For Eddie "Eddie Boy" Evans and two of his...

TYLERTON --

April 30, 2001|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

TYLERTON -- For Eddie "Eddie Boy" Evans and two of his fellow watermen, the somber reading of 35 names, a roster of Smith Islanders who have perished in the bay over the last century and a half, was anything but ceremonial.

For "Ma" Margaret Marshall, the oldest resident of this tiny community in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, the laying of a wreath in its small harbor was anything but symbolic.

Like more than 200 others who gathered here for prayer and song yesterday at Smith Island's third Blessing of the Boats, Evans and Marshall know the uncertainties of lives spent earning a living on the water.

A half-century ago, Marshall lost a son-in-law. Evans' brother died in a 1975 boat explosion.

"All these people, if they lived during your lifetime, you knew them," Evans said. "Even the ones who died long ago, just about every name on this list was related to the people who are right here today."

This year, as prayers for protection and prosperity were offered, islanders said they came to the service on the lawn of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's education center with unease and concern that test their rock-solid Methodist faith.

Maryland's blue crab harvest was the worst on record last year, and results of the state's annual winter dredge survey show little change. Cool temperatures have kept the crabs relatively inactive, further worrying watermen and their families.

State officials seem determined to carry through with a promise to reduce the blue crab harvest by 15 percent over the next three years. In Virginia, regulations designed to cut its harvest by 6 percent this year were approved April 24.

Adding to a dwindling harvest for the commodity that generates 90 percent of the income on Smith Island are regulations that in July will limit watermen to an eight-hour workday and require them to take off one day a week during crabbing season.

The six-day workweek has never been an issue for the devout islanders who have always observed the Sunday sabbath, but many fear that changes in the way they make a living might prove as perilous as the furious storms described yesterday by watermen who have survived close calls in the bay.

Continuing uncertainty about the very survival of what they call "the water business" has many wondering what the summer will bring.

"I think people are upset about more and more regulations when it's already so hard to make a living," said 68-year-old Priscilla Bradshaw, who insisted that regardless of what cynics might say, a 24-hour prayer vigil that began yesterday afternoon will help.

"I don't care what anyone thinks. Every time we do something like this, it seems to make a difference," Bradshaw said.

Faith persists

Residents point out that despite declining population that shows Tylerton with 67 residents among the fewer than 300 on all of Smith Island, the 300-year-old community endures.

"All forecasts for the crab harvest have been bad, but there is no logical way to understand how this island has survived without [God's] protective hand," Jennings Evans told his neighbors during an emotional invocation.

As more than two dozen boats gathered in the harbor, bicycles and golf carts -- the preferred mode of transportation over narrow gravel streets -- were parked haphazardly near the water.

Folding tables borrowed from nearby Union Church were covered with blue checked tablecloths for a post-service meal.

The 13-member choir from the Smith Island Crab Picking Cooperative, offered a hymn, "Haven of Rest."

Janice Marshall, who helped found the cooperative that gives island women a way to market crabmeat under state health department scrutiny, said yesterday's service was also meant to give thanks.

"We are dependent on the bay for everything, and I think this is the least we can do to express our thanks to God," Marshall said.

`Caring people'

A bit of good news came this spring with the beginning of a $3 million erosion control project designed to stave off the rising waters of the bay on the island's southern and western shores.

Pastor Richard Edmund, who needs a boat to travel among his three congregations on Smith Island, arrived at yesterday's service in a golf cart.

Less than a year into his island ministry, Edmund says Smith Island has intangibles that balance its problems.

"There is concern here, but people have faith that we will do the best we can and leave the rest to God," Edmund said. "These are caring people, people with a good sense of humor. There's a tremendous history, a tremendous common bond."

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