Proud skipjacks dredging for tourists


June 18, 1994|By TOM HORTON

Consider two images of Ed Farley and his skipjack, the H. M. Krentz. Which one is real?

The first begins on a cold, blustery winter day, before dawn. Farley barks orders to a crew of four: loose the lines, hoist the pushboat, tend the sails, dump the dredges.

It ends near nightfall, weary captain and crew shoveling a hundred bushels of oysters, a good day's pay, onto the dock.

The second begins on a mild June day, around 11 a.m. Tourists eating lunch at dockside snap pictures as Farley tells his six passengers:

"If you're ready, we'll go sail around a bit, look for a few oysters, mainly have a good time; if you want to help Annie [his sister and mate for the day] with the sails, well, we'll encourage that."

It ends by 3 p.m., a good payday for the captain, a satisfying enough trip that his passengers agree to book another. They have caught four oysters and thrown three of them back.

APerhaps no one ever desired to dredge oysters for a living on the Chesapeake more than Ed Farley, 42, who sails out of Tilghman Island and lives near Easton.

He was a New Englander who never set foot on a skipjack until one fall day in 1972. That takes nothing away from the dedication of other, more veteran captains in the fleet, North America's last working sail vessels.

In fact, Ed concedes he will never know as much about dredging as some of those who were born to it.

"The best of them operate, almost instinctively, under conditions of maximum duress, when my reaction might be to head in," he says.

But no one else who came from totally outside the traditions of dredging or working the water ever cracked the elite fraternity of bay skipjack captains as successfully as Farley.

At the time, he had alternatives most watermen would not dream -- like acceptance to the waiting list at Harvard University, where his father and uncles had gone.

He also had opportunities to sail aboard historic New England schooners chartering to tourists. "But dredging a skipjack was real," he recalls.

"The skipjacks were hugely competitive, but also a real community. Dredgers still lived aboard the boats when I began, and there was a great camaraderie in the harbors in the evenings.

"I liked the idea of making a living and creating jobs off a renewable natural resource, one that seemed sustainable at the time. And, because the work was so hard, the men who could excel in it were real local folk heroes, part of the heroic myth of the iron man."

The names of the old captains roll off Farley's tongue even now with a reverence: Jesse Thomas, Orville Parks, Clifton and Clyde Webster, Emerson Todd and his brothers, William and Wilson.

"I was seeing these men, in their 70s and 80s, still operating their boats.

"My dad had died. He was 55; a personnel manager. It wasn't logical to draw comparisons, but still, it seemed to me life could be short, and you should follow what called you," Farley says.

That first day of dredging that hooked him in '72, was aboard Capt. Art Daniels' City of Crisfield, still sailing, both boat and captain, out of Deal Island.

Farley met another passenger that day, now a fast friend -- Tom Wisner, who would later write and perform "Chesapeake Born" and other memorable songs about the bay and its oystermen.

Wisner still vividly remembers Farley's refusal that day to even take a camera to photograph the voyage.

"I felt if I looked at the experience through a lens I'd isolate myself from it," Farley says.

"I just wanted to work with those men. It was muddy, cold . . . and wonderful."

By 1975, after a few winters crewing on other boats, Farley became captain of his first skipjack, the Stanley Norman.

By 1979, Farley felt a turning point had come: "I had already become confident that I would be able to make it, but that year we were dredging in a part of the bay that was new to me.

"I had a good crew, and all week I was among the top boats [catching oysters]."

People who only see the waterman's life in pictures, he thinks, tend to romanticize it.

"But in a way, I think I'm just as romantic. When you have it all working right, dredging under sail, on good oysters with a good crew and a good wind, you get into a pace like a dance.

"It is so productive and satisfying. It can be as relaxing as any tourist charter.

"I guess I saw it as modeling my life around . . . maintaining a tradition of sail that was long gone everywhere else.

"Tom became the recorder. I chose to become the experiencer." (Another recorder, the late poet Gilbert Byron, caught the essence of what Farley says in these lines about oystermen: "Men who never wrote a line/are the greatest poets ever./Verses of love inscribed upon/The bottom. . .")

But in the last decade the romance -- and the oysters -- have become harder and harder to find in the Chesapeake. Diseases, overfishing and pollution caused harvests to plummet to below a million bushels a year, then below half a million; now, unthinkably, below a hundred thousand.

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