OFF THE COAST OF BLOODSWORTH ISLAND -- Harold Robinson was crabbing these waters of the Chesapeake Bay about 10 years ago when his fishing boat slammed into something underwater, gouging its keel, hurling his son to the deck with bruised ribs and burying Robinson under an avalanche of crab pots.
The 46-foot Chris-Lin had not run aground on rocks or a reef but on another obstacle watermen in this remote section of Maryland's Eastern Shore sometimes face -- the turret of a submerged tank the Navy had been using for target practice.
"Imagine you were sailing and you sailed right up on top of that," Robinson, 56, said yesterday aboard a boat with another waterman as they talked about their objections to the Navy's plan to resume expanded military maneuvers here after nine years of relative peace. "You wouldn't ever get up off it," he said, pointing to the barnacle-encrusted hatch of a rust-eaten World War II era tank whose top nosed above the lapping waves.
The Navy bought the 5,361-acre Bloodsworth Island and three tiny neighboring islands in 1942 and used it for target practice until 1996. Among other things, the Navy positioned tanks along the shore and blasted them with bombs and missiles.
Over the decades, rising sea levels devoured hundreds of feet of Bloodsworth Island's shore, and now the tanks lurk just beneath the waters or peek above the waves at low tide.
The Navy, in a report recently distributed to Dorchester County officials and others, said it needs to resume bombing and strafing on the island because the nation is at war. They said they will use nonexplosive bombs and missiles, but that Navy amphibious assault and rescue teams will also conduct "live-fire" drills with machine guns and rifles.
Ben Parks, president of the Dorchester County Seafood Harvesters Association, who joined yesterday's cruise, said more than 60 watermen who make their living, in part, in the waters around Bloodsworth will suffer if the Navy kicks boaters out of a 26-square-mile "danger zone" for up to 1,200 hours a year.
Parks said he doesn't mind the aerial maneuvers that the Navy has been continuing over the island since 1996, because the military has allowed watermen to work with crab pots and menhaden nets in these seafood beds. But a return of the bombing runs would curtail their livelihoods, he said.
"It would really hurt us to keep out of this whole area," said Parks, 57. "These are some of the best waters for crabbing and fishing in the whole bay."
Eileen Kane, spokeswoman for the Naval Air Systems Command at Patuxent River, said yesterday that the Navy would try to restrict drills on the islands to mostly the winter months, when watermen aren't using the area as heavily. But she added that the schedule will depend on the needs of national security and on feedback received at public hearings this month.
Kane said troops will fire 50-caliber ammunition and other small arms during the drills. But she said they will do it only on parts of Bloodsworth Island where stray bullets wouldn't carry across the water to houses three miles to eight miles away in Chocheron, Deal Island and Hooper Island.
"Our job is to keep American citizens safe," said Kane. "The Navy has established a safety program ... to use broadcasts, posted signs, and communication with watermen to clear the area and give advance notice of special operations."
Parks and Robinson, treasurer of the Dorchester County Seafood Harvester's Association, yesterday described the uneasy lifestyle of earning a living by harvesting delicacies around an island pockmarked with craters and littered with shells.
"It's like dodging through a war zone," Parks said.
The sky was bright and the air crisp as the diesel engine of Robinson's open fishing boat, called a Chesapeake Bay deadrise, thundered to life at the P.L. Jones Marina in southern Dorchester County.
As the Chris-Lin rumbled down the Honga River, Parks pointed to trees, rooftops and a church steeple along slender Hooper Island. This is where his father, grandfather and great-grandfather also labored as watermen.
Robinson, an Army veteran, explained he was also from a fishing family and had been working the waters off the Navy testing range since he was a child.
After about a half-hour of cruising through gray waters, past the ragged rows of poles stuck into the shallow waters to hold nets, Robinson raised his finger to point at a skinny, metal lighted tower. "That's Bloodsworth Island," he called out.
Behind the tower, a low, brown, treeless landmass rose, about five miles across with muddy banks and waving dun-colored grass. Across an inlet, the burned-out skeleton of a building slumped in chest-high weeds. A steel observation tower had been blasted onto its side, its ribs peering from the mud.
Bloodsworth Island was once forested and had dozens of homes. In the early 20th century, isolation and erosion convinced residents that it was time to abandon the shrinking island, and some floated their homes on barges to the mainland, Robinson said.
In the mid-1980s, Robinson said, he was sailing past Bloodsworth Island's offshore light pole when he saw a man frantically waving his arms on a small platform around its base.
Robinson motored up next to the man, who pointed into the waves at the body of a 19-year-old co-worker. The two were Navy personnel, Robinson said. They had been working on a solar panel on the platform, and the younger man had fallen and injured himself, drowning as their boat drifted away.
Robinson took the other man on his boat and drove him to safety, receiving a plaque from the Navy for his efforts.
"You see a lot of things out here that are beautiful," he said. "And you see other things that aren't so pretty."