rack. As the boat runs slowly alongside, the line will be lifted from the water -- hopefully with some crabs hanging onto the bait. At this point a small net is used to scoop up the crabs. Using the nooses instead of putting the bait directly on the line made it easier to dip up the crabs while they were still submerged. They will loosen their hold on the bait faster while still in the water.

This was a cool rainy morning in late August, hence the oilskins -- a waterman's waterproof outer garments. The others were using push skiffs powered by one oar and a great deal of muscle. Plutocrat of the lot, I was working in a sail skiff eighteen foot long. My friend, the late Bill Dean helped me build her. He died several years ago, having owned and operated a seafood factory in Wingate, Maryland, for more than half a century. We all had our lines out that morning. I had caught almost a barrel of crabs, but when several runs down the line brought up only a few scattered here and there, I decided to move down the river a ways and try my luck in a new spot -- a considerable distance from the others. While running the trotline out at this new location, I sat on the stern seat steering the boat, with the tiller in one hand, and sort of leaning hard on the head of the rudder with the other hand. When the line was about halfway out, suddenly the head of the rudder gave way beneath my hand, threw me off balance and caused me to tumble overboard. The skiff quickly sailed away from me -- still paying out the line another fifty yards. Encumbered with boots and oil skins I was unable to swim fast enough to catch up with her. As a matter of fact, I was unsuccessful in shucking the heavy boots and oilskin pants, and quickly became exhausted just trying to keep afloat.

Meanwhile, my plight had been noticed by the other crabbers. Capt. Frank Booze, my future father-in-law, was the first to notice me bobbing around in the drink, and sounded the alarm. Brady Dean, a future brother-in-law, was closest to me and started to push his skiff as fast as he could to the rescue. He noted that she would go faster stern foremost, and that's the way he pushed her -- so hard and fast he cracked his oar just before reaching me. It was the only oar he had aboard. He felt he dare not slacken his pace, so just kept hoping it would hold together. Fortunately, it did. One might say my life that morning hung not only by the proverbial thread, but also on a cracked oar.

I saw Brady coming, but by that time I was in deep trouble. Exhausted, lungs waterlogged, and spending increasingly longer periods submerged, I felt I was drowning. As consciousness faded, my vision could no longer discern the surroundings. First, a twilight-like dimness, then ever deepening darkness seemed to engulf me -- as though I were passing through a thick dark wilderness.

Brady saw me surface briefly, when he was almost there, but by the time he reached the spot I was again submerged -- probably for the last time. He reached in past his shoulder and just managed to grasp my thick black hair. Unconscious by that time, I have no idea how he alone managed to haul a strapping specimen like me into his small skiff without capsizing it. He draped me across the middle seat with head and feet resting on the bottom of the boat. Pressure of my midriff against the seat helped to drain my chest.

By the time he met the others, who were all pulling for the scene, I had regained consciousness enough to mutter "I'm all wet." An understatement, no less. Wet indeed! Inside and outside. Several large sailboats working outside had seen the flurry of activity and were also on the scene.

They took me ashore to Capt. George White's General Store. Capt. George was a fine old gentleman with a large grey mustache he was fond of stroking. A rugged individualist, who usually knew what to do in any given situation, he instructed his wife -- a gracious lady affectionately called "Miss Lovey" to go upstairs and bring me a drink of liquor from his 'vial.' Whiskey came in gallon jugs then, and Capt. George referred to his as a vial. Miss Lovey returned with a teacup half full, but he felt this was not enough to furnish the stimulation I needed. He took the cup back upstairs, returned with the contents spilling over the rim, and made me drink all of it. I felt no effects whatever from what should have been a staggering potion -- because my stomach was full of salt water. Capt. George knew what he was doing.

News of my accident reached my mother, who was seriously ill; when I reached home she cried, and begged me not to use the sail skiff again for crabbing. I spent a good bit of time with her until she died in September of that year. Eventually, I sold the boat to a man from Fishing Creek (Upper Hoopers Island).

I had other water-connected accidents during my long career, and some near misses, but none had quite the impact of this one. I suffered the effects of all that water in my chest for a long time. A year passed before I felt normal again. My near-tragic episode taught me some valuable lessons early. First of all, respect for the water, and the realization that man is not a fish. I learned to be careful on all boats, and to behave as though my life depended on staying in the boat. It did! Most important of all, I was convinced that the lone occupant of a boat in motion is particularly vulnerable to tragedy.

 

Unprofitable Season on The Henry W. Ruark

Chapter IX

 

One dredging season I shipped with Capt. Jake Waters on the sloop Henry W. Ruark. A most unprofitable berth, as it turned out, but rich in the insight it provided in one of the less desirable sides of human nature. The Ruark, as described in an earlier chapter, was a big square-sailed sloop, built in Flag Cove marsh by Capt. Henry Ruark and his brother Capt. Tom Ruark, my wife's grandfather. Capt. Tom died of pneumonia before the vessel was completed.

Capt. Jake was a gruff, hard-driving, unpredictable man and the local boys disliked working with him. However, when he asked me I decided to go. I needed the job, and the oyster season was usually the most profitable one in the waterman's calendar year.

There were nine of us in the crew: Capt. Jake and myself, who served as mate, and seven deckhands from Baltimore. Beginning October 15th we dredged in the Potomac River for two weeks, then returned to Honga River and worked there until a few days before Christmas.

None of us received any pay for our more than two months of what surely must be the hardest work in the world. Capt. Jake kept promising to pay us; I believed he would, so just kept on doing my job. The other crew members were fed up with mere promises instead of cash, and apparently had been looking for a chance to get away. One night Capt. Jake came back aboard somewhat in his cups from the partying ashore, and left the skiff overboard -- instead of having her put back in the davits. The men piled in, rowed to the steamboat docked at the wharf, and returned to Baltimore.

