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MY YEARS BEFORE THE MAST

 
 

Memoirs of Chesapeake Bay Waterman William T. Hooper

 

The Kate Burton: a Happy Ship

Chapter XXI

 

Vivid still in my recollections are the many interesting and memorable experiences of the dozen or more years I worked in Bivalve, New Jersey, during the oyster planting season. The planting season was short -- usually six to eight weeks in the months of May and June. However, it could begin as early as March.

Transportation was always a problem, even the water-home variety. Sometimes we took the steamer to Baltimore, then continued to New Jersey by train. This was expensive, and we tried to avoid it. Often a group of us from Hoopers Island would charter a boat for the trip down, and keep her there until all had secured berths.

One season twenty-one of us chartered the skipjack Mary E. Trier, and fitted her with makeshift bunks for the trip. Capt. Mike Young was the skipper, and Jeff Ballard signed on as cook. I remember well the date of this particular voyage March 7, 1904 -- because of the terrible news we heard en route. As the tow path mules (usually six or eight of them) pulled us through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, the canal keeper told us a severe earthquake had practically demolished San Francisco the day before.

One year my nephew, John Thurman Ruark, son of my sister Eva, took us down in his 1924 Chevrolet, and came back for us when the season ended. The automobile industry was young then. Actually, Bivalve is the place where I first saw a car -- a Model T Ford, on a roadway next to the dock. Dozens of people were clustered around it, fascinated by this marvelous new contraption.

I worked with a number of fine captains in Bivalve, but most pleasant to remember are the three seasons I served as mate to Capt. Henry Nixon on the two-masted schooner Kate Burton.

The Kate Burton was an older vessel, but in excellent repair. Capt. Nixon had bought her in Philadelphia, had her hauled on the railway, rebuilt and recorked. She was a large boat, and a good sailer.

Our captain was a religious man; an inspiring preacher who served as pastor of a Methodist Church in Bivalve. He also ran a mission on the waterfront, serving the spiritual needs of a large seasonal flock of itinerant crewmen. At service each Sunday men of various colors and races intermingled -- sat side by side -- and listened to this fine man's Christian message.

He was a strict observer of the Sabbath. It was customary for captains to take their vessels to the oyster grounds Sunday afternoon, in order to be ready to start work at daybreak Monday. Capt. Nixon felt this amounted to working on the sabbath and he would have none of it. Instead, our crew was up early Monday and had breakfast during the final hour of darkness. At the first streak of dawn our canvas was hoisted and we headed for our destination -- anywhere we could load with oyster plants -- usually the Potomac, James or Rappahannock Rivers. Our vessel was equipped with large dredges, and when the gasoline winders brought one aboard and it was dumped on deck, the pile looked like a roads truck load of gravel. Capt. Nixon was a powerfully built man who worked along with his crew. He had a strong baritone voice, and sang hymns constantly as he worked. A good man, secure and happy in his faith and in his work.

Ours was a happy ship. We were treated with understanding and consideration, fed well, and given ample time off for rest and recreation. We had an excellent cook, a man of German descent, from Princeton. Feeding us took up most of his time, and was his greatest satisfaction. He fed us four times a day: a hefty breakfast before sunrise; coffee and cake or doughnuts at 10 a.m.; dinner at 2 p.m. and supper around 7 p.m.

Cook (his name has faded from memory) liked to come on deck sometimes and scratch around in the oysters, to cull a few. He liked to work beside me, and would ask in that heavy accent-laden voice "got any room here for me Beel?" It was obvious that working with the oysters, except to cook some, was not exactly his calling. Shortly he would be done with it, and head for the cabin muttering something like it was time to fix his boys something to eat.

Those were long days. We let the dredges go at sunrise, and stowed them away on deck around sunset. Friday, after dinner, our captain would tell us to put away the dredges. We were through until early Monday morning. This gave the crew time to throw the oysters off on his planting ground, and get food, water and other supplies aboard for the following week. The oyster plants (young oysters) were shoveled into floats and carried to Capt. Nixon's leased planting bottom in Maurice River Cove. The water was brackish (salty) there, ideally suited to the rapid growth of oysters. They would grow to be large oysters in a relatively short time, and were fat and tasty. When ready for market they were dredged up again, as very select oysters, bagged and shipped out. Maurice River Cove was reputed to be one of the largest oyster development areas in the country.

Part of Saturday, after supplies had been procured and stowed, and all day Sunday, were free. Cook would go home on weekends, but he usually left us an assortment of prepared provender. We also did some cooking ourselves, and especially enjoyed preparing the delicious clams we caught. An abundant supply of clams grew in the oyster beds. Sometimes we pulled in a loaded dredge that would contain two dozen or more large fat clams mixed in with the oysters. Sometimes we had a restaurant meal in Bivalve.

