Last week as I was seeking an answer to an obscure question, a friend suggested I call his friend Ed Farley up in Maryland. It was about 10 a.m. when I made the call on my cell phone, and I could hear some strange background noise when he answered. I introduced myself and asked Mr. Farley if he could hear me.
“It's O.K.,” he said, “I'm just out on my skipjack dredging oysters.”
By the time I got off the phone from that call, “drudgin' arsters” was suddenly at the top of my bucket list. In a lifetime of messing around in boats, I'd been out on two or three skipjacks but it had always been for pleasure and I'd never seen one of these majestic vessels actually doing what they were designed to do back in the late 19th Century – scraping two heavy dredges at a time across Chesapeake Bay oyster beds. Capt. Ed Farley of the skipjack H.M. Krentz has been sailing skipjacks and harvesting oysters since the early seventies. When he explained to me that he had only a couple of weeks left in this year's season and that he was only going out two days a week, the little voice in the back of my head that sometimes takes charge said, “Dude! You're facing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! These old working vessels are vanishing fast and, er, not to bring up an uncomfortable subject, but you might not be around so much longer yourself!”
The little voice had a point. Although about 800 of these vessels were built and hundreds at a time could be seen on the Chesapeake in the early 1900s when they spread south to the sounds of North Carolina, I had recently read that there are now only 14 working skipjacks left. They are all in Maryland where state laws, in an effort to preserve both the oysters and the skipjacks, require that dredging under engine power be done only two days a week. Dredging under sail power can be done 5 days a week.
The following day I called Capt. Ed back and asked if I might be allowed to drive up and join him for a trip. He generously agreed. When I mentioned my plan to a couple of friends, oyster dredging suddenly appeared on their bucket lists as well so I emailed Capt. Ed and asked if he could take three of us. I assured him that we'd show up dressed for work. Again he readily assented but informed me that his six-man crew had the work under control.
Monday morning, after confirming with the captain that Tuesday's weather would be suitable, Philip, Steve and I drove up to the Eastern Shore of Maryland and found rooms in a Princess Anne motel. We retired early since we were expected on board at six in the morning, a half-hour's drive away.
When we arrived, our vessel, the H.M. Krentz, was berthed at a wharf in Deal Island, MD along with three other skipjacks. The crews of all four began to arrive and load groceries aboard. Within minutes, the delightful smell of breakfast came wafting up from the galley. Capt. Ed greeted us all with a firm handshake. At 61, he's the quintessential Chesapeake waterman.
There was some good-natured invective bantered back and forth between the four crews as, one by one, they pulled away from the wharf, propelled by their yawl boats – ridiculously over-powered ten-foot wooden dinghies -- tethered to their transoms. While traditionally most yawl boats contain large gasoline engines taken from old automobiles, the Krentz’s boat sported a 150 h.p. diesel. The yawl boats are the only mechanical power source allowed by law so that when the skipjacks are dredging under sail they can be hoisted up into davits hanging off the stern to show that no engine is being employed. For such large vessels to be powered like that seems downright ludicrous until you see them in action. These skippers can work their skipjacks in and out of tight berthing spots as easily as if they had twin Caterpillars.
As we headed west out of the harbor at Chance in the early dawn, there was a brisk northerly breeze kicking up a lively chop and occasionally throwing spray over the starboard rail. Capt. Ed was a little surprised when the vessel ahead of us turned back to the harbor. “He’ll probably regret that,” he muttered to us. “I think this breeze is going to settle down soon and he will have given up a good day."
Off to the south, we could see two other skipjacks emerging from the harbor at Wenona, a port too shallow for any of our four vessels, Capt. Ed explained. On the way out to the oyster beds we bombarded our captain with questions. I asked if it were true that there are only 14 working skipjacks left. His jaw dropped and his eyes widened as he said, “Fourteen?! There are only 6 and you’re lookin’ at ‘em right here!” The little voice in my head said, “See? I told you you’d better jump at this chance!”
It soon became apparent to us that Capt. Ed is a born teacher. He loves to share what he knows and what he knows is a lot. He pointed to one of the Wenona skipjacks and said, “That’s ‘Capt. Daddy’ Art Daniels.” I’d actually seen You Tube videos featuring ‘Capt. Daddy Art.’ At 91, he’s the oldest captain out there. He was Ed’s mentor who got him into this whole crazy lifestyle back in the early 70’s.