Why he blamed me for losing his crew -- when I was off duty and fast asleep was something of a puzzle. Anyway, he used this as an excuse for withholding my wages. Fact of the matter was, of course, he had spent all the money.

My elders in the community were incensed about this treatment of a crewman, and tried to persuade me to sue Capt. Jake for my pay, or attach the boat -- which at that time belonged to Capt. Levin Creighton of Fishing Creek. I rejected the lawsuit idea, but did go to see Capt. Creighton with the thought that he might intercede in the matter. He told me to go ahead and attach the boat; that I had every right to do so. He had received no payment for the use of the boat.

It was the custom for the man who owned the boat to collect a third or fourth whichever had been agreed upon for the use of the boat. In other words, one third or one fourth of the gross proceeds from the catch, or as we said then, what the captain "sold for" was considered the boat's part, and belonged to the owner of the vessel. It was a flexible, unofficial lease, with no contract signed. A man was considered honest until he proved himself otherwise.

It was also the right of a crewman who had been denied his wages to obtain a warrant and attach the boat for the amount owed him. This action would tie up, or immobilize the vessel until his claim was satisfied. I felt I could not do this to Capt. Creighton. My misfortune was not his fault.

I let the matter drop, and have always been glad I did. Soon after we laid the Ruark up fortune smiled on me and I began a long and rewarding association with one of the finest captains who ever set foot on a craft.

 

First Voyage on The Arianna Bateman

Chapter X

 

Several days before Christmas, and shortly after I had finished my ill-fated work on the sloop Henry W Ruark, Capt. Avalon Simmons, who sailed the schooner Arianna Bateman in the coastal freight trade, asked me to go with him voyage to Rappahannock River to deliver a consignment of oysters.

Oysters were plentiful that year. The market glutted early, with the season not half over; it was difficult to sell oysters anywhere. A Rappahannock River planter had called Avalon and told him if good oysters could be bought for 15c a bushel (imagine that !) to load his vessel as deep as she would swim and bring them to his planting ground, or leased bottom, in the Rappahannock. Avalon, cousin of the girl who later became my wife, was rather a young man for coastal captain, but he handled the job flawlessly. He was strong, intelligent, big-hearted, pleasant and imperturbable. Most important, he was an excellent seaman.

The Bateman was a main topmast schooner: that is, she had two masts and five sails. A smart sailer, too; and Avalon kept her in good condition. We loaded the schooner with 3200 bushels of the most beautiful oysters I ever saw. Taken from sandy bottom, they were big as horse shoes and fat as butter. We left in the late afternoon and sailed on down the Bay to the Rappahannock. You will remember this is Virginia waters. We had unloaded our cargo by noon the next day, and immediately set sail for home. Only two days remained before Christmas. We came out of the Rappahannock in a light breeze, and by sundown were in sight of the Windmill Lighthouse, situated on the lower end of the Windmill Bar. Avalon instructed me to go to the cabin and get some sleep. I had been up most of the previous night.

I had been asleep about two hours, and the vessel had long since passed the Windmill Light, when I was awakened by a commotion on deck and horns blowing the distance. When I opened the cabin door and poked my head out to see what was going on, it was as if I had thrust my face in a wad of cotton. We were enveloped in thick fog -- so dense I was unable to discern the others on deck.

Avalon assured me they were getting along alright and told me to go back to sleep. My response was to the effect that in such a situation I would rather be on deck. He told me if that was my wish to come and take the wheel and he would join the other crewmen on the lookout detail.

Presently the wind breezed up from the southeast. We had all five sails on and all of them were drawing -- that is, each was filled with wind and furnishing its fair share of propulsion. She was sailing smartly; really cutting the water. We were bound home light and, of course, this increased the vessel's capacity for speed.

Avalon on told me to hold her north by east, which course took us past North Point Lighthouse; we passed within a hundred yards of it. The fog was not quite so thick there, but the Bay was still full of noise from horns and whistles. Several steamers were navigating the area, honking continuously. It was altogether a dangerous time to be abroad in the Bay.

'The captain said our course would bring us to the Southwest Middles, and from there we could head into Hooper Straits and on up Honga River without any difficulty. The Southwest Middles is an area in about the middle of Chesapeake Bay where the bottom contains oyster bars, stone piles and assorted other debris; a kind of bar, where the water is shallow -- but not too shallow for safe navigation. There is also a Northwest Middies.

I asked how long it would take to get to the Southwest Middles. Avalon looked at his watch and remarked that from our position in relation to North Point Light, and with such a breeze as we were under, he had made it there in an hour and five minutes.

In exactly sixty-five minutes he picked up the lead line sounder, threw it over the side and measured exactly two and one-half fathom. This was the depth he expected. As I said before, he was a captain par excellence.

I held the vessel in east by northeast for the Straits. The fog had lifted by that time and we sailed on up Honga River and anchored in Hickory Cove. We were ashore, in Capt. Johnny Simmons' store, by 9 p.m.

Avalon came to me in the store and asked how much he owed me for my services on the trip. I told him not much of anything; we were only away a little over twenty-four hours. He said, "I heard about your treatment by Capt. Waters -- his refusal to pay you for two months work. Now Christmas is almost here, and you must have some money. You have to buy your girl a gift." He handed me twenty-five dollars. That was a lot of money then. Crewmen were usually paid eighteen dollars per month.

The 3200 bushels of oysters, bought for 15c per bushel, were sold to the planter for 28c per bushel. He grossed good freight on the cargo, and did not mind sharing his good fortune. He was that kind of man.

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