For the skipjack captains, the oyster is their world

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Any oyster, plump and sleek, a gobbet of tonic fresh from Chesapeake Bay, is one of fall's best feasts.

But an oyster caught under sail by salty men in graceful, century-old wooden vessels -- that nourishes more than our stomachs.

So it is that modern Marylanders willingly legislate inefficiencies in harvesting the bay, restricting the dredging of oysters to sail power to preserve our historic skipjack fleet. (We also amend the law to let the old boats use power a couple days a week.)

The skipjack fleet at work, waltzing its dredges to and fro across the oyster beds, has taken its place with the wild geese and swans as evocateurs of the winter Chesapeake.

The skipjacks, their hulls shaped to work in only a few feet of water, go perfectly with the bay's essential shallowness; and their no-frills construction mirrors the ethic of the bay waterman.

To share the charm of skipjacks with the public, and to cultivate support for these ladies of the bay, the event known as Chesapeake Appreciation Days was conceived 27 years ago by the Windjammers, a group of Baltimore and Annapolis sailing enthusiasts.

CA Days are next Saturday and Sunday at Sandy Point State Park. In any year I'd recommend that you attend, to watch the skipjacks race and to go aboard afterward. But now there is a particular urgency.

The mood was bleak at a recent organizing meeting for this year's races. The assembled captains, representing perhaps a third of 20 or so working skipjacks left in existence, were glum as they heard the reports from the annual state survey of oyster beds. "Stone Rock and the Diamonds, all oysters dead; Coopers Hollow, Poplar Island, loaded with oysters -- all dead; Cooks Point, 40 percent living, all dying."

"If it's as bad as they say, we may be tied up by Thanksgiving [three weeks after the dredging season begins]," said Wadey Murphy, captain of the 106-year-old Rebecca T. Ruark.

"I never thought I would dread the start of the season; it used to be so much fun," said Bobby Marshall, captain of the Virginia W, built in 1904.

It is not news that oysters in the bay are in decline. So much has been written about the coming demise of the industry that the story has lost its shock value. But the end could come soon for the skipjacks, which are far more expensive to maintain and operate than the craft of individual tongers.

The tongers can quickly convert to crabbing, clamming or fishing, but the skipjacks are single-purpose craft. Built to do one task, and do it superbly, their strength is also their Achilles heel. They must oyster, or die.

Bay watermen are survivors, able to make the best of fat years and endure the lean ones. Take Mr. Murphy, for example. He's a Tilghman Islander, a third-generation "drudger"; his skipjack, Rebecca T. Ruark, originally built as a sloop, has a refined hull design that makes her one of the best dredgers in the fleet -- and the fastest. He has never missed a single CA Days since the event began in 1965.

Mr. Murphy has never lived extravagantly, except in one respect. Several years ago, against all logic, he invested a sum reported at more than $60,000 to completely rebuild the Rebecca -- "ready for another century," he said at the time.

"I can hang in there better than most," he says now. "I got no car payments, no house payments, no boat payments. But I have never faced a situation like we're facing now. The way things look, we may race in 1993, but not even oyster."

Others are not that optimistic. "I'm just scared to death," says Ed Farley, a former New Englander who fell in love with skipjacks as a young man and bought his first one, the Stanley Norman,

nearly 20 years ago. "I'm facing having to sell my boat and my house," he says. "If I don't have enough cash flow from oystering in the next few months, I don't know how I can survive."

Mr. Farley says that some bay clammers, faced with one of their leanest years ever, have been illegally taking their powerful hydraulic dredging gear onto oyster bars, chewing up the

bottom in search of clams.

I noticed at the CA Days race meeting that Darryl Larrimore, the 39-year-old captain of the Nellie Byrd, had not said much. "Oh, I'm out of it now, sold her to Bart [Murphy, Wadey's brother]." Mr. Larrimore has bought a 124-passenger cruise boat and plans to attend the races to take paying customers out to watch the skipjacks. "I hated to give up, but you can't live on hopes," he said.

No matter what happens to oysters, it's a safe bet there will be skipjacks around for some time to come. They're being bought or leased by environmental education groups like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Echo Hill School -- and by restaurants and corporations for publicity purposes. Several captains say they hope to develop sidelines chartering their boats for educational and sightseeing tours; but it requires a good deal of time and expense to get old, wooden craft certified by the Coast Guard for passengers.

Stanley Larrimore, captain of the Lady Katie, says he quit after a few years of such tours. "It was fun, but I was makin' about what it cost in gas and sails."

The 20 skipjacks still dredging -- about 13 are expected at CA Days -- make up the smallest working fleet since watermen began having skipjacks built in the 1880s as a cheaper alternative to the large sloops and schooners that dredged oysters.

At their peak there were several hundred skipjacks, but by 1963 thefleet totaled about 65 boats. It diminished to 26 by 1976, then made a small comeback, as seven skipjacks were built new or refurbished by the early 1980s.

Despite the gloom about oysters, the captains are by nature highly competitive about both their harvesting and sailing abilities, and the races promise to have some drama.

The talk around Tilghman Island is that Bart Murphy has vowed to unseat his brother, Wadey, who has dominated races in recent years with his sloop-hulled Rebecca. Reportedly, Bart has lengthened the bowsprit of his Nellie Byrd by 3 feet, allowing more sail, and is sure of winning. (Don't bet the house on it, other captains say; but if Bart loses, it won't be for lack of trying.)

Wadey remains the man to beat. He says he sometimes hears grousing about how often he wins, "but for 20 years I came up there in my old boat [the Sigsbee], the slowest boat on the bay, and lost every time; I think I earned a few [wins]."

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