Rugged Oystermen Again Migrate To Annapolis Dock

Annapolis Woos Smith Islanders

July 22, 1991

Before sleek yachts and sailboats dominated City Dock, before specialty boutiques and brick fern bars catered to an endless stream of tourists, oystermen tied their boats in Annapolis and settled in for a long winter.

But by the early 1970s, watermen disappeared from a gentrified waterfront amid rising docking fees and complaints that dirty workboats ruined the scenery.

These days, the oystermen have come back during the winter months, their fees waived by a city seeking to recapture a time when a bustling port housed a couple hundred workboats.

This year, some 25 oystermen came from the lower Chesapeake Bay's Smith Island, seven hours by boat and centuries removed from the upscale Annapolis dock.

On Smith Island, 400 people live much like their ancestors who settledthere 350 years ago. In their isolated world, a collection of old wood-frame houses, crab shanties and one-lane roads -- with no fast-food restaurants or convenience stores -- watermen outnumber everyone. Few people own cars because they have few places to drive. Water splits the island in two and cuts it off from mainland Crisfield in Somerset County, a 45-minute ferry ride away.

The Smith Islanders' existence aboard low-slung, shallow-draft wooden workboats in Annapolis seemed as anachronistic as their lives on the remote island.

At CityDock, the oystermen sleep on board in bunks in cramped, heated cabins. They rinse their hands in bay water, cook canned food on two-burner stoves and store cold cuts and soda in ice chests. They grab showers in dock restrooms for free, courtesy of the city.

"You ain't gotthe comforts of home," said Mike Harrison, 31, aboard the Miss Yvonne, a boat his father once captained and named after Harrison's mother.

But as Kenny Schoffstall, a 38-year-old father of two, put it, "It's something you have to do. That's what I grew up to. I never worked for anybody else. Where you gonna get a job with a high school education?"

Like their fathers and grandfathers before them, they'd spent their lives catching oysters in the winter and crabs in the summer, many of them quitting school as teen-agers to work.

"Being separated from the mainland, you have to count on the water business," said Willard "Woosie" Laird, tall, sandy-haired and easy-going.

Near Smith Island, parasitic disease had wiped out an oyster crop that had only begun to thrive again, forcing them to the waters off Annapolis. There they work during the winter weeks, sleeping on their boats.Each weekend, islanders car-pool and drive the three hours to Crisfield to catch the ferry home.

Oyster tonging is hard, lonely, tedious work, but most Smith Islanders have never known anything else. On most days in Annapolis, they would work from sunup to late afternoon.Then they'd deliver their harvests to the Maryland Watermen's Cooperative in Eastport.

It's a tough way to make a living, and few lasted in Annapolis through March, the end of oyster season.

As springapproached, oystermen had the wind to contend with. Oyster bars raked over for many months yielded little. Oysters got scarcer and workdays got longer. Frustrations mounted. Thoughts turned to going home, to readying for spring and crabbing. Each week, more Smith Islanders quit for the season.

"I'm barely keeping the wolf away," said Laird, who was lucky some weeks to take home $150, after a week's expensesaveraging $200. "It's all you can do to get by.

"I hate to leave home," said the 36-year-old father of three. "I tell my wife it's either that or starve to death."

On days when the wind whipped up a frenzy, some of the watermen kept their boats safely tethered in port.Homer Tyler, 65, usually set out anyway in his boat, the Queen Mary,skimming across the bay's silvery waters. Tyler wasn't one to sit around. Besides, he figured a day's work for even a meager haul of oysters topped no day's work at all. He had worked the water since he was14. As a young man, he dredged oysters aboard one of the graceful old skipjacks that have since rotted from age and all but disappeared from the bay.

Toward the end of March, only six Smith Island boats remained tied up at pilings along the City Dock bulkhead. At night, the boats huddled three abreast -- the Carol Ann, the Miss Yvonne, theDawn Michele, the Queen Mary, the Little Shayne and the Miss Bonnie,their transoms stamped with their names and home ports of Ewell, Tylerton or Rhodes Point.

Harrison, slim and dark-haired, determined to stick with it until the end, at least for this year. At age 12, he'd followed his father to the water; now he's considering following him away from it. Harrison's father works for the Department of the Interior.

"He made the right move. He got off the water," said Harrison. "There ain't no future for watermen. Everything is against the waterman."

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