We enjoyed the work and had a good time. One year Bernie and Jess Booze, their cousin Everett Booze, and I, went to Bivalve together for the season. As usual, Romie and I shipped with Capt. Nixon. The others signed on with an elderly captain who had the misfortune to carry the mast off the old sloop he was working the first day of the season. He decided not to refit the vessel, so his crew was out of work. Unable to find other berths, Jess and Everett were preparing to leave for home when Capt. Nixon lost two of his crewmen and asked me to find a replacement. I was happy to oblige, and promptly helped our boy move their gear aboard.

It was during this season that I had another serious brush with disaster. We had our young oyster plants piled high on deck; also, some floats which we would shovel them into for their trip to the planting ground. In making my way to the bow to cast off the line, J stepped on one of the logs placed at the tip of the float to make it more buoyant. The log must have had moss on it. I slipped and went over the side of the boat. My reflexes were fast in those days; in falling I hooked my right arm over the log, then grabbed a float ring with which I was able to pull myself back to the deck immediately after landing in the water. Had I become submerged, the tide -- running eight to ten miles an hour -- would have pulled me beneath a string of a hundred or more dredge boats anchored side by side. Needless to say, my career would have ended before I had a chance to surface again.

 

Dredging The Morning Star

Chapter XXII

 

The bugeye Morning Star lingers fondly in my memory. She was owned by Capt. Warren Simmons, brother of Capt. John H. Simmons, previously mentioned. I leased her for two seasons, and worked in Honga River with three crewmen from Baltimore. It was customary to call such crewmen "ship men" but I never referred to them that way. My crew members were always courteous hardworking men, and they were treated with respect and consideration.

Incidentally, much folklore has been built up about the cruelty of the Bay area oyster boat captains of yesteryear; tales of how they shanghaied their crewmen, worked them all season, then paid them off by having them knocked overboard by the boom to drown. I'm inclined to believe these tales were fabrications. All the knowledge I have about such goings on is hearsay. If our industry was ever infested with any such human vermin, I was spared the ugly misfortune of association with them.

The first season I worked the Morning Star was a very profitable one; never did better on the water in my life. Oysters had gone up to 55c and 60c a bushel -- considered a big price then. And they were much in demand both by the regular market and the steam houses (canning factories) in Baltimore. My father told me he had run oysters up to the steam houses when he was paid as little as 12c a bushel. More about the oyster canning operations later.

Our good fortune was further enhanced that season by the birth of our daughter -- on a bitter cold day in February with the thermometer hovering around zero. So we can say my wife, the former Edith Booze, did well that season too, on the domestic front. A son, William G. Hooper Jr., was born nine years later.

Spring could be a very profitable season for those lucky enough to team up with a large scale fisherman (no pun intended) during the early run of shad, rock and herring. I had just such an opportunity that spring when Capt. Robert G. Booze, husband of my sister Ida, asked me to work with him in his fish trap operation. Fish were plentiful. In addition to the usual run at that time of year, we caught a sizable number of flounder and croakers. One day we even found a ten foot shark entrapped.

It was customary at that time to use ponderous, heavy gauge nets called "traps" to scoop up as much as possible of the spring run. We worked under the usual modified partnership arrangement for such operations. In much the same way a boat's share is set aside for her owner, a third of the proceeds from the catch went to the owner of the traps to offset all expenses entailed in the operation, and compensate him for the wear and tear on the equipment. Remainder of the profits was divided between the partners.

We did well. When the short season ended -- actually only a few weeks -- I was $300 richer. A young fortune in that era.

The second dredging season I worked the Morning Star I also had three good crew members. One of these, a young Polish boy, apparently looked upon me as a kind of father image. As a rule, just before Christmas dredge boat crewmen were paid in full and given notice that there would be no work after the holidays. When I paid my men their final wages that season, the young boy mentioned above asked me if he could come back after Christmas. I told him there would be little work, but he was welcome to return awhile.

Sure enough, a day or two after the holidays he arrived by steamer, and I put him aboard the boat. The Star had a good cabin, and I kept him supplied with food and firewood. Although there were few oysters to be caught that late in the season by dredging, we did take the boat out now and then when weather conditions were such that the boat could be safely operated with just two persons. He returned to Baltimore late in March.

