Dredgeboat sails into oyster nirvana Wadey and crew work a sweet spot


January 02, 1993|By TOM HORTON

Dec. 5, a Friday, was the day they buried Emerson Todd. Wadey Murphy would very much have liked to attend the funeral. He and Emerson shared a special bond.

Both had the privilege of owning and captaining the oyster dredgeboat Rebecca T. Ruark, at 106 years of age the oldest of North America's last fleet of working sailcraft.

Emerson worked her for 35 years, and Wadey bought her from him about eight years ago. The way both men would talk about Rebecca was enough to make a wife jealous.

But the funeral day was forecast clear, with a fine southwest breeze to 15 knots, and oysters were fetching $24 a bushel, and if you are not going to go sail-dredging under those conditions, then when are you?

Emerson, of all people, would have understood that Wadey had to "drudge" on Dec. 5.

Truth be told, even Wadey thought he might be a fool for going out. The dredging season was only in its first quarter, but most of the other captains in the 20-boat fleet of skipjacks already had quit sailing for the year.

The captains are reduced to venturing out only on "push days" -- Mondays and Tuesdays -- when the law lets them drop little yawl boats from the stern davits and push the old wooden sailboats under power across the oyster rocks.

Wadey says he couldn't even get his regular crew to try it under sail anymore, because the prospects of a decent payday are so slim.

Truth be told, I didn't feel much like going with Wadey that Friday. It promised to be a long, boring and fruitless quest. I'd talked to captains the week before who had stopped trying on sail days, after catches of seven or eight bushels in a day.

Maryland's annual oyster harvest has fallen from more than 10 million bushels in 1886, when Rebecca was built, to an historic low of around 350,000 a couple years ago.

This season's total may not reach 175,000 bushels. And no rebound is likely next season, because of the oyster diseases now ravaging the bay.

And that's really why I went dredging that Friday; I thought it might be the last day of the season -- maybe the last day ever -- to go dredging under sail on a skipjack.

Next November, when the dredgeboat season starts, some skipjacks will be out there. But will they work on sail days? Now it's a tossup.

Push days are efficient, no doubt. But power-dredging is to sail-dredging what house painting is to portraiture. The former covers lots of territory, but the latter can produce timeless art.

Heading out in the Rebecca, Wadey did not have great expectations. He said he'd be proud to find even 20 bushels of oysters, enough to make a day's pay for his boy, Wade Murphy 3rd, age 20, and three other crew members hastily recruited from around Tilghman Island, Rebecca's home port.

"This is the last of it . . . like going pterodactyl hunting, trying to find an oyster," said Allen Harrison, a young islander recruited by Wade 3rd at 4:30 that morning.

It was a morning of stark contrasts: men trying to make a living in an old wooden sailing vessel within clear view of Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point works across the bay; streams of commuters' headlights to our south, clogging the Bay Bridges; and somewhere in the darkness the wild, quavering call of a wintering loon.

At the wheel, Wadey peered down into a cabin heated by the open burners of an old gas cook stove. The interior, strewn with oilskins and boots, would have seemed familiar to the Rebecca's first crew in 1886 -- except for the vivid blues and reds and greens of an ultramodern video machine, electronically charting every nuance of the bay bottom.

The display showed us passing over a small "lump," where the bottom rises from 18 feet below the surface to 12. Such lumps have been tonged and dredged to death, and this one was so small the boat passed over it in less than a minute.

"Well, let's try it," Wadey said, coming about. "Ho Wind'ard!" he ordered, and into the water went the windward dredge -- an iron rectangle with 3-inch steel teeth to bite into the bottom, and with a chain-mesh bag to catch the oysters.

"Feel your line, boys!" the captain shouted. By the vibrations coming up through the dredge cable, a good oysterman can distinguish mud from shells and shells from live oysters.

"Cap'n, she's hittin'!" Allen called excitedly. Up came the dredge, and we got oysters big time -- 40, 50, 60.

"Best lick we've seen in a long time," Wadey said. (Dredgers figure that the average number of oysters per dredge translates into the number of bushels you can make in a day's work.)

You could see Allen Harrison's mind working as he culled oysters on the foredeck -- 60 bushels times $24 equals $1,440, minus "the boat's" one-third, minus expenses, the remainder divided by captain and crew -- maybe $200 apiece. And for awhile, the catch looked that good.

Athletes talk about the "sweet spot" -- that certain place on a racket, or a bat or a club where if you make contact just so, the ball seems to rocket away. The feeling is unforgettable.

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