Cheaspeake Bay's Skipjack Oystermen

Boats in the nation's last commercial sailing fleet play cat-and-mouse games with each other as they search for the succulent shellfish

ALL hands are on deck. Four eager watermen and their captain wait patiently. An occasional guttural sound hints otherwise. Three skipjack sailboats crisscross an area of Chesapeake Bay within sight of each other, searching for oysters beneath the chilly, choppy surface. One of them had returned with a big haul two days before; only the general location of the promising bar is known by the others.

You can sense Capt. Darryl Larrimore's thoughts as he spins the tiller in search of the prize. Maybe the oyster bed is closer to shore. No, he's drifting South again. He watches for telltale vibrations on a cable pulling a dredge that combs the bottom. Looking up, he spots another boat. ``He knows where they are,'' he says. ``He's just waiting until we get disgusted and leave.''

Apparently, one day one skipjack finds a prime spot, the next day another does. It's a game grown men play seriously. The goal is to scrape up enough oysters to make a living and continue a way of life begun long ago.

Captain Larrimore, a fourth-generation waterman and captain of the 56-foot ``Nellie L. Byrd,'' can name all the boats his father worked on. Built in 1911, and recently rebuilt ``from the water up'' by Mr. Larrimore, his boat is one of the largest remaining skipjacks. He chuckles at published reports of the fleet's expected demise. His confidence conveys the impression that this way of life will continue for a long time.

Of the crew, Eddie Heath is the youngest, running around looking for things to do that the captain will notice. Edward Gowet sits quietly, apparently his 18 years before the mast telling him hard work will come soon enough. Tucker Harrison, a seven-year waterman, inspects his rubberized gloves thoughtfully.

Reynolds Larrimore, the captain's cousin, cautiously shares with a visitor his thoughts about what's happening to the skipjack fleet, based on his 20 years experience. Water pollution from industry, farms, and even storms that create floods of fresh water, not to mention heavy harvesting by various types of boats, have taken their toll on the oyster, he says.

Coming out of a turn, the captain calls, ``Let 'er down again.'' The dredge splashes as it hits the surface, disappears silently, the cable cutting the water smoothly. Reynolds stoops on deck, holds the cable with one hand, and waits, feeling it's pulse.

The skipjacks, though of shallow draft to get over sand bars, are nonetheless sailboats. Apparently, it's not practical to dredge under sail anymore. Government regulations are complex. Only traditional sailboats are permitted to dredge for oysters (gathering everything in the scoops' path). The regulations for skipjacks say two days a week are allowed for use of power.

At the turn of the century, the sailboat fleet numbered 1,000 boats. In the 1950s, there were about 100. Today, the last commercial sailing boat fleet in this country numbers less than two dozen. And one of those, the ``Rosie Parks,'' is on exhibit at the nearby Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum at St. Michaels, Md.

It's nearly midday. The ``push boat'' rumbles over the stern; it's hypnotic rhythm has pulsated the same way for the more than four hours since we left moorings before sun up. And not a dozen three-inch ``keepers'' (salable oysters) are on deck to show for it.

A ``push boat,'' a small boat with a large engine, is the power that moves a skipjack when it's not under sail. It butts against the stern, propelling the boat forward: very handy in getting to the dredging locations quickly.

Regulations say that engines may not be on board except to haul the dredges on deck. On nonpower days, when the sails must be used, the push boat must be hoisted out of the water and suspended at right angles to the skipjack on lifeboat-like supports over the stern.

``Hand tongers,'' and other small oyster boats numbering in the hundreds, operate under less-restrictive rules. Oystering season is only during the worst winter weather, November to mid-March.

Suddenly, after hours of tedious searching, the cable vibrates, the dredge is hauled up by an onboard engine, and old shells, rocks, and - at last! - several ``keepers'' spill forth. Eddie whoops ``alright'' and the day's work is on.

With the discovery of the right spot, the charade is over and the other two boats begin dredging immediately.

The next three hours are a blur - dredges over the side, then up with a splash, the crew on it's knees sorting, the captain spinning the tiller, the three boats pacing back and forth, cooperating as they must over the find.

On board, grunts of satisfaction and disappointment alternate, governed by what the nets bring up. The only pause is during turns.

As 3 p.m. nears, gloved hands fly more furiously and then, suddenly, the clock, by regulation, ends the day's harvest. Without a pause, each boat swings toward home; it will be long after sundown before they get there.

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