The old man, the children and the sea Skipjack: Lessons of the watermen and the oysters are not easily passed on, but the voyage of life is what matters.

June 24, 1998|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

ABOARD THE NORMAN STANLEY -- The name of the skipjack docked at Annapolis' City Dock is actually the Stanley Norman. But on our recent cruise, my son called it the Norman Stanley and he's my son, so the name stuck, so there.

We had come to receive an education.

"Participants can sail, haul in oysters, and pull trawls for fish," says a brochure from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "We'll also learn more about measures under way to restore the Chesapeake's oyster stocks." The foundation, which owns the decommissioned skipjack, offers its members educational cruises on the storied sloop.

For the local history-impaired, the skipjack is to Maryland as the jet ski is to Florida -- a symbol of the state's rich water heritage.

The skipjack is a throwback to an era when a few hundred of the lanky sailing vessels dredged up millions of Maryland oysters each season. Today only a handful of working skipjacks remain. State regulations, bay diseases and other waterman woes have turned much of the fleet into tax-deductible community projects.

In the name of continuing education, we bought a three-hour evening cruise for $200 for a family of five (a minor bargain compared to taking the crew to an Orioles game). We arrived at the dock on time, having allowed an extra two hours to find a parking space in quaint, cramped Annapolis.

At "Ego Alley" -- aka Annapolis' City Dock -- the Norman Stanley sticks out like a sore sailboat amid the cigarette boats, glossy Bayliners and water taxis. You can't miss a skipjack: Its mast is 50 feet high, its boom resembles a horizontal redwood, and its attached "push boat" is a maritime oddity.

(The push boat, or yawl, contains the rig's motor; by law and tradition, skipjacks can motor while dredging only on Mondays and Tuesdays.)

The weather looked shady as the Norman Stanley chugged out of Ego Alley. People waved. We returned the wave. Earl, Bruce and Dave (no Gilligan) were the crew members for our three-hour cruise. The only children on board were mine: Hannah, Sam and Ben.

For one evening this month, they all met for the first and probably last time. And it was an education for everyone. Here's how things went, sailor by sailor:

Ben

My son did not want to sail on any skipjack. But the skipjack, son, is North America's last working sail fleet. You've stepped foot on a legend! I've waded through Michener's "Chesapeake." I read Tom Horton. I know!

But school's out, Dad, so why do we need to learn something else?

Not wanting to leave home, hearth and Cartoon Network, Ben spent the first half-hour of the cruise pouting. Speaking on behalf of the crew and 20 guests, Ben's pouting lacked any educational value.

Then, he saw the dark light. My son decided to spend ample time in the skipjack's upper belly, where the crew stowed our backpacks and life vests. Ben made excuses to crab down into the dry cellar of the Norman Stanley. Said he needed his sweat-shirt. Then, said he didn't need it and lowered himself into the hold.

I wanted to order him on deck, but I'm learning not to give such orders to my son, who is 9, which I'm also learning.

Earl White, skipjack mate

Earl is an older gentleman, a retired waterman who worked on skipjacks for something like 60 years. Delectable Eastern Shore accent. Hands like catcher's mitts. When shucking oysters, he told us, always wear a glove. Earl showed us an educational scar written on his palm.

Earl slit open an oyster with a stubby work knife he pulled on us. He flicked open the oyster to identify its silver, sopping parts and ancient functions. We listened to his talk; the way he said "aryster" for oyster and "drudgin' " for dredging.

The evening sky was a grumpy old man. Jet skis -- from Florida, perhaps -- buzzed us in the jiggling waters of the Severn River. For Earl, the veteran, the slapping rain and wind were nothing. He told tales of real cold, real weather, when this boat worked for real -- in the time before the local world changed.

Sam

A patch of bad weather has ambushed us. Daughter Samantha is 7 -- the age where not everything Dad utters is relevant, enlightening or even amusing. I must learn to roll with it. Don't take it personally that my angel, my "Titanic" singer, my morning dancer, my Wheaties girl rolls her eyes whenever my sound waves bounce off her.

I'm left to watch her on the Norman Stanley. A bit sluggish on the "participation" component, Sam stood watch like her old man. These quiet types are tough to read. Does she want to be here?

Is she listening to the crew discuss the breadth and import of the Chesapeake watershed, how silt run-off can suffocate the bay's nutrients, how oysters are vital and Herculean water filters?

Sam, are you listening and learning?

Sam, do you still listen and learn from me?

Bruce Crawford, skipjack manager

Lead tour guy, keeper and sharer of bay environmental factoids. Bruce keeps his red hair in a pony tail. I caught my girls checking his hair out. I considered hurling Bruce overboard, but we needed him.

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