TILGHMAN, Md. — The end has often seemed near for the aging and shrinking fleet of tall-masted sailing vessels watermen have used since before the turn of the century to dredge oysters from Chesapeake Bay.
And this year, with many of the bay's oyster beds ravaged by a deadly parasite, even the captains of the last stand of working sail in the country say it may not be long before they pass into history like the whaling men of New England.
"I'm scared we're going to lose some," says Russell Dize, a fourth-generation skipjack captain in this old oyster port.
Not many are left to lose.
Nearly 1,000 skipjacks--low, beamy, shallow-draft vessels with tall, raking masts and large, tapered spars extending forward from the bow--once plied the waters of the Chesapeake. When the dredging season opened this fall, the surviving fleet of working skipjacks numbered fewer than 20. At least five other boats did not bother to set sail.
Long, Punishing Days
Bone-chilling cold wind and spraying water and long, punishing days are usually the lot for the skipjack captains and their five-man crews, whose season, Nov. 1 to March 15, is a time when fair-weather sailors stay off the bay.
"Nothing's ever warm on these except when you're painting them in the summer," Dize says. "But when there are plenty of oysters, nothing much but ice stops us from going out."
In good times and bad, skipjacks leave port before the break of dawn to be over oystering grounds by sunrise, the legal starting time for dredging operations.
The unprecedented spread up the bay of the disease MSX, or multinucleate sphere unknown, has meant even earlier hours and more grueling days for the oystermen because they are having to travel farther to find healthy beds.
The resurgence of the disease, which thrives in drought years when the water is saltier, comes after a decade-long biological decline in the oyster fishery.
Last year, for the first time in 50 years, the bay yielded fewer than 1 million bushels of oysters. The prognosis for this season is even worse.
But on the first sail day this season, Dize and his brother-in-law, Gene Tyler, remained stubbornly hopeful that they could still eke out a living.
Roused Before Dawn
Two hours before sunrise they were down at the wharf to rouse crew members who spent the night aboard their skipjacks, the Kathryn and the Martha Lewis.
The weather was warm; the wind was light, and the air of uncertainty was great.
The boats left dock under the power of their "push boats." Small boats with large engines mounted in the middle, they are lowered from the stern of the skipjacks so they can push the sailing vessels along to their destination.
For two days a week the skipjacks are allowed to dredge while being pushed by the tiny powerboats. The "power days" have to be productive, particularly this year, for the skipjacks to stay in business. Last season, there were only several good sail days before Christmas.
Watermen who take oysters with tongs are limited to 30 bushels a day per boat, for which they have been getting $17 to $25 a bushel. Dredgers, whose costs are higher and who cannot get started until 1 1/2 months after the tongers, are allowed to take up to 150 bushels a day.
Aboard the Martha Lewis, Tyler, 58, a soft-spoken but talkative man who quietly gives commands, sips a cup of coffee as he orders the mainsail raised to take advantage of any wind that comes along. It is 4:52 a.m. and the 46-foot skipjack has been under way for just eight minutes.
One of Last Built
The Martha Lewis, which has been on the water for 32 years, was one of the last skipjacks built. There is a stove and heater inside Tyler's newly built cabin, but there is no toilet; crew members must make due with a plastic bucket.
As the boat makes its way up the Choptank River, crew members remain huddled below in the heated cabin sipping coffee and soda and smoking as fatty bacon sizzles in a frying pan.
With no wind and no reason to prepare to dredge, the crew stays below even as the sun creeps above the horizon and over the majestic sails of half a dozen skipjacks that have already reached their destination and are drifting together in a cluster, bow to stern.
The 15 boats gathered in the mouth of the Choptank drift quietly for 2 1/2 hours before the wind suddenly picks up at 9 a.m.
On the Martha Lewis, the captain orders the jib raised and crew members begin putting on boots, gloves and Swedish-made oilskins. The wind is shortly up to 10 to 12 m.p.h., perfect for dredging. The work begins.
When the winds are strong enough, two dredges are dragged simultaneously over the bottom from the port and starboard sides. The triangular, iron-framed dredges can each hold as many as three bushels of oysters. They have sharp teeth on the lower edge to scoop the sedentary bivalves into their netting.
Bells and Cords