Usually, by late December the bars and rocks were pretty well depleted, and although most of the boats continued to work when weather permitted, there was no longer need for large crews. Small wonder the oyster beds were scraped bare early. During this period, there were hundreds of dredge boats operating in Honga River. The night before the season opened, Hickory Cove and beyond, would be lit up like a city. Boats from Upper Hoopers Island, Wingate, Crapo and Bishop's Head would join us here, ready to go at dawn the next day. Included were dozens of schooners. Seven or eight large schooners belonged in Hickory Cove alone, including the William Layton. Fannie Insley, William H. Van Name, Flora Kirwan and the Laurena Clayton. The Fannie Insley was once owned by our good friend and neighbor Capt. John Wesley Brannock Sr. One of his daughters, Nellie, married my brother -- Henry James Hooper and bore him two fine sons, Henry James and Paul Alton Hooper.

Other large vessels also made Honga River a regular port of call. It was not unusual to have fifteen or twenty markets (buy boats) here at one time to load oysters. These were large boats; many of them used during the summer season in the fruit trade to the Bahamas. Capt. Johnny Clayton owned the William H. Van Name, mentioned above. She was a big, two-topmast schooner built down East -- around Connecticut. We put oysters aboard her many times.

At the height of the season all the buy boats were busy ferrying oysters to Baltimore to the steam houses for canning. They could hardly carry them fast enough to meet the demand. Capt. Johnny sailed the Van Name in here from Baltimore one day -- having gone up there loaded -- and without lowering the sails, reloaded with 3500 bushels and sailed out again. The work boats were strung out to the stem of that vessel for a hundred yards, waiting to put their catch aboard.

Oyster canning in Baltimore was a thriving industry from the 1880s until the early years of this century, loaded vessels crowded the docks to keep the canneries running. Preserved by this cooking process the succulent oysters were distributed throughout the country. While it lasted the business was a great boon to the Bay area watermen. A number of factors contributed to the decline, and ultimate termination of Maryland's oyster canning operations: increase in the demand for raw oysters; discovery of better methods of shipping them raw; more effective methods of preservation; and faster transportation. During these busy years, when large quantities of oysters were in great demand, at season's end, in the spring, every place was so depleted there was scarcely enough left for a stew. However, there was always plenty of small oysters left, so next season good market size oysters were again in plentiful supply.

Unfortunately, for many years the oyster rocks and beds in the whole Chesapeake Bay area were over-harvested, and as the supply dwindled, so did the number of boats and the men who worked them. From an all time high of 15,000,000 bushels in 1865, only around 3,000,000 bushels were harvested during the 1971-72 season. The lowest yield occurred during the 1962-63 period, when only 1,243,497 were reported taken.

Clearly, this valuable resource has been either neglected or mismanaged to the brink of extinction. Much has been done in recent years to improve the situation; hopefully, it will not be too little too late.

 

Stormy Voyage to Salisbury

Chapter XXIII

 

In the spring of 1918 my brother-in-law and I had an unforgettable experience when we ran Into heavy weather on a voyage to Salisbury, Maryland, with a load of oysters.

We bought a quantity of choice oysters for 40c a bushel from several local catchers, and deposited them in a convenient spot in Hickory Cove, where they could be easily retrieved when the time seemed right to sell them How could we be sure someone else would not appropriate them in the meantime? We were trusting souls -- and there was a code of honor in our group prohibiting this kind of activity. Actually, my father and I, also father-in-law Capt. Frank Booze did lose some oysters this way once, but this sort of thing rarely happened.

Late in March we started making plans to get our oysters up and take them to Salisbury for sale. The mast in our bateau, Lucifer, had considerable age on it, so Capt. Johnny Clayton offered the use of his boat the Albert Parks, in which a new mast had been recently stepped. The Parks was a large bateau with a nice cabin; a very able and seaworthy boat built down near Tangier Sound. There was no charge for her use, but Capt. Johnny gave us a large shopping list: lumber, cattle feed, paint and various other items.

We cleaned the boat up and got our oysters aboard. The 98 bushels gave the vessel just the right amount of ballast for good sailing. The day we had picked for the trip dawned with a strong south wind blowing, and Capt. Johnny said his "glass" (barometer) was low, and predicted stormy weather for the voyage.

Very early that morning we went duck hunting; shot four or five apiece. After breakfast we deliberated on the weather situation, to go or not to go, since the wind by this time had hauled around more like south-southeast. However, with the oysters aboard, and all in readiness we decided to go anyway.

So we got under way and fetched on down past Hoopers Straits Lighthouse. The wind kept hauling around more toward southeast, and picking up velocity. By the time we were abreast the can buoy on Bishop's Head bar I told Romie we were in for a rough ride. Bishop's Head is a peninsula that juts between Fishing Bay and Hoopers Straits. The tide was low, and the 98 bushels of ballast set the vessel down rather low in the water, so we were unable to sail across the bar (flats); instead, it was necessary to sail around the peninsula -- a considerable distance farther.

