Waterman's Tale of tale of trying to live and make a living the year the bay froze over

CHALLENGING THE CHESAPEAKE A

January 03, 1993|By Patrick Smithwick

I. Bug-Boy Days on the Bay (Or, Paying My Dues)

This was no longer a game. We could die out here. We could sink and all aboard would drown. There was no way anyone could save us in these high waves and frigid waters.

I was down below, in the hold of the Virginia W., one of the smallest and oldest skipjacks on the Chesapeake Bay. We had sailed out of the Knapps Narrows of Tilghman Island at 5:30 that morning with the rest of the Tilghman fleet -- about 20 of us, including a few Deal Island boats. In fact, the rest of them were out there, a mile away, dredging the bottom of the bay under sail -- the Lady Katie, Stanley Norman, E. C. Collier, Ruby G. Ford, Nellie Byrd, Thomas Clyde -- all big and powerful, 40 to 50 feet of deck, tall raked masts, long bowsprits, jibs and mainsails full, and with steel-toothed dredges pulling in tons of oysters.

The winds had picked up, the waves gotten higher, and rain was pounding down on our boat, turning to ice when it hit the deck. And we were headed down the bay, out to the ocean.

Because of the combination of strong wind and high waves, our captain, a novice, could not get the Virginia W. to come about and head back in. A more experienced captain would have just dropped the yawlboat -- the short, stubby pushboat with a big V-8 engine in it -- from the steel pipes called davits that project over the stern, pulled the bow of the yawlboat snug against the stern of the skipjack, fired up the engine and pushed the skipjack around. But our captain had never gotten around to building a cover over the yawlboat and was worried that if we let it down, the waves would swamp the 12-foot boat and sink it. Besides, Mike -- young, lithe and nervy -- was hunched over in the yawlboat and couldn't get the ice-sheathed engine to fire.

I had been sent, sliding across the deck, down below to check the bilge pumps. Seemed the boat was sailing lopsidedly. I had )) carefully climbed down into the hull, stepping onto the thick, 100-year-old keel -- the captain had cussed me out for jumping onto the herringbone planking of the hull on a previous day. "You might knock a board out," he'd explained.

Our centerboard, a huge, oaken, many-layered thing, was all the way down -- and there was a hole in the centerboard well the size of my fist. Water was shooting out into the hull while two little bilge pumps were making pathetic electric clicking noises as they struggled to keep up.

The wind howled above me. The rain and sleet slashed down. On the deck, you had to take your slippery rubber gloves off to reef, or partly lower, the sail, or secure a line, and your fingers were immediately frozen, first by the soggy, ice-crinkled piece of line you were trying to maneuver, second by the rain.

Every beam strained as the Virginia W. beat against the waves and the captain tried over and over to bring it into the wind, to come about. But just when the boat was on the verge of swinging around, a big wave would catch it broadside, flinging us southward, down the bay, further from the fleet, from land. No radio aboard. No lifeboat.

The men on deck were yelling at the captain. One wanted him to jibe, a dangerous technique for changing direction that involved swinging the stern across the wind, causing the mainsail to catch the full force of the wind on its other side and to whip ## across the deck. The captain -- as was his technique -- remained quiet. I realize now, 16 years later, that this quiet was not a manifestation of seaworthy knowledge bustling around in his head but rather of youthful inexperience.

I could feel the waves pounding up through the old pine boards on which I stood. Scraps of wood, old soda cans and plastic fast-food wrappings floated in the bilge. The water was at ankle level of my thick-soled waterman boots -- keep them unlaced, just in case, I'd been told. The captain yelled from the wheel, "What the hell's going on down below?"

I hollered back, "Hole in the centerboard well."

"Plug it up," he yelled. "Plug it up."

I stared at the hole -- water gushing out as if from a fire hose. I sloshed around, found an old wool Army blanket. I held it up, pulled the hawk-bill out of my pocket, sliced the blanket in half and wedged it into the hole. Now the spray was not much worse than a bad leak from a garden hose. I pulled myself up onto the deck.

Mike was at the wheel. The captain, a big guy, was in the yawlboat fooling with the engine. The other skipjacks were even farther away; they were actually dredging in this weather. My respect for them was greater than ever.

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