A bay celebration, even as way of life slowly goes under


Tolchester Beach -- South of Poole's Island off Kent County, Andrew McCown raises the sails on the skipjack Elsworth. The wind catches the white mainsail on the 58-foot varnished mast and the clubfoot jib sail ripples across the bow. The 92-year-old boat glides across the Chesapeake Bay water.

This is practice. Tomorrow and Sunday, the Elsworth and Mr. McCown will compete in skipjack sailing races during the annual Chesapeake Appreciation Days at Sandy Point State Park.

On Monday, he will be oystering on the bay with the skipjack on the first day of the dredging season, hoping for good things but fearing bad.

The weekend celebration launches Monday's real thing.

"It takes eight days to get the boat geared up with the help of two or three people," Mr. McCown says.

For the working skipjack races, the boats -- the last fleet harvesting oysters under sail -- have to be fully outfitted for oystering, with dredges and other equipment on board.

"I was worried we might not have CA Days this year," says Mr. McCown. "We had some problems last year, but the Watermen's Association stepped in."

Begun as a skipjack race in 1964 to honor the captains, the event now is a "project" of the Maryland Watermen's Association, the trade group for commercial watermen.

It also includes educational exhibits and demonstrations plus entertainment and children's activities. But the skipjack races from Sandy Point near the Bay Bridge to Baltimore Light at the mouth of the Patapsco River are the big attraction. Last year, 17 boats entered; eight are expected this weekend. The boats that once plied the bay by the hundreds now number fewer than 20.

There's just not much out there for the oyster boats to dredge. Last year "was bad," Mr. McCown says. "I can't imagine it will be better this year."

"A couple of captains sold their boats, others are into the charter business or have just left their boats at the dock," says Betty Duty, CA events coordinator.

Mr. McCown, 40, is one of three directors at Echo Hill Outdoor School, 20 miles north of here, near Still Pond. "I teach and I'm in charge of operation and maintenance of all the boats," he says.

One of the boats is the 58-foot Elsworth, which Mr. McCown -- a licensed commercial oysterman and the skipjack's captain -- will take to the water this weekend. He'll compete against such bay legends as Wadey Murphy, Ed Farley, Russell Dize, Bart Murphy, Stanley Larrimore and Stan Daniels.

On this practice day, Mr. McCown stands at the helm of the classic white skipjack. He's lean and of medium height, wearing horn-rimmed glasses and a gray quilted jacket. Longish blond hair sticks out of the back of a gray baseball cap. Crew members David Humphreys, 25, a science teacher at Echo Hill, and Gareth Davies, 20, at the school on an exchange program from New Zealand, stay near the bow.

"On CA Days, there might be 15 to 20 people on board," Mr. Humphreys says. "It's kind of a social gathering. With all the sails up on the boats, it's a beautiful sight."

Meanwhile, Mr. McCown talks about the romance other people attach to a waterman's life but also notes the hard work with ever-diminishing promise of reward.

"It's sad to see a way of life disappear," he says. "We want to see it continue and be a part of it. I hope it's not too late."

Chesapeake Appreciation Days


WHEN: Tomorrow and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5p.m.

WHERE: Sandy Point State Park, off U.S 50/U.S. 301 on the western shore of Chesapeake Bay at the last exit before the Bay Bridge toll booths

ADMISSION: K$5 for adults, $3 for senior citizens and military personnel, free to children 12 and under. Parking is free.

INFORMATION: Call (410) 269-5570 or 269-6622

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad