Just the Three
Launch: Long Cove Launch Ramp, off Langford Creek of the Chester River.Small fee for launching. We left the truck and trailer at a local friend's field. Or launch at Chestertown Marina ramp, and leave your truck and trailer there.
"JUST YOU, THE BAY, AND GOD"
--- -They come with many names - barcats, skipjacks, bugeyes, crab dredgers - or just plain workboat. They covered the bay with sails two hundred years ago and thousands worked the waterman's trade. The sails are mostly gone, and the old ways are fast disappearing. Every year, there are fewer watermen working the bay.
--- -A skipjack is a fine vessel. Like any good worker, they labor with grace, style, and efficiency. Their purpose is to dredge oysters. Once they numbered in the thousands, and their white sails floated over Chesapeake Bay like low-scudding clouds. Now that sight is a dim memory in fading minds.
--- -There are a few remnants. Rarely does a species go extinct suddenly - there are usually a lingering few to remind us of the past, and then the light goes out. There are 21 skipjacks, built prior to 1912, on the National Register. Of these, but five are still working commercially under sail in the upper bay. These few are not only the majestic remnant of the sailboats that dredged oysters on the Chesapeake -- they are the last remaining commercial fleet still operating under sail in the United States. Like most rare and endangered species, they exists only because they are protected by law. In Maryland, oysters may only be dredged under sail.
--- -However, even the skipjacks have succumbed to engine power to remain commercially viable. A small push boat, or yawl, may legally be used to power the skipjack to and from the oyster beds.-The push boat must be out of the water on davits when dredging three days out of the five day work week. It is simply not profitable to operate totally under sail.
The Push Boat on Davits
--- - Diseases attacked oysters in the lower bay in the 1980's destroying millions. Most of the remaining commercial skipjacks are in the upper bay where lower salinity protected the remaining beds. Oysters are slowly coming back throughout the bay, but the trade has been destroyed.
--- - Of the remaining 21 skipjacks, most are used for educational purposes or for the tourist trade. Thousands of people are taken on environmental field trips aboard skipjacks every year. They learn of the importance of oysters to the region's past economy, ecology, and cultural history. They are also told of the habitat loss, disease, overharvesting, and pollution that have reduced oysters to an estimated 2% of there original levels.
--- -We were guests at Cutter Marine, on the Middle River in Essex, Maryland when we first arrived on the Chesapeake this trip. This was a perfect place to begin our cruise, with facilities close, services at the marina excellent and cordial folks. A highlight of our stay was our 'discovery' of the skipjack, Hilda M. Willing, tied off at the marina. She is a 100-year old skipjack that continues to dredge bay waters for oysters. Built in 1905 in Oriole, MD, she is 55 feet long, has a 16-foot beam, and draws 3 feet. With the centerboard down, a necessity when under sail, she draws 7 feet. She carries more than 1,300 square feet of sail. She is a graceful beauty.
Hilda M. Willing
--- -She is owned by Baltimore police officer Barry Sweitzer. His father, "Pete," bought her for $1,500 in 1947. That boat, and Barry's folks, reared four sons and a daughter dredging for oysters in winter and crabbing in summer. Pete was one of ninety watermen working the bay in skipjacks in those years. Barry spent his vacations working with his father, out of Tilghman Island. Pete did all her repairs - everything from woodwork to fabricating metal parts. Barry does all the maintenance today. The Hilda M. Willing is one of those five skipjacks still dredging oysters - yes, she's on the National Register, thaanks to Barry Sweitzer's hard work.
--- -The waterman culture still exists in small towns, islands, and remote houses along the eastern shore of Maryland and Virginia. Marvelously described in the book, Beautiful Swimmers, this culture is a unique remnant of early colonial days in America. We heard a waterman say, "Folks are different here on the Eastern Shore" and we heartily agree - some of the nicest folks you can meet anywhere live there.
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--- -The Maritime Museum in St. Michaels preserves a window into this fast disappearing culture. There we found this quote by Ernest Bowden Jr, "These people who've never been here and they'll do the strangest things. They're always in the biggest hurry in the world." And from John Page Williams, "thirty years ago, the gear was simple, kids grew up with wooden rowboats, and you couldn't go very far or very fast. You looked at what was there. Now boats are bigger, faster, plusher. The boat is the center of recreation, rather than the river." Life on the Bay's water is changing.
--- -Oysters, crabs, mussels, shrimp, and fish have been the mainstay of the commercial fishery. The men and women who work the trade are independent and hard-working. Some of the small islands of the Chesapeake, such as Smith and Tangier, are almost totally populated by watermen and their families.
--- -Most of the watermen love the rewarding but hard work. Commercial fishing is five times more dangerous than police work or fire-fighting. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, 630 fatalities occurred in the industry between 1992 and 2002. They waterment work from sunup to sundown but dispite the hard work and sometimes difficult nature of their work, they enjoy the independence and tranquility of their lives. Barry Sweitzer says, "Out there it's just you, the bay, and God."
--- -For us, one of the great joys of cruising the Chesapeake is to share the water with the watermen and for a brief time share their beautiful water.
El Meets a Waterman
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