The Parks was still carrying two full sails when we started bucking the head wind across Fishing Bay. It was picking up so fast we hurriedly hauled a single reef in the mainsail and two reefs in the jib.

We pressed on with a short tack and a long one across Fishing Bay, crossed the Nanticoke River and entered the mouth of the Wicomico by means of a slew that runs through Stump Point Bar. A slew is a slightly deeper inlet through shoal water. By that time it was blowing so hard from the southeast we had nothing on her but a double reefed mainsail. The tide was full, and a flood tide in the Wicomico River was equivalent to a good breeze of wind. It's a crooked river, but deep, with a retch (bend) first one way, then another.

When we reached Shad Point the sky was gray and overcast, with thunder rumbling hard. We barely made it to Salisbury ahead of a terrific snow storm, and docked just as the L.E. Williams Lumber Company blew the whistle at five-thirty to end the work day. We tied up under the bow of a weather-beaten three-masted schooner loaded with lumber.

Although snow had stopped falling by next morning, it was bitter cold, with winds of gale intensity. Some weather for the last of March! The place was full of boats But few were moving. A captain who had wharf space rented for the season had sold his oysters and was taking his large vessel out that morning, invited us to drop our boat In his space; he planned to be gone for several days. It was a nice convenient berth and, as he predicted, we had no trouble selling our oysters. His vessel had been loaded with oysters from Hollins Bar, below Dames Quarter; they were small and round, but fat and very tasty.

Our 98 bushels of treasure were beautiful specimens from Honga River, big as my hand and fat as butter. They sold like hot cakes at 90c a bushel. When prospective buyers sauntered down to the wharf and saw those big oysters they were much impressed. We would open one and hand it up to a prospective customer to sample. He would slurp it in his mouth, smile approvingly, and as soon as he swallowed it ask for one or two baskets. An elderly man with a pushcart bought the last five baskets -- and was disappointed because there was no more to sell him.

We stayed aboard the boat. With plenty of food and firewood, the cabin was adequate for our needs. We were accustomed to this kind of life, and could sleep as well in a workboat's bunk as in a bed ashore.

Meanwhile, our families were apprehensive to learn whether we had arrived safely, so a telephone call was received by a storekeeper near the waterfront (he had one of the three phones in the area) from Rufe White, a brother-in-law at Hoopersville. The storekeeper made some inquiries, then called Rufe back to report a two-masted bateau loaded with oysters in port, with two men aboard from Hoopers Island.

In the afternoon of the third day the wind started to mild down some. We loaded the lumber and other items for Capt. Johnny, got under way and started our voyage home. As we passed White Haven and started across Fishing Bay the wind was blowing the water up, and there were no other boats in sight. My shipmate began to lose his nerve, and we decided to play it safe and not try to make the crossing that day; instead, returned to White Haven and tied up there for the night.

On a walk into the village we met a farmer with pigs for sale, and bought two small black ones apiece. Their pen aboard the boat was a nailed-up upper bunk. Needless to say, they added nothing to the atmosphere. In that that era just about everybody in rural areas raised their own hogs and fowl. Some years cholera, or some other fatal ailment, would strike and destroy stock and flocks. Undeterred, folks would clean up the pens and start over again. That year everybody's hogs died -- including the little black piglets that sailed home with us. Next morning, we had breakfast, fed the pigs, got under way and sailed on out of White Haven. The wind had moderated, but was still blowing a rather stiff breeze. The trip across Fishing Bay that day was a cold rough ride, under a two-reefed mainsail, with icicles big as my arm hanging from the forward rails. We anchored at Bishop's Head Point, ate dinner, and fed the pigs again. Under way from Bishop's Head Point we shook the two reefs out and gave her a single reefed mainsail and a two-reefed jib. Because the tide was low and the centerboard down -- necessary in order to navigate in a head wind -- we were forced to again sail around the tip of the bar, past the can buoy.

We continued our journey, in bright sunlight now, with a head wind still full of tricky flaws, although the storm was over. However, by the time we reached Hooper Straits Lighthouse, the one now residing in the museum at St. Michael's in Talbot County, the wind was so moderate it was necessary to put full canvas on the vessel to keep going.

On our run up Honga River we tacked close, and waved to my old pal Willie Dean in his big new power boat. She sported a twelve horsepower Buffalo Marine engine and was named the Mary Jane Dean, after his mother. He and his three crewmen were bound to the bay to look after their fish traps for the first time since the storm. His traps were severely damaged.

