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CHALLENGING THE CHESAPEAKE A Waterman's Tale of tale of trying to live and make a living the year the bay froze over

I. Bug-Boy Days on the Bay (Or, Paying My Dues)

This was no longer a game. We could die out here. We could sink and all aboard would drown. There was no way anyone could save us in these high waves and frigid waters.

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I was down below, in the hold of the Virginia W., one of the smallest and oldest skipjacks on the Chesapeake Bay. We had sailed out of the Knapps Narrows of Tilghman Island at 5:30 that morning with the rest of the Tilghman fleet -- about 20 of us, including a few Deal Island boats. In fact, the rest of them were out there, a mile away, dredging the bottom of the bay under sail -- the Lady Katie, Stanley Norman, E. C. Collier, Ruby G. Ford, Nellie Byrd, Thomas Clyde -- all big and powerful, 40 to 50 feet of deck, tall raked masts, long bowsprits, jibs and mainsails full, and with steel-toothed dredges pulling in tons of oysters.

The winds had picked up, the waves gotten higher, and rain was pounding down on our boat, turning to ice when it hit the deck. And we were headed down the bay, out to the ocean.

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Because of the combination of strong wind and high waves, our captain, a novice, could not get the Virginia W. to come about and head back in. A more experienced captain would have just dropped the yawlboat -- the short, stubby pushboat with a big V-8 engine in it -- from the steel pipes called davits that project over the stern, pulled the bow of the yawlboat snug against the stern of the skipjack, fired up the engine and pushed the skipjack around. But our captain had never gotten around to building a cover over the yawlboat and was worried that if we let it down, the waves would swamp the 12-foot boat and sink it. Besides, Mike -- young, lithe and nervy -- was hunched over in the yawlboat and couldn't get the ice-sheathed engine to fire.

I had been sent, sliding across the deck, down below to check the bilge pumps. Seemed the boat was sailing lopsidedly. I had )) carefully climbed down into the hull, stepping onto the thick, 100-year-old keel -- the captain had cussed me out for jumping onto the herringbone planking of the hull on a previous day. "You might knock a board out," he'd explained.

Our centerboard, a huge, oaken, many-layered thing, was all the way down -- and there was a hole in the centerboard well the size of my fist. Water was shooting out into the hull while two little bilge pumps were making pathetic electric clicking noises as they struggled to keep up.

The wind howled above me. The rain and sleet slashed down. On the deck, you had to take your slippery rubber gloves off to reef, or partly lower, the sail, or secure a line, and your fingers were immediately frozen, first by the soggy, ice-crinkled piece of line you were trying to maneuver, second by the rain.

Every beam strained as the Virginia W. beat against the waves and the captain tried over and over to bring it into the wind, to come about. But just when the boat was on the verge of swinging around, a big wave would catch it broadside, flinging us southward, down the bay, further from the fleet, from land. No radio aboard. No lifeboat.

The men on deck were yelling at the captain. One wanted him to jibe, a dangerous technique for changing direction that involved swinging the stern across the wind, causing the mainsail to catch the full force of the wind on its other side and to whip ## across the deck. The captain -- as was his technique -- remained quiet. I realize now, 16 years later, that this quiet was not a manifestation of seaworthy knowledge bustling around in his head but rather of youthful inexperience.

I could feel the waves pounding up through the old pine boards on which I stood. Scraps of wood, old soda cans and plastic fast-food wrappings floated in the bilge. The water was at ankle level of my thick-soled waterman boots -- keep them unlaced, just in case, I'd been told. The captain yelled from the wheel, "What the hell's going on down below?"

I hollered back, "Hole in the centerboard well."

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"Plug it up," he yelled. "Plug it up."

I stared at the hole -- water gushing out as if from a fire hose. I sloshed around, found an old wool Army blanket. I held it up, pulled the hawk-bill out of my pocket, sliced the blanket in half and wedged it into the hole. Now the spray was not much worse than a bad leak from a garden hose. I pulled myself up onto the deck.

Mike was at the wheel. The captain, a big guy, was in the yawlboat fooling with the engine. The other skipjacks were even farther away; they were actually dredging in this weather. My respect for them was greater than ever.

The engine sputtered; it roared. The captain and Mike switched places. With two of us on each side, we lowered the lines holding up the yawlboat through two separate sets of block and tackle, Mike revving the engine of the swinging boat. Before the yawlboat hit the water my eyes caught Mike's -- we were connected for a second by an almost visible line of understanding and compassion: He was risking his life for us, for me, and we were putting our trust in him. Then the connection snapped: He looked away with an expression of concentration and fear in his boyish face. I suddenly felt very separate from him -- it was he who was out in that yawlboat, and if he went overboard, that was it for him; I was up here on the deck.

