Waterman's Draketail Recalls 'A Better Time' On Bay

April 07, 1991|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff writer

Norman E. Cummings bought his first boat late in life, long after hebegan to pull giant fishing nets across the Rhode River in Mayo or hauled crab pots by the shore. It came after the water ceased to form the center of his working life.

But when he returned to the water,he did it in good old style -- in a Hooper Island draketail work boat.

That fits. Talk to Cummings for a while and you see that the picture of the Rhode River that he holds most dear was snapped in the 1930s, when houses stood sparse along the shore and the waters ran abundant with crabs and oysters.

The 1930s were the heyday of the slender, fleet craft called a draketail, which first appeared on the Chesapeake Bay in the 1920s. Cummings' boat -- The Running Tide -- is believed to be the only draketail still working on the Chesapeake's western shore.

So it is with considerable interest that the 74-year-oldman views the barn full of youngsters in Deale, the ones now building their own 39-foot draketail out of wood and hardware. He stops regularly to check on their progress.

"Oh yeah, something good for theboys," said Cummings.

Of course, there are also girls among about50 youngsters from South County schools who signed up for the project last fall. Their parents are working beside them, along with a few master boatwrights who were born before the draketail.

Winter has turned to spring on the hill in Deale since the community project began. The keelsun, the curved backbone of the boat hewn from a massive Douglas fir timber, has sprouted ribs of finished lumber. A frame is taking shape that will support the hull plankings. It will be summer,though, before the youngsters begin the arduous task of fashioning the curved, angled stern that forms the distinct profile of the HooperIsland draketail.

Cummings had his eye on The Running Tide for some time before he bought her in 1974 from his Collison Road neighbor,Hebert Elliott. Although he had "fooled around on the water all my life," he never owned a boat. The draketail "was the size I wanted."

Elliott said, " 'I'll sell you mine,' " Cummings recalled. " 'I won't sell it to anyone else.' I said 'You mean you'll sell me that pretty thing?' "

Elliott had bought it from a Severna Park man who hadit custom-built on the Eastern Shore in 1957, long after the draketails declined. The light-engined boats were pushed out by much wider craft that could support big engines, heavy dredges and hydraulic equipment. The Running Tide is believed to be the last draketail built inMaryland.

"The draketail harkens back to a better time" on the bay, said Robert Besse, the anthropologist who conceived the boat-building project.

The Running Tide berths at a pier behind Cummings' home on Cadle Creek, the place where he and his wife, Gertrude, have lived since 1946. The bow points toward land, toward an outcropping of shore built not of sand and earth but of oyster shells. Jim Collison had an oyster house on the spot in the 1930s, a shack where men wouldsit and shuck.

The shack and the men are gone. The oyster shells remain, as do Cummings' memories.

"That's where I was born, rightin that house right there," he said, pointing to a little shingled house on the shore as the draketail glided through Cadle Creek. "When I was a kid coming up," he said, pointing to a more grand house farther down shore, "I'd cut grass on that property all day long -- 50 cents a day."

He talked about how paddle-wheeler showboats from Baltimore used to ride the Rhode River in the 1930s, bringing music and other entertainment in the spring and summer. He talked about the horse-powered winch that would pull boats ashore at the old Behlke boatyard. He remembered youngsters trying to dig up a mysterious grave at the river's edge, getting spooked in the dark and running off.

He talked about how the water turned murky as boat traffic swelled. Must have been after the war, he said. In the early 1950s it really turned bad. In the 1930s, he said, it was "crystal clear. . . . You could see bottom up to 8 feet."

The Running Tide headed through the Rhode River in smooth water, powered by a six-cylinder Chevrolet truck engine. The draketail, or ducktail, is a slip of a thing, a long narrow boat built to move quickly with little power. Cummings' boat is small for the species -- 30 feet long and only about 7 feet wide. When the sea rolls, the draketail's narrow hull rocks in short swings like a cradle.

Cummings worked these waters for a commercial fishing company in the 1930s. He helped pull seines as long as two football fieldsacross the Rhode River and the bay itself. Then on weekends, he'd crab along the shore or hand-tonged for oysters for $1 a day.

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