A legend sets sail on the bay Waterman: On his 80th birthday, Earl White joins a handful of black men in Maryland maritime history with the honorary title of Admiral of the Chesapeake Bay.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ABOARD THE STANLEY NORMAN -- His weather-beaten hands untangle the mighty lines, and the old man known as the "Black Pearl of the Chesapeake" sets sail for about the ten-thousandth time.

Today will be different from a lifetime of frigid mornings that have come before.

During those years, when he was making as little as $12 a week and considering a more forgiving profession, Earl White left shore on this very boat, bound for the bay and a backbreaking day of tonging for oysters.

On that old boat, covered with muck from the water and the stink of fish, he started at the bottom of his profession. A waterman without his own vessel. An oyster dredger. A hired hand.

But now, on his 80th birthday, he sails the Stanley Norman as a first mate, an admiral, a legend.

The governor comes to City Dock in Annapolis, and White becomes one of a handful of black men in Maryland maritime history to be named an honorary Admiral of the Chesapeake Bay.

The mayor of Annapolis declares Nov. 17, 1998, Earl White Day.

Schoolchildren sing.

Not bad for a skinny kid who came from a poor family that made a living at the will of the water and built homes along the shore long before coastal dwellings were considered posh.

"I was baptized on the bay," White is fond of joking.

The third-generation Eastern Shore waterman has always earned his paycheck tonging and dredging for oysters in the salty waters of the Chesapeake. One frozen winter dawn after another, for more than five decades, he pulled on rubber gloves and rubber waders and headed out to find oysters.

But somewhere along the way, on those rough waters and in those slimy nets, he found more than seafood. He found good friends and his pride and an honest living.

Earl White even found God.

The resume of a good waterman floats.

In the middle of the bay, a man is judged by the boats he has sailed. And there aren't many resumes that compare to White's.

The Clarence and Eva.

The Ralph T. Webster.

The Lottie May and the Dottie May.

The USS Missouri.

And the Stanley Norman.

"Ask about Earl White -- anywhere from Newport News to Havre de Grace -- and they know about him," said Vincent Leggett, director of Blacks of the Chesapeake. "He's considered the best of the best."

Growing up on Maryland's Eastern Shore in Dames Quarter, a tiny place where life is intimately wedded to the bay, a little boy named Earl learned about the water the way a farm kid learns about cornfields. By living it.

His father's father was a waterman. So was his mother's. And his wife's.

"Our lives revolve around the seasons of the bay," he says.

He marked the years by seasons of oysters. White outlived one wife and married again. The oldest of 16 children, he buried 10 siblings. He fought in a world war.

But always he worked the bay.

The folklore is that oystering is good in months with an "r" in them, starting with November. But White doesn't need a calendar. He can feel it in his bones, deep down, when the chill in the air is crisp enough to signal that the oysters are ready.

Some mornings, the men would have to scrape a film of ice from everything inside the boat before setting sail. Some days, they would get so wet and cold their fingers and feet would go numb. And some nights they would be so tired by the time they returned to shore that they barely managed to get the oysters off the boat before trudging home to sleeping wives and warm beds, only to rise before the sun to do it all again.

"It was a hard life," said White's second wife, Orsula. "You know a man's been working when he's asleep before his head hits the bed. But he never complained. He loved it. He's loved this life. Sometimes I think he'd rather be out there on that water than here at home. Yep, sometimes I think it."

She laughed hard.

"Is that what you wanna know about Earl? That he's a worker? Oh yeah, he's that all right. He don't know nothing but work. But more than that, he's a good man, a real good man, and he was that way when I found him. Always good, and I think he found that out there on that water. My, the stories he's told me. I can't even remember half of them."

It was November, the onset of oyster season, in a year so far back White can't remember the date.

The sky was blue and the water calm as young White and the rest of the crew sailed the Clarence and Eva from the dock in Crisfield. As they dredged for oysters, the sky turned black. A northeaster blew in.

The water rose.

"The dredge boat filled with water and sank," White said, referring to the small motored boat attached to the rear of the skipjack to push it through the water.

A thick fog dropped.

The wind was too high and the water too rough for the men to navigate.

"We took a beating and a banging," the old man remembered, his watery dark eyes scanning the water beyond the Annapolis dock.

Defeated and terrified, the captain left the wheel and the crew members tied themselves to the boat. All through that day and night, those grown men sobbed and prayed and tossed around on the waves.

"You wouldn't believe how they cried," White said. "I didn't cry. But back then I was too young and dumb to be scared."

Early the next morning, their boat washed up on Solomons Island. Everything that had not been tied or nailed down had washed away. But all the crew members survived.

"I remember getting off that boat and seeing some watermen on shore who just looked us all over and said, 'Where in the hell have you boys been?' "

But maybe the best story is how White came to believe in God.

White was never much of a churchgoing man. He loved gospel music for the cadence and the clapping, not really the message. And church often conflicted with his time on the boat. Restaurants needed their oysters, and praying for a paycheck had never produced one.

But out on the bay, whitecaps and blue sky as far as he could see, White started thinking about something bigger. How could it be explained that every year, like clockwork, the bay belched forth great nets full of shelled crops? How could it be rationalized that the raw beauty of the sunlight hitting the blue water was ZTC nothing more than an accident?

"People that works on the bay will trust in God sooner or later," is what White always says.

"There ain't no other explanation for it all," he says, still amazed that Gov. Parris N. Glendening thought enough of a small-town waterman to make the rare move of giving him the honorary title of admiral. Retired since 1989, he will continue to work the bay, from a tour boat, teaching children and grown-ups about the dying profession of the waterman.

He thinks back on all he's seen in those flat wooden boats called skipjacks -- the good years and bad years, the vastness of the sea, the way the crew sometimes made it safely home through a storm that really should have swallowed the boat.

So Earl White found God gradually, over a lifetime on the water, after a string of bad-luck years spent praying for a good next oyster catch. There were no lightning bolts or great visions or booming voices.

But there were occasional miracles when, inside slippery gray shells, he found pearls.

Pub Date: 11/18/98

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
41°