Mike jammed the engine into gear a second too early. The yawlboat leaped forward, crashing into the stern. Mike was thrown forward but hung on. We tied the yawlboat in place, its engine at full throttle, and as Mike climbed out of it, we came

about, headed back to Tilghman Island, without one oyster aboard.

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II. Miles Away -- the Honeymoon Is Over

Those were my toughest days out of a year of working on the water, first tonging for oysters, then dredging, followed by a stint spatting -- moving seed oysters to hospitable waters -- and finally, crab-potting with one hell of a sharp, hard-driving Tilghman skipper, Chester Haddaway.

Every week over that early winter, because of high winds, we missed either a Monday or a Tuesday, the "money days," the "push days," the days captains are allowed by the state to drop the yawlboat down and dredge under power.

I'd step onto the Virginia W. at 4:30 a.m. Eighteen-year-old Frank would make us each a pancake -- hard and thick and heavy enough to be considered a deadly weapon -- and we'd follow the other dredgeboats out. We'd get back in past dark with one-quarter the catch of the other boats. I was not pulling in those big bucks I had promised my bride.

When I got home at night to Miles Away -- the name painted over the front door of our rented house in Newcomb, half-way between St. Michaels and Easton -- I'd kiss my wife of three months and hold in any stories that might worry her. Seated by the kitchen wood stove, I'd pull off the layers of raggedy clothes, and tiptoe across the cold linoleum floor into the aluminum stall shower behind the kitchen sink.

Once I turned the water on and the spray hit me, the stall seemed to rock like the boat I'd been on all day. Leaning up against the side of the shower stall, I'd have to bend my legs and sway, back and forth, to stay on my feet while I let the hot water work on my back.

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I'd pull on a bathrobe, throw some wood in the stove, sit at the kitchen table, eat a few bites of dinner. If Ansley stood up to go over to the stove, she'd turn around to find me slumped forward, head on table, snoring.

Up to bed we'd go. Our quaint abode with portholes in the living room needed caulking more than any boat on the bay. We'd pull on layers of nightshirts and pajamas, and my wife, raised in Florida, wore a nightcap. Once under the crushing layers of wool blankets and old quilts, we could barely move. The sheets of plastic stapled to the windward side of the house looked like sails in a full breeze. Ansley would urge me to stoke the fire, but by this time I was miles away, and before me was one huge shifting black and white photo of a mountain of oysters to cull, and then, the alarm: 4 a.m.

III. A Dredging Crew: Strong Men With Oyster Mud in Their Genes

It was tough to get on a skipjack back then, over the winter of '76-'77. Captains wanted dredgehands who knew in their bones what they were doing; they wanted strong men with plenty of nerve, a love of sailing, and oyster mud in their genes, men who had been working on dredgeboats for 20 or 30 years, not this motley crew of white landlubbers aboard the Virginia W. -- Mike, Tennessee, Frank and I -- the most inexperienced crew to ever toss off the lines on a dredgeboat.

I had recently left a position as a reporter at the Talbot County Star-Democrat, where I'd become restless writing about watermen and decided to join them. I turned down the two-week paid vacation-honeymoon offered by my editors, Greg Romain and Anne Stinson, and Ishmael-like, headed out to find a boat. But unlike Ishmael, I was a just-married ex-steeplechase jockey one year out of graduate school, knew as much about boats as our captain did about racehorses, and had no Queequeg along for the ride. No legendary captains were waving me aboard, so I set off with the one who recruited me.

Dredgeboat captains weren't looking over your past-performances chart in the Daily Racing Form, they weren't asking for your college transcripts, they didn't give a damn if you had a police record five fathoms long. They wanted men with iron backs who could pull a 125-pound dredge loaded with 200 pounds of oysters and shells and mud aboard, unload it and push it back overboard, cull through the mess, toss the oysters behind them, and shovel overboard the remaining debris. They wanted men willing to exhaust every bone in their bodies to earn $500 to $800 a week off of the bay's bounty -- one-third of the earnings went toward the boat's maintenance and the captain and crew (usually four to six men) each got an equal share of the remaining two-thirds. And you'd better believe they would not abide slackers; slackers as well as Jonahs were given strong, health-threatening hints to get off the boat.

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IV. On Being a Waterman When There's No Water

One January afternoon we were out off Blackwalnut Point on a sail day. There wasn't a breath of air and it started to snow. We had the most embarrassing piles of oysters aboard. It got colder and colder as we stood around waiting for a breeze, and the snow fell.

At first it was pretty. Soon it was a whiteout. It was as if we'd been thrown back into an eerie tale of Arthurian legend.

The cold white crystals covered the deck. The sails sagged. Dead quiet. Spooky.

I watched a snowflake hit the water. It sat up on top of the still water and other flakes landed around and on top of it, and within seconds there was a layer of snow floating on the water. Bone-chilling cold. Time to head in.

Which way was in? Again, our youthful captain was suspiciously quiet.

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Snow smothered the lines, stuck to our hats, blanketed the deck. The cold was an encroaching evil spirit: It was in the joints of our fingers, in our toes. We hopped and stamped and clapped our hands as life froze up around us.

We quarreled. We listened. Finally we heard the diesel of a workboat. We cranked the yawlboat and followed the diesel's roar into the Narrows, where we docked outside Buck Garvin's oyster-buying operation.

The next morning I awoke at Miles Away and sat on the edge of the bed. I saw my breath and the cold went right through my nightshirt. I went down to make coffee and throw wood on the fire. No water. Pipes frozen.

On my way to Tilghman, I stopped to pick up Ian Gillelan, a college student I'd just recruited. At 5:15 we crossed the Knapps Narrows Drawbridge onto Tilghman Island. We looked out in disbelief. Not a boat had left. The whole Narrows, even with its swift currents, was frozen solid, and as we glanced to the right, where the Virginia W. was docked, we saw that it did not look right: Its mast looked short compared to all the others. It was short. It had no deck. It had sunk.

At home, my wife was not enthralled with the economic forecast: no boat, no water, no work, no money. The bay stayed frozen -- January, February, into March. I found work as a carpenter during the day and as a bartender at a Route 50 dive at night. Beneath the cash register I had a pool cue for protection. I opened thousands of beer bottles, saw dozens of fights, and got home at 2:30 a.m. At 3:30 a.m. Ansley arose to head into Easton, to the Tidewater Inn, where she worked as hostess on the breakfast shift, catering to the early goose and duck hunters. Federal disaster money was supposedly on the way.

V. After the Freeze

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In March the ice broke up and I found a position on Ed Farley's Stanley Norman. I knew Ed because I had written a feature on him -- portraying him as the young, hard-working individualist from Maine that he was. Over the summer he'd rebuilt much of his boat single-handedly. His respect for the captains and crews of decades earlier was contagious. "The reason I like dredging is because it's so primitive," he'd said. He was a captain you could trust.

The state had extended the oyster season, the oysters were plentiful, I was on a boat with professionals -- Deal Islanders -- and we were making money.

One sail day Ed had found a good spot way up the Choptank, and there were no other boats around. The fleet had thinned out after the freeze -- which helped keep the supply down, demand up and our pockets filled with something besides oyster mud.

We sailed and dredged and culled. There were storm clouds to the southeast and the wind was gusting. Ed called Leeroy back to the wheel, consulted with him. Leeroy, in his 70s, was our first mate. Ed trusted his knowledge and skill above all others aboard. We dredged, culled, came about. We reefed the mainsail and the jib.

Buster, tall and flamboyant, and his buddy Bollweevil, short and taciturn, began to sulk. They'd push the dredge out haphazardly, letting the bag get caught in the teeth of the dredge. They'd take their time culling off the incoming oysters, and take long looks at the approaching southeaster. Ed kept his eyes on Leeroy.

Suddenly Leeroy looked back at Ed, and we were racing the squall in. The waves picked up. We were flying in this old wooden boat loaded down with tons of oysters, water sloshing over the deck on the leeward side.

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In everyone's mind was what had recently happened down off Dorchester County. Capt. Thompson Wallace had taken his dredgeboat, Claude Somers, out of the Deal Island harbor on a rough day. On board was the captain's son, home on leave from the Navy, and a crew of relatives. The boat sank near Bloodsworth Island. All aboard drowned.

Ed called Buster back to the wheel. Buster, in his 20s, could dazzle you with his athleticism and speed. We acted like we weren't paying attention as they spoke. I saw Buster look out at the bowsprit and shake his head, and Ed clench his teeth and look straight ahead.

Then Ed was talking to Leeroy and the waves were shoulder height and the wind-filled jib was driving the bow deep into the waves and I knew the jib had to come down.

Leeroy was pulling on an oilskin jacket and climbing over the oyster piles by the mast. Billy joined him, hunkering down by the Samson Post at the base of the bowsprit. The bow crashed through the waves, spraying us.

Billy, emaciated, in his 50s, was a hard-drinking man. Once over the morning shakes, he was witty and sharp, an old soul who could be kind and thankful to you -- a strong contrast to how he'd turn on you like a snake at earlier hours. Billy could cull: His fingers could dance through piles of debris picking out oysters and tossing them back with the speed of a legerdemainist.

I didn't argue as Billy took the jib lines from my hands. His bloodshot eyes connected with Leeroy's, and Leeroy turned and climbed onto the plunging bowsprit.