Later, it appeared I had come through the storm unscathed in more than one way. Before my brother Henry left for France that year (1918) he turned over to me for my management or disposal, his share of the fish traps and power boat he held in partnership with a friend. His friend and I were unable to arrive at a satisfactory working arrangement, so a few days before we left for Salisbury I sold him my brother's interest in the business, and put the money in the bank to await his return from the war. Except for one small fragment all of these traps were swept away by the storm. To return to the windup of our stormy trip, it was late afternoon when we reached Hickory Cove and the first order of business was to tie up at Capt. Johnny's Wharf and unload his lumber and other supplies. He came aboard and had a big laugh over pigs sharing the cabin with us. He mentioned how reassured he felt to know we were in a boat with a good mast. Just how wise our decision was to take the Parks to Salisbury -- instead of the Lucifer -- was demonstrated later that year during dredging season, when we carried her mast off in a light breeze, and were marooned back of Lower Hoopers Island. The marine police boat, with two inspectors aboard, towed us back to Hickory Cove. Had any vessel attempting to sail across Fishing Bay during that storm carried off her mast all would have been lost.

 

The Day The Shores Capsized

Chapter XXIV

 

A most grievous episode to recount is the tragedy that struck our community the day the Catherine Shores capsized with the loss of five lives. It was a cold, grey blustery day in January. Romie and I worked our bateau Lucifer on Dick's Point, abreast of home, not too far offshore, all day under a double reefed mainsail. It was that kind of day. The wind would come over in gusts and almost blow us out of the water. At times it blowed us down, that is caused the boat to list out sideways, with the dredges overboard, and dipped the leeward rail under. Then it would get moderate again. Altogether a dangerous day to be working any kind of sailboat; but there was nothing we could do about it. Either we must stay out there and endure the hazards, or come ashore and miss a good day's work out of a short season. Our catch that day was forty-five bushels. My brother Henry worked to the leeward of us in his small bateau, and our good friend and neighbor Colvert Parks, worked on the Ware Point in his skipjack Jess Willard. Boxing fans will find it interesting to note that another neighbor, the late Capt. John Wesley Brannock Sr. had a boat named Jack Dempsey.

In the year 1912 Oscar Nelson and a brother-in-law Rufe White (who married my sister Betty) established a seafood factory at Hoopersville, which was built on pilings about a hundred and fifty yards out in Hickory Cove, connected to the shore by a narrow walkway. The Catherine Shores, a large two-masted bugeye, belonged to White and Nelson. Oscar worked the Shores to bring in additional seafood for the factory -- to supplement that bought from local watermen. Exile, handicapped by an infirmity that required the use of crutches, managed the factory -- with the help of a kindly efficient man called Mox (a nickname), not long over here from Germany.

The Shores had a mixed crew that year: two local men from an area below Cambridge, Maryland; two deckhands recruited from Baltimore; plus a regular named Patty, also from Baltimore, who served as mate and cook.

On this disagreeable day in 1919, Oscar was preparing to get under way and head out for the day's catch when he discovered he had no gloves left on board, and gloves were a must for this cold wet work. He sent his eleven year old son Clyde to the general store to get a new supply. When the boy returned he begged his father to take him along -- reminding Oscar that he had promised to take him dredging one day, and had not yet done so. Besides, the glove errand had already made him late for school. So Clyde came aboard, and they set sail for Bentley's channel. Only the larger boats worked in Bentley's because of the greater depth. On this particular day a number of boats were there, including Foble Tyler in his large bateau Harper. These boats had heavier dredges and gasoline winders -- which furnished the power to pull the heavily laden dredges back aboard. The Channel had an exceptionally good crop of oysters that year, and the boats were catching deckloads every day. In late afternoon all the boats working Bentley's Channel, except the Shores, had quit for the day and were waiting in line to put their catch aboard Capt. Sam Brannock's buy boat "Ole Bill Layton" -- the watermens' nickname for the schooner William Layton. Oscar had gotten a late start that morning, so apparently had decided to make a few more runs over the beds before calling it a day. The wind had picked up some by the time they started out of Bentley's, and the Shores was heavily laden, with ballast in her hold and a deckload of oysters. Suddenly, a particularly vicious flaw struck the vessel broadside, and before the crew could slack the sheets off or head her into the wind, the Catherine Shores capsized and quickly slid beneath the surface.

Fortunately for the two survivors, the vessel went down on the edge of the Channel. When she righted herself on the bottom, four or five feet of her masts protruded above the surface. Oscar and Patty swam to one and clung there. Neither of the four deckhands surfaced.

Foble Tyler, who saw the accident as he waited in line to land his catch, quickly put sail on the Harper and went to the rescue. He was noted for his excellent seamanship. Under the most adverse conditions, he maneuvered his large boat close enough to that bit of mast to pull the victims aboard unhurt.