When we reached the oyster bed, indicated by a couple of oil jug buoys, the captain slowed the yawl boat as the port and starboard deck crews consisting of 3 men each, tossed over the heavy metal dredges and adjusted the cable length with old rope beckets where the cables left the drums. After about a two-minute “lick,” the yawl boat was slowed even more and the “winder engine,” a large gasoline monster amidships, was revved up to pull in the dredges. As soon as the dredges cleared the rails, two men on each side would heave the woven rope bag aboard and dump a pile of oysters and empty shells half the size of a kitchen table onto a massive steel plate protecting the deck. Each dredge would then be thrown out again as the men, all with cigarettes hanging from their lips, fell to their hands and knees to sort through the heap culling out the oysters from the dead shells. By the time the next 2-minute lick was done, they were ready to scoop the dead shells over the side with shovels and strips of plywood and repeat the whole process. Except for taking ten-minute breaks for breakfast and lunch, these six men worked non-stop from seven in the morning until the sun set at 5:49 p.m. Capt. Ed takes pride in being the last man to quit for the day. The next-to-last boat in was Capt. Daddy Art’s. He always stays out until 4:30.
Observing the crew at work clearly revealed the efficacy of two age-old traditions of the sea: First was the fishermen’s time-honored system of working for shares. I challenge you to find a crew of wage-earning factory workers half as productive as these men who were making what came down to a penny apiece for each oyster they culled. They were obviously happy to be working under a captain who stayed out long enough to get the most out of a day’s work. It meant more money for all of them. This being the tail end of the season, the bed had been pretty well picked over so that it took a full day’s work to harvest a little better than a third of the 150-bushel limit, which might have been caught in two hours earlier in the season. The vessel takes a third, the captain takes a third and the crew divides a third. Imagine a Fortune 500 corporation in which the C.E.O. makes only 6 times as much as the lowest-paid employee.
The second tradition is that of sending a youngster to sea to make a man of him. One member of our ship’s company was a young man who (like many of us) has had some difficulty in finding his niche. Ed seemed proud to inform me that the boy was now in his sixth week of dredging and keeping up with the best of the men. Herman Melville, who went to sea as a boy, wrote: “Whaling was my Harvard and Yale college.” If you were to dress him in tweeds, Ed Farley could pass as a professor on any campus, although he never went to college himself
After a few hours, the captain said, “If you guys want the full experience, you can jump in there with them.”
When I suggested that we’d like to help but didn’t want to be in the way, he assured me that if I’d take a shovel and help them clear away the dead shells they’d appreciate it. While my two lubberly comrades cowered on the quarterdeck, I picked up a shovel and sallied forth. The starboard crew beamed as I helped them clear the deck until suddenly Cornell, the biggest man aboard, yelped in alarm.
The rest of the crew looked up at me and shrugged. I figured I must have shoveled over some good oysters so I apologized and returned to the quarterdeck. A few minutes later, after one of his many brief consultations with the crew, Capt. Ed came back and informed me that I had shoveled one of Cornell’s knee pads overboard! When I tried to pay him for it, he smilingly refused saying, “It was worn out anyway. The straps had broken which is why it was just lying on the deck.”
As the sun went down, the captain and crew grudgingly put away the dredges and cleared away for the harbor. On the ride back, Ed turned to me and said, “You know, I’ve never been a drinker or a partyer. But then one day I discovered dredging and it was like E.T. finding his home planet!"
By then, visibly shaking from the cold, I couldn’t quite share the feeling but I recognized the obsession. I’m very much the same about sailing. It’s one of the only things I do that makes the rest of my life tolerable. [Editor’s note: He’s not that easy to live with, either!]
In the car on the way back, with the heat turned up as high as it would go, the three of us agreed that it had been a very worthwhile experience – two hours of education followed by ten hours of character building! We could have interviewed Capt. Ed and taken some pictures in an hour, but without staying for the long full day we could never have fully appreciated what this work entails.
Fortunately for the less robust, Capt. Ed offers two-hour cruises on the H.M. Krentz out of St. Michaels, MD all summer. It’s not just a boat ride. He always puts over a dredge to give his passengers a hands-on taste of the waterman’s life. Check out his website: www.oystercatcher.com. Tell him I sent you. And, while you’re at it, please extend my thanks to him and his crew!
[Editor's note: Capt. Ed's website seems to be experiencing difficulties. Please check back another time.]