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Leeroy shimmied all the way out, grabbed fistfuls of sail, pulled them in. One wrong move and, we all knew, he was crab bait. Billy leaned back hard, expertly worked the lines, drawing on a strength I'd never witnessed in him.

Leeroy pulled, furled and slid back. A gust of wind would hit, Leeroy would release the Dacron, and it'd go cracking and snapping like guns going off. He'd grab it again, slip back, pull, furl and tie it down. Water sloshed over his boots.

Once the jib was down and the mainsail was reefed, we ran before the gale-force winds, planing dangerously on the 6-foot waves, racing the storm. Ed kept the oyster-laden boat perfectly balanced. We sailed into the harbor full-blast, came about, and Ed parked the Stanley Norman, gently, up against the pilings.

VI. Broad Reach

A couple of weeks later, it was a Wednesday, a sail day, and the end of the extended season. The Stanley Norman had been one of the last back into Dogwood Harbor the day before, and was tied up four skipjacks out.

At 4:30 a.m., in the dark, I stepped onto the first dredgeboat, carefully navigated my way over taut lines, rusted dredges, jagged-edged buckets, across three more dredgeboats, and then onto the Stanley Norman.

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I was looking forward to the big breakfast that 60-year-old Squirrel -- compact, quick, strong and kind -- would expertly whip while crouched in the cabin and surrounded by thirsty, hungry, groggy, half-dressed men. Yet, I knew that the moment I slipped that hatch forward, the men would start ribbing me, the landlubber white boy. I pushed open the hatch and up wafted the warmth of the fried eggs and bacon, and the boiling coffee, mixed with the scent of warmed oyster mud and the acridness of three men who'd lived and slept on board for three nights. There also came up a few brackish epithets.

Soon the sun was up, there was a slight breeze, we were over an oyster bar. No roar of the yawlboat -- it was a sail day. We'd make "a lick" -- glide over the bar with the dredges on the bottom behind us. We'd press down on the winder motor handles, the boat would slow, we'd feel the sides strain, and in the dredge would come filled with oysters.

We ate lunch out on the deck that last day. I appreciated sitting up on the cabin top out in the sun, eating my lunch of hearty stew.

That's what I loved about working on the water -- it was primitive and it forced you to enjoy the basics of life. A mug of gritty coffee made from 2-day-old grinds tasted better, to men sailing in at dusk, than any espresso on the Champs-Elysees. When you stepped off the boat at the end of the day, you felt free, strong, proud. Your mind was clear. This was what I'd been searching for when I'd left the newspaper.

I had wanted to get away from the neurotic behavior that proliferates in the stale air of office buildings. This was an attempt to hone life down to its core: to push the body to perform past its limit, to savor the feel of thick, hot stew in your mouth, to appreciate the warmth in your rickety house at night.

As we sailed in on a broad reach, Billy, Leeroy and I sat up in the bow. The wind was behind us, the sails were all the way out, almost at right angles to the boat, and we were "running free." We looked out at the sky and water and coastline, felt the breeze, listened to the hull slice through the waves, breathed in the thick spring air.

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At the dock, newspaper photographers snapped our pictures. Reporters asked questions that showed no understanding of the moment.

Over the winter we had inhaled the sensual beauty of the bay, along with its raw power and savagery. I had experienced the peace of another time when after swabbing the decks I'd sit up on the Samson Post, and feeling like Ishmael in the crow's nest, I had looked out at the sunset as we sailed in, watching the wispy cirrostratus glow red, turn a gray shot through with violet, then a gray-burgundy, and finally merge with the black waters. Those were moments one does not have riding a swivel-chair, culling papers, reefing the window shade and sailing home in a traffic jam.

They were moments out of time, moments men have had since the first sail was set and a fisherman, leaning against his tiller, sailed in with the day's catch. I felt connected to the flow of tides. We had harvested nature's bounty, and we were sailing in under nature's power. We were a part of it all.

At the dock, we adjourned to the cabin, where Ed computed our week's earnings and neatly wrote each of us a check. I cashed mine at Fairbanks Fish and Tackle Shop, filled up with a tank of gas and purchased a case of beer, cruised a hundred yards down the main drag to Mary McCarthy's Country Store, where I slapped a crisp 100-dollar bill on the counter, chatted with Miss Mary and Miss Anna, and paid off the debts I had accumulated over the freeze.

Back in my car, feeling lighthearted and needing nothing, I headed over the Knapps Narrows Drawbridge, the March wind behind me, and took to the open road. I was on a broad reach and running free.

PATRICK SMITHWICK is a free-lance writer living in Glencoe with his wife, Ansley, and three children. He is director of publications and public relations at St. Paul's School.


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