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Tale of skipjack captain, and a caper still worthy of praise | COMMENTARY

FILE - In this Nov. 19, 2019 file photo, watermen dredge for oysters on the Chesapeake Bay in southern Maryland near Ridge, Md. A lawsuit filed Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020, by the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation and others, is claiming that the Environmental Protection Agency has failed to ensure that Pennsylvania and New York are doing enough to reduce pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. Attorneys general from Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia say they’ve filed a similar lawsuit. (AP Photo/Brian Witte, File)
FILE - In this Nov. 19, 2019 file photo, watermen dredge for oysters on the Chesapeake Bay in southern Maryland near Ridge, Md. A lawsuit filed Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020, by the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation and others, is claiming that the Environmental Protection Agency has failed to ensure that Pennsylvania and New York are doing enough to reduce pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. Attorneys general from Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia say they’ve filed a similar lawsuit. (AP Photo/Brian Witte, File) (Brian Witte/AP)

This is the story Art — the late Art Daniel Jr., that is, legendary Deal Island oyster dredger, captain for more than half a century of the skipjack City of Crisfield.

It’s also about the art of the oyster. Though it’s among the least glamorous of Chesapeake seafood, pursuit and capture of the humble “arster” has inspired more lore and photography, painting and passion (the “oyster wars” of the 1800s), than anything else from these waters.

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And no method of harvesting the bay is more artful than the wind filling the outsize mainsail of a skipjack as the captain skillfully “licks” her twin dredges across the “rocks” (reefs) of oysters.

Among this fraternity, Mr. Daniel and the City of Crisfield were renowned.

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In early January 1972, loaded with oysters, Art had the City of Crisfield flying before a southeast breeze toward Solomons harbor on Maryland’s Patuxent River. My late friend Tom Wisner, singer and storyteller of bay tales, was aboard with his camera. At the wheel, Art hummed a hymn as he passed Drum Point Light.

“Y’know, Cap’n, I’ve heard some of these Eastern Shore captains can put a boat into dock under sail only,” Tom said. Art, lost in thought, hummed some more.

“Might be true,” he said finally.

Only later would Tom realize what he was requesting: “[It was] like asking an 18-wheeler to come into a tight parking space at 65 mph,” he said, “throwing tons of old wooden boat and rigging against the hard concrete of Solomons wharf, with sure disaster if a single thing went wrong.”

Art scanned the waves and currents, hummed another hymn. Silence. Then, to his crew: “Eddie, you go forward and take that jib off and stand by on the main halyard. Be ready to let ‘er go … Elmer, you get forward with that bowline. Tom, put that camera down and hold this rope.”

The Solomons dock was coming fast. The other skipjacks had all dropped sail for docking with the powered “pushboats” carried astern. They hung back. This would be something to see. A crowd formed along the catwalk of the Orca, a big barge that extended from one end of the dock.

Art held a collision course for the Orca. He would need to turn, or “come about,” very sharply at the last possible moment, spinning the City of Crisfield in a great arc, dropping sails and luffing up into the wind, kissing the dock — or smashing it.

Art spun the wheel, and the boat’s long bowsprit swept down the Orca’s side so close the gawkers lined up on her fell backward or sucked in their stomachs.

Sails down, boom drawn in, she was still whizzing past the dock. Elmer hurled the dock line ashore, aiming for the man standing ready to quickly wrap it around a bollard.

And he missed. The rope slithered back into the water.

Art was already “striding forward from the wheel, running like an old rooster,” Tom said. His whole body bent to gather the rope and whirl in one fluid motion and struck the dock man in the chest. And with a groan the City of Crisfield settled to the dock.

Art sauntered back to the stern as the crowd applauded. “How’s that for docking one of ‘em, Tom?”

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It was a work of Art, captured vividly on “Follow on the Water,” Tom’s last CD.

Other works also capture Art, or his form of art.

There’s “Watermen,” the hauntingly lovely 1968 film by Holly Fisher and Romas Slezas, that follows Art and the Deal Islanders through a year of oystering. And there’s “The Oystermen of the Chesapeake,” by Robert de Gast, arguably the finest photo book ever done on the bay.

Also, at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, as part of photographer Dave Harp’s “Where Land and Water Meet” retrospective photo exhibit, there’s a continuously playing loop of roughly 60 photos from 1976, chronicling the last days of widespread sail dredging. And the Skipjack Heritage Museum on Deal Island will soon be opening a section featuring Art Daniels and the City of Crisfield.

Tom Horton, a Bay Journal columnist, has written many articles and books about the Chesapeake Bay, including “Turning the Tide and Island Out of Time. He currently teaches writing and environmental topics at Salisbury University. His views are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal. This article first appeared in the December 2020 edition of the Bay Journal and was distributed by the Bay Journal News Service; it has been edited for length.

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