As he shivered on the deck of the Harper, Oscar suddenly remembered Clyde was in the Shores' cabin -- having gone there a short time before the accident to remove his boots and warm his feet by the cabin stove. In the period of shock following the calamity it was easy to forget the child, since he was usually not on the boat. Had Oscar remembered while clinging to the mast, there would have been only one survivor. He could swim very little, and a rescue attempt -- which he doubtless would have made -- at that depth, in icy water, would probably have been impossible for a trained lifeguard.

By the next morning the blustery, treacherous wind flaws had changed to a light breeze. A good dredging day, but so far as I can recall not a boat moved. The tragedy of yesterday was everybody's sorrow. Just about every able-bodied man in the community gathered at Capt. Johnny Simmons' store and proceeded to board the William Layton to help raise the sunken Shores.

The Layton, a big main topmast schooner with a flying jib, was almost loaded with oysters. After we had put more chains and other salvage gear aboard, Capt. Sam Brannock took her up to Bentley's. Several power boats also went along. We got chains beneath the stricken vessel, broke her loose from the bottom, and brought her close enough to the surface to retrieve the bodies of two crewmen tangled up In the halyards (ropes that hoist the sails). Suddenly, one of the chains broke, and we had to let her back down. Everybody looked discouraged, but we had to try again.

On the next attempt we got stronger chains beneath her -- all large schooners like the Layton had strong chains aboard. This time we pulled the vessel up until the top of the cabin came out of the water. Capt. Sam put sail on the Layton, and with the help of the power boats brought the Shores across to shoal water, on the Oats between Hickory and Flag Coves. In approximately eight or ten feet of water she took up (stuck) on the muddy bottom. That was as far as we could get, probably because there was a good bit of her centerboard down when she went to the bottom. That afternoon, when low tide left the cabin top above water, we dragged around over the vessel and found the body of another crewman. The fourth crewman went adrift, and was found early that spring hung up in one of Willie Dean's fish traps. Capt. John Ashton probed around the cabin with a pair of nippers (small oyster tongs) and brought Clyde up. Old Mox clasped the child in his arms and ran to the opposite rail of the vessel, weeping. The Catherine Shores was salvaged and sold outside the community. Eventually, she was stripped down and converted to a power boat. As such, she continued to ply the Bay area waterways for many years. The mere sight of her never failed to agitate her former captain.

 

Tough Luck in Patuxent

Chapter XXV

 

The old axiom 'business is where you find it' is nowhere more true than in the fisheries occupation. Even though oysters were more plentiful in my youth, we had some lean years when Honga River, for some reason, just failed to yield a sufficient catch to make the effort worthwhile. At such times we would leave here, seek out a more fruitful area, and try our luck there. One such season, a group of us took our boats to the Patuxent River. I was in a two-masted bateau named Reliance, which I had bought from Mrs. Lovey White, widow of Capt. George White. Oscar Nelson was there too, in the bateau Defender (which Jess Booze and I later bought). Rufe White was there in a small two-masted bateau named Gladys. The largest boat in our group was an oversized bateau named Oceanic, operated by Ulman White, brother of Rufe. My stay in Patuxent that year was a short one, punctuated by a string of misfortunes. Of the two crewmen I had obtained, one got sick and had to be put ashore at Solomons Island to be transported to a hospital. The Patuxent River oysters were large and fat that year, but scarce. My lone crewmen and I had done rather well for several weeks -- until he almost severed a thumb one day chopping kindling wood. The doctor said he would be unable to return to work for an indefinite period. It was impossible to work the boat alone, so I decided to return home. I paid my injured crewmen the wages due him and made ready to leave. He was in good shape aside from his injured thumb, and intended to return home to Baltimore. Exile and Oscar wanted me to lay up the Reliance and work with them. They already had enough help, and my presence aboard would have diluted their already small profits. But it was kind of them to offer. They took a dim view of my sailing the two-masted Reliance across the Bay alone.

On my day of departure a stiff breeze was blowing from the southwest. I came on out of Solomon's, where we harbored, under two single reefs, sailed on out of Patuxent River and into the Bay. I held her in for Barren Island Gap, at the upper end of Fishing Creek (Upper Hoopers Island).

I had decided against going into Hooper Straits because the wind had struck down (due north) after I left, but elected instead to go through the draw bridge at Fishing Creek. This can be tricky in a good-sized sailboat even in a light breeze; in a stronger breeze one had better be sure he knows what he is doing. Before reaching the bridge I lowered the mainsail, leaving nothing on but a single reefed foresail. Once through the draw, and into Honga River she went on down at a pretty fast glide. It was blowing a gale by that time, but the boat's shallow draft allowed her to stay fairly close to shore -- down past Dick's Point, Old House Point, and into Hickory Cove. Someone asked me later if I was scared during the trip -- alone, with that much boat to handle, and all that wind. Had I been scared I would have been lost. Dangerous? Perhaps; but I did not consider it so at the time. In our youth we were all somewhat cocksure and venturesome. On the other hand, we acquired a great deal of skill in boat handling at a very early age.

 

Crabbing The Lucifer

Chapter XXVI

 

My brother-in-law and I continued to work our bateau Lucifer in crabs until 1933, but it was usually feast or famine. Sometimes our weekly catch was very small; at other times we would strike it big. One thing that was never big was the price paid us for our catch.

One summer a neighbor who used a trotline (a method of crabbing discussed earlier) was mystified that he kept losing his bait off the line but caught no crabs. He even tried at night, to no avail. Romie and I had been crab scraping on the river side for weeks, with little success, so decided to sail around the island to the Bay side and try to catch some of those elusive critters that had been eating our neighbor's trotline bait.

We decided to try a streak of broken bottom (patches of grass scattered over white sandy bottom) off Cow's Island, a small island between Middle and Lower Hoopers Island, just below Richland Cove. Richland Cove is at the tip of Middle Island (Hoopersville). Actually, the whole area close inshore on the Bay side is also known as Tar Bay. It is delineated by a line drawn from Barren Island down to Hollands Island. Inside this line is considered Dorchester County territory. The state has jurisdiction and responsibility for all waters outside.

Back to our crabbing operation. Off Cows Island we let the four scrapes go scraping sixteen feet of bottom at one time. The water was clear and we could see the scrapes as they were dragged along on the bottom. We stood talking a few minutes as the boat dragged the area, and presently when we looked down at the scrapes we almost fell overboard in surprise. All four scrapes were literally choked up with large chandler crabs. When we dumped those scrapes on deck it was a beautiful sight.

We worked there until mid-afternoon, with a fair west wind, and caught approximately 1400 pounds of large hard crabs; also, around 300 peelers and double crabs. A double crab occurs when a male crab attaches himself to a female which is in the young peeler stage -- just starting her preparation for shedding. (Crabs grow by periodically shedding their shells). The couple remain attached until the female crab sheds and becomes a soft crab, after which they mate, detach and go their separate ways. Sometime later a spongelike mass of eggs appears on the back of the impregnated female. As this mother crab swims about, the eggs float free, hatch and join the next generation of crabs.

We went back the next day and did rather well, too, although the wind was not as favorable. By the third day word had spread around about our fruitful spot so we were joined by a number of other boats. All of us together soon had the area either caught clean of crabs -- or, perhaps they were just scared away.

Sometime after that we heard crabs were being caught back of the Great Bar just below Barren Island. These were also being taken with scrapes, from grassy bottom -- not seeded grass, but a shorter variety called scows. A waterman from Fishing Creek (upper Hoopers Island) had told us about this spot.

The day we went up a number of other boats were working the area. Ross Thomas and my brother Henry both worked alone in small boats. Brady Dean and his two sons, Bruce and Delmas, were there in the large bateau Thelma Roberts. When we let our scrapes go in that grass, they were filled with crabs in a matter of minutes. It seemed as though every crab in Chesapeake Bay had suddenly congregated in that spot. We filled every barrel and other container we had aboard with large hard crabs, around 1700 peelers, and four bushels of soft crabs. I recall we had to buck a strong head wind back down Tar Bay (the area inside the county line), but the Lucifer could outsail them all. Our anchorage during that period was on the Bay side. It was smooth here then -- before erosion worked this section out deeper, there was almost a dry bar to Water Bush Point. When the tide made very low we could walk out and dig manoses -- better known as soft shell clams.

During this period the catch was ferried ashore in a skiff, and a truck from the factory picked it up. Part of our big catch was lost that day from too long a wait on the landing in the hot sun, waiting for the truck. A large percentage of the peelers were dead on arrival at the factory; also, about two bushels of the soft crabs had gone limp. We took the soft crabs to Capt. Johnny Simmons' store and told anybody who came in to take what they wanted. Although limp, they were still fresh and edible; the whole two bushels disappeared very fast.

Such were the vagaries of the business. The waterman, who did the hardest work, reaped the smallest profit. To a marked extent, the same inequity still prevails. And price-fixing probably originated in the seafood business. From our standpoint, however, the waterman has all the fun.

Late one fall we had laid the Lucifer ashore in preparation for blocking her up to recork the bottom and fit her for the dredging season. This was probably around 1920 or 21. The crab scrapes were still on the boat, so when Oscar Nelson stopped by one evening and asked us to try to rake him up a few crabs to fill an order, we hauled her away from Shoal Point, where we had harbored her, and made ready to go the next morning.

A friend had told us he had reason to believe there were some crabs on a mud lead off the Thoroughfare. The Thoroughfare is a shoal water area at the confluence of the Bay and Honga River, over which the bridge between the middle and lower islands once stood. At sunrise we were on this spot and let the four scrapes go.

They were soon filled with crabs -- mostly females, or sookies. We worked there until late afternoon and filled everything aboard, also the skiff we towed. We could handle them fast, since they were practically immobile as soon as the cold air hit them. We landed 2100 pounds of hard crabs, for which we were paid 1c a pound, and 190 peelers, at 2c each.

 

Sad Fate of The Lucifer

Chapter XXVII

 

The last year we dredged the Lucifer was 1929. Honga River was closed to dredging thereafter. We had her fitted with four dredges and two special oyster scrapes. An oyster scrape is similar to a dredge, but without teeth, for working grassy, muddy or hard sandy bottom -- other than hard shell rocks or bars.

One windy day we were working an area of grassy bottom on Windmill Point, between Shell Rock and the Thoroughfare Shoals. I had reason to believe we could catch some good oysters in that particular spot. I could case an area of bottom, make mental marks on it, then usually find what I expected to find there.

On that small area of grassy bottom we caught sixty-five bushels of large fat oysters that day. When we moved up to the wharf to land them, Rufe white asked if we had been robbing somebody's oyster beds. This size catch was unusual, however, since the crop seemed to be getting smaller each year. We continued to take oysters in Honga River for years, but only by tonging.

What happened to the Lucifer? We continued to use her for crabbing through the 1933 season. In August of that year, after the crabbing season had slowed to a crawl, we blocked her up on Sarah's Island, a small promontory of land south of the church, belonging to the Hooper family.

The Lucifer had been built of good lumber, but was getting some age on her, and a few of her planks had some questionable spots. We removed these faulty planks and ordered replacements. Also, planned to renail and recork the bottom. I even took the wheel off to give that mechanism a good checkout.

On August 23rd a severe tropical storm struck the area. High winds and tidal flooding caused great destruction. Our venerable bateau was swept off her blocks and into a field a hundred yards away, apparently banging into one or more damaging obstacles in her path. She was mortally wounded: sides shattered, decking damaged -- a total loss. A neighbor cut up the remains for firewood. Our power boat was also damaged, but not beyond repair. I had a skiff swept away.

Many other sailboats were lost in the storm, but those remaining continued in use many years for crab scraping. However, with the loss of the Lucifer, in 1933, my partner and I took no more crabs under sail.

I continued working into the late 1960s, alone in a small motor boat, tonging oysters during the fall season: crabbing during the summer, with the use of trotline -- until crab pots were invented in the early 1940s. The crab pot, a kind of baited trap, is a clever device which has taken most of the hard work out of commercial crabbing. On the other hand, their indiscriminate use can be destructive to this valuable resource.

One of my most delightful pursuits was fishing my small marsh nets, or seines, in either the river or the shallow waters of Tar Bay. I would sometimes push or row a small skiff for this operation, rather than use the motor. I loved the hushed quiet of the early morning. I fished before daybreak, so the fish would not spoil in the nets; also, in order to allow time to get to my regular day's work early early. Too, I had the added bonus of watching the sun rise over the river. This magnificent spectacle never failed to lift my spirits. The sleepy head misses the best part of the day.

Once at the nets, that element of luck, or chance, was as fascinating as a horse race -- and much less expensive. I might catch a bunch of trout, rock or blues; perhaps some croakers, or a flounder; maybe one large one of tall tale proportions; sometimes not a scale of anything. But there was always tomorrow, with maybe a bigger catch, or none at all. Always, it was wonderful just to be out there.

Passing crabs often nibbled numerous small holes in the seines, or a pesky skate (stingray) might tear a big hole that would take me hours to mend in my spare time, or while housebound by bitter winter weather.

My career as a waterman, whether under sail or other forms of power, was a richly satisfying existence. Most cherished, of course, are memories of those early and middle years, all under sail, and of the wonderful men who shared these experiences, for I have told their story too.

We worked hard for long hours, and loved every minute of it. We ate simple, wholesome food, with a hunger born of heavy muscle-straining toll; and slept the sweet deep sleep of exhaustion. We worshipped God and were awed by his handiwork. It was a good life.

 

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