It has been aptly said from time immemorial the lure of
the sea has captured the minds and hearts of men. In my own experience,
my life has been one long continuous love affair with this fascinating
medium -- particularly the beautiful and bounteous Chesapeake Bay.
I was born and have always lived on one of the Bay
islands. The long finger of land called Hoopers Island -- that
part of Dorchester County, in Maryland, which lies between the Bay and
Honga River. Family history relates that our ancestor, Roger Hooper,
came here from England in the early 1600s and purchased this large
tract of land -- then principally wilderness -- from the
Honga tribe of Indians for a dozen yarn blankets. They agreed to move
away and never molest him, and kept their promise. Honga River, which
borders the island on the east, is said to have derived its name from
Hoopers Island, like all of Gaul, is divided into three
parts. The lower island, known as Applegarth, was a thriving community
in my boyhood. Uninhabited for years, it has evolved into a kind of
The Hooper family tree from which I spring is rooted in
Hoopersville, or middle Hoopers Island. Erosion by the ceaseless caress
of the Bay has greatly diminished the land area, but ours is still a
fair-sized community. I suppose we would classify it as a fishing
village, since the economy is geared to the products of the sea.
However, most of the fish taken and processed now wear shells instead
of scales -- namely crabs and oysters. Fin fish are no longer
handled here in large commercial quantities.
Upper Hoopers Island, also known as Fishing Creek, is the
larger community and is likewise supported by the seafood industry.
Both are thriving communities with every modern
convenience, and although each is actually a separate island they are
in no sense isolated -- any more than Manhattan Island. Sturdy
bridges, sufficient to accommodate heavy trucks, connect all land
divisions, so that our island chain is, in effect, a peninsula.
At the age of eighty-five I look back with keen
satisfaction and happy serenity on the best of all possible lives. The
lure and the love of this place, my work on the Bay and its
tributaries, and the waterways of neighboring states, combined to make
my career one long satisfying and fascinating adventure. There is no
place else on earth I would rather have lived; no work other than that
of a waterman ever held my interest.
Life aboard the sailing ships, particularly the schooners
on which I sailed as a young man, was rigorous but also exciting,
carefree and romantic -- although often fraught with considerable
danger. In fact, the life of a waterman is a spartan kind of existence
at best, demanding perseverance, self-discipline, and a consummate
respect for the vagaries of the sea.
For my contemporaries and me the satisfaction more than
compensated for the hardship. Our years before the mast brought us
joyous adventure, the means to a livelihood, and a kind of
soul-satisfying communion with that part of the universe which fills
some indescribable longing in man to be one with nature. A magnetic,
even eerie, kind of fascination that perhaps has something to do with
man's urge toward mastery and use of one of nature's most turbulent and
However one wishes to philosophize about the fascination
or mystic longing for the sea, we were captivated by our lives under
sail, and by the beauty, wonder and majesty of our stern
mistress -- the Chesapeake Bay.
The Bay Area
Those unfamiliar with the Chesapeake Bay area may
appreciate a brief review of its outstanding characteristics and
Chesapeake Bay, which the Indians called "Great Salt
Water" was actually created by submergence of the lower courses of the
Susquehanna River and its tributaries eons ago by the Atlantic Ocean.
The Bay, largest estuary on the United States Atlantic Coast, covers a
4300 square mile area, and reaches inland approximately 200 miles.
Bordered on the north by Maryland and on the south by Virginia, it is
as much as 168 feet deep in one spot. This deep hole -- the
subject of considerable research in recent years -- is off Bloody
Point in the Kent Island area. Overall, however, the Bay is rather
shallow for a large body of water, with a mean depth of just over
Width of the Bay varies from four to thirty miles. The
entrance, which is twelve miles wide, is flanked by Cape Charles on the
north and Cape Henry on the south. Several large and important
rivers -- and a number of smaller ones -- empty into the
Chesapeake. The James, York and Rappahannock flow directly from
Virginia. Between Maryland and Virginia flows that sometime stream of
contention -- and skirmishes between the two states' "oyster
navies" -- the rich Potomac River. From Maryland flow the
Patapsco, Nanticoke, Choptank, Chester, Honga, the lovely Tred Avon,
and many smaller rivers and streams. Most important of all, through
Maryland, from Pennsylvania, comes the mighty Susquehanna. Actually,
the Bay drains a combined area of more than 60,000 square miles.
In point of fact, all rivers and streams flowing into the
Bay are tributaries of the Susquehanna. Their mouths are tidal
estuaries which, when merged with the many smaller coves and inlets,
combine with the contour of the Bay to form a shoreline of
approximately 4600 square miles.
Influx of the various rivers, actually forty-eight
principal ones, with their one hundred or more meandering branches,
combine with the irregular coastal outline to exert great influence on
the tides, and cause them to vary as much as twelve hours from normal
in certain areas.
The western aspect of the Bay's coastline is fairly
straight and contains long stretches of high cliffs. On a clear day,
facing west across the Bay from our porch, we can see the great chalky
cliffs of Calvert County. The eastern shoreline is low and marshy with
a highly irregular contour.
The Chesapeake has been an important trade route since
early times. After establishment of the first permanent English
settlement at Jamestown, Virginia, In 1607, Captain John Smith explored
and mapped the Bay area. Soon settlers, including my ancestors, were
attracted to the Bay's protected and accessible shores.
The Bay is open all year to oceangoing vessels. The
Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, a part of the Atlantic Coastal Waterway,
provides an inland water route to Philadelphia. More important, by
connecting the head of the Bay with the Delaware River estuary, the
Canal shortens the sea route to the large seaport of Baltimore from the
north and from Europe.
Excellent harbors and busy ports have made the Bay an
important artery of commerce. Baltimore, Md. and Norfolk and Newport
News, Virginia, rank among the half dozen leading ports in the country
in volume of seagoing traffic. These are also important manufacturing
and shipbuilding centers.
Although somewhat depleted in recent decades, the
Chesapeake, as far as we know, is still entitled to its claim as the
largest oyster ground in the world. Crabs, although fairly scarce in
some seasons, are still of major economic importance. Fish, in
particular shad, bluefish and rock (striped bass) are still plentiful
enough to draw swarms of sports fishermen to the area.
The Bay area is along the Atlantic Flyway, so the low
coastal marshes the wetlands abound with waterfowl. There are 100,000
acres of wetlands in Dorchester County alone. A kind of hunters'
paradise, although stringent Federal regulations concerning wildlife
The area has several Federal game preserves. One of the
largest is Blackwater Refuge, between Fishing Creek and Cambridge. I
feel a special kinship with this one. Its establishment was made
possible by a WPA grant (Works Project Administration -- for the
information of those too young to remember) during the lean early
thirties. I, and many of my friends, worked on it. The wages would make
today's youth gasp in disbelief.
The thousands of acres of wetlands and grain fields at the
Refuge furnish safe resting and feeding grounds for wing-weary geese
and ducks on their way South from the Canadian breeding grounds. Much
of the acreage is visible from the highway, and motorists are favored
with a roadside vantage point from which to view this drama.
At sunset on a late fall day the graceful takeoff and
landing of the Canadian geese resembles the traffic at a busy airport.
By the thousands they glide down to the fields to honk, strut around
and feed, sometimes just a few feet from the roadway, as if they dared
any itchy-fingered hunter to molest them. And woe betide anyone who
might be tempted. He would soon find himself in a Federal lockup.
The Chesapeake Bay country has been the staging area for
much American history, including military action. Many wealthy planters
of tidewater Virginia have honored space in our history books; they
played a leading role in America's struggle for independence. The
surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781 proved the turning point
toward victory in the Revolutionary War.
In the War of 1812, during the British attack on
Baltimore, Francis Scott Key wrote our national anthem as he watched
the bombardment of Fort McHenry while a prisoner aboard an enemy
warship. During the Civil War, the fight between the war vessels
Monitor and Merrimac in Hampton Roads, Virginia, is a classic in the
annals of naval warfare. Chesapeake Bay, whether navigated by the
colorful sailing ships of my youth, or the liners, freighters and
military craft of today, has always been of great commercial, military
and historical importance. A truly national treasure.
Development of Sailing Ships
Information on the early development of sailing vessels is
somewhat vague, and largely a matter of conjecture. We do know,
however, that from the dawn of history men have sailed boats in some
manner. Ancient Egyptian vessels, used mainly on the Nile River, were
equipped with both oars and a large sail usually referred to as a
By the end of the 14th century sailing vessels were
seaworthy enough to go anywhere in the world. Of the squadron which
Christopher Columbus sailed to the new world, the Nina and the Pinta
were small caravels -- ships noted for their broad bows and high
narrow poops. The flagship Santa Maria was a larger vessel, with three
masts. All were square-rigged. Columbus' voyage, and the opening of the
sea route to India a short time later, brought establishment of
permanent colonies overseas. Heavy traffic soon appeared on these
routes. The Mayflower, chartered to bring the Pilgrims to America, was
a 180-ton ship with a high poop. Similar boats brought pioneer settlers
to Virginia, Maryland and to Massachusetts Bay.
By the 17th century, Europeans were using three basic
types of sailing ships: the full-rigged ship, which was square-rigged
on all three masts (fore, main and mizzen); the brig, whose two masts
(fore and main) were square-rigged; and the sloop, whose single mast
was fore-and-aft rigged.
The American colonists adopted these three types for their
use, and early in the 18th century developed a fourth type, the
schooner, which was fore-and-aft rigged on all masts; it had two masts
in the beginning, more later. We Americans had a real need for small
fast ships in that hectic era. These ships could easily dodge the
British cruisers patrolling the seas and sometimes blockading the
coasts during the period between the Revolutionary War and the War of
1812, when our young nation was struggling to keep her trade routes
To fill this need the small fast little schooners known as
the "Baltimore Clippers" were designed and built at the Bay port of
Baltimore. They were extremely adept at running the Royal Navy's
blockade or tangling with their merchantmen. Other American shipyards
continued to build these smart little schooners. Typical of those which
engaged in the coastal trade until well into the 20th century, and in
some overseas trade as well, was the two-masted vessel with foresail,
mainsail, topsails, staysail, and one or more jibs.
Larger schooners, vessels of more than two masts, came
into use around 1840. From then on into the early years of the 20th
century, American shipbuilders constructed increasingly larger vessels
with more masts and greater areas of sail.
The 494-ton "Ann McKim," a three-masted vessel built at
Baltimore in 1839, is said to be the first of the larger clippers.
However, the majority of these larger ships were built around New York
and Boston. The pioneer four-master "William L. White," was built in
1880; the first five-master, the "Governor Ames," was built in 1888;
and the first six-master, the "George W. Wells," in 1900.
The only seven-master on record, the "Thomas W. Lawson,"
was built at Fore River, Massachusetts in 1902. This ship was 368 feet
long, with a capacity of 5,200 tons. Her sails were raised and lowered
with a donkey engine, so the ship could sail with a relatively small
crew in spite of her size. She was lost in 1907. On a return voyage to
London loaded with freight, she encountered a severe storm in the
English Channel, struck a reef and broke in half. We saw the 'LAWSON'
once from here on the Island. As she sailed up the Bay word spread
around the community of her presence, and many came out to look and
admire This beautiful ship, and wonder in awe about what great things
or marvels would be done next by the hand of man. People stood on their
steps or lined the shore to watch. The ship was a magnificent sight to
behold and, of course, she was rather far away -- in the channel
of the Bay.
Types of Sailing Ships
For the benefit of landlubbers -- and sailors with
rusty memories -- let's briefly describe the types of sailing
vessels and their variations.
Square Rigger - Developed and built by Europeans in
the 17th century. These ships usually had three or four masts, rigged
with only square sails stretched on arms between the masts and at right
angles to the deck. They were especially adaptable for long hauls on
the open seas. However, because of the greater number of sails, which
must be handled separately, larger crews were required to operate them.
On coastal waterways, they were more difficult to maneuver than a
fore-and-aft rigged vessel. But surely this was the most beautiful
sailing ship ever built.
Clipper - The term "Clipper" applied to a ship that
was fast and streamlined. All clippers had speed and fine lines and
were sometimes referred to as the 'greyhounds of the sea.' The sharp,
fast, slender Baltimore Clippers, developed and built at Baltimore,
were small schooners with raking masts. They were used wherever speed
and maneuverability were of prime importance.
Packet - A "Packet" referred to a ship with special
function. Actually, any fast sailing ship chartered to carry
passengers, mail or freight. Used extensively in the 19th century,
their use marked the beginning of the 'line' principle in shipping;
that is, vessels sailing on regular schedules on particular routes. Our
country's first ocean liners were the sailing packets that operated
scheduled runs to France and England out of New York. Beginning with
the Black Ball Line in 1818, the hardy Yankee captains kept driving
these sturdy, fast ships carrying passengers, mail and freight as fast
as they would go across 3000 miles of the roughest seas in the
world -- the stormy Atlantic Ocean. They began to lose their
importance with the advent of steam navigation in 1833.
Schooner - A commercial boat developed and built
principally in the Chesapeake Bay area, although some were also built
in New York and New England. Each region built their boats with some
variation. The fore-and-aft rig enables a ship to sail closer to the
wind than is possible in the square-rigger. Schooner-rigged vessels are
more maneuverable; also, more economical to operate because they can be
handled with smaller crews.
A typical schooner of the 18th and 19th centuries was the
two-masted vessel which engaged in the coastal trade, and to a lesser
extent in oceangoing commerce. Larger schooners were usually built for
the foreign trade. When I was a boy there were perhaps a half dozen
five-masted vessels operating out of the Bay area. Many of these larger
ships were used in the fruit trade out to the Bahamas Islands.
The Two-masted Schooner - The vessel most favored
for the coastal trade in the Bay area. There were two types:
The Two Topmast Schooner rigged with a mainsail and main
topsail, foresail and fore topsail, standing jib and jib topsail, and a
The Main Topmast Schooner had a main topmast over the
mainsail, but no topmast over the foresail. She was rigged with a
mainsail and main topsail, foresail, standing jib and flying jib.
Three-masted Schooner - had a mainsail and main
topsail, foresail and fore topsail, spanker, and spanker topsail,
standing jib, jib topsail, and flying jib.
Four, Five and Six-masted Schooners - much larger
vessels, with a correspondingly larger number of sails.
Ram or Balltop - Actually a three-masted schooner
with a slightly different sail rig: a mainsail, foresail, spanker and
standing jib. Very seaworthy and economical to operate. The last ram on
the Bay was converted to an excursion boat, operating out of Cambridge,
Maryland. Some years ago she ran aground off Sandy Point during a
hurricane and broke apart with the loss of several lives.
Pungy - Another schooner-built boat with a somewhat
different hull design: broad shallow hull, with raking stem, and a
broad shallow transom stern. It had no centerwell but did have a large
keel and, therefore, deeper draught. The bottom was rounded, and the
absence of a centerwell made more room in the hull of the ship for
freight. When a pungy was loaded there was little of her left above
water. This boat had two masts, but was smaller than the two-masted
schooner. She was rigged with a gaff foresail and mainsail, a gaff main
topsail and a large standing jib.
The pungy Twilight, one of the largest on the Bay in my
youth, operated out of Hoopersville with my friend Alan White as
captain. She was considered a smart sailer. Alan told me that once when
he had her loaded with oysters, the Twilight and two schooners left in
a strong north wind, bound for Baltimore. It was so rough in Chesapeake
Bay that night the two schooners anchored in Patuxent; he took his
vessel on up the Bay. He did allow, however, that night the Twilight
was under the water almost as much as on the surface. Their hull design
and watertight hatches enabled these boats to sail in that fashion.
Bugeye - Another schooner with some variation in
hull design, sharp at both ends, with all sails sharp. She was fitted
with two masts of almost equal height, raked sharply aft, and carried a
mainsail, foresail and jib. This boat was also economical to operate,
since few were needed in crew. The larger ones were used for freight;
smaller ones for oyster dredging.
It has been said that this vessel got its name from a
sometime practice of painting a large eye on each side of the bow.
Perhaps so; but it had to be before my time. I cannot recall ever
having seen any such decoration on a vessel.
Bateau - The hull design is similar to that of a
schooner, only smaller and half-decked. Fitted with two masts and three
sharp sails. Used for oystering and crabbing. Usually not large enough
for any kind of freight. My brother-in-law and I owned and operated a
bateau named Lucifer for many years.
Sloop - This is another schooner-built vessel with
one mast, and rigged with four sails: large mainsail, main topsail,
standing jib and flying jib. Large enough for light freight hauling,
but mostly used for oyster dredging.
Of the sloops that operated out of Hoopersville, the Henry
W. Ruark stands out in my mind, probably because I worked on her one
season. She was large as sloops go, and was built by my wife's
grandfather Capt. Tom Ruark and his brother at Flag Cove. She was
rebuilt several times. I believe she is still in use, rigged as a sharp
sailboat and owned by Cambridge interests.
Skipjack - Schooner-designed with a clipper stem,
broad transom stern, and V shaped bottom. Fitted with one mast and two
sails, mainsail and jib. Used principally for oystering and crabbing;
sometimes for light commercial work. Also, sometimes fitted and used as
a small yacht. The most popular work boat ever used on the Bay. Some
were quite small. Others quite sizable. About sixty years ago I dredged
oysters in the Potomac River one season in my two-masted bateau
Defender. I tied up at night beside a large skipjack named the Flora
Price, out of Deals Island. That vessel would carry 1200 bushels of
An occasional bugeye or bateau may still be seen in the
Chesapeake Bay area. The skipjacks, however, are the only sailing craft
left in any number. They are mostly engaged in oyster dredging in the
few areas where this operation is still permitted. The majority of the
oyster grounds were closed to dredging years ago, in order to conserve
the dwindling supply. Only tonging is permitted now over most of the
beds. Oyster tongs are giant rake-like pick-ups with large metal teeth
set in slender wooden handles twelve to eighteen feet long.
Manipulation of the handles in a scissor-like motion causes the metal
teeth to tear oysters loose from whatever object they have seen fit to
attach themselves. Probably the best known of the skipjacks left in
service is the work-racing vessel Rosie Parks, out of Cambridge, owned
and operated by Capt. Orville Parks. Capt. Orville and my brother, the
late Henry James Hooper, were in the same Company in France during
World War I.
The Changing Scene
When I was a boy of ten or twelve years, fishing in the
Bay with my father -- this would be in the mid 1890s -- we
would sometimes see three or four square-riggers at a time plying the
Bay in the distance.
Gradually, as the years passed, the square-riggers were
seen less and less frequently. They began to be replaced by the more
"modern" ships described earlier; those without the many arms and sails
of the square-riggers. These schooner-built vessels, as previously
mentioned, were easier and more economical to operate. They could sail
with smaller crews, since their sails could be raised and lowered from
So, with the advent of steam navigation in 1838
(competition which dealt them a severe blow), and the development of
these newer vessels, square-riggers were gradually relegated to long
hauls at low freight rates.
Some nations shifted from sail to steam more quickly than
others. The United States was one of the last strongholds of sail. At
the time of the steam boom, around 1870, the Americans lacked the
industrial facilities to build steamships, comparable to such countries
as Great Britain, so they allowed much of their overseas commerce to be
taken over by foreign steamers. They still used their big "Down
Easters" (square-riggers built mostly in Maine, and commanded by Maine
men) in the grain trade from California around Cope Horn to Europe.
In the protected coastal trade, schooners were to find
employment for years yet in hauling seafood, lumber, stone, lime and
assorted other freight. It may be interesting to note here that the
last important naval vessel to see action under sail operated during
World War I as a German raider. The big square-rigger "SEEADLER," under
the command of Count Felix von Luckner, counted quite a few sailing
vessels among the shipping she destroyed. The fisheries industry was a
field where sail held its own until well into the 20th century. By its
very nature the work involved adapted to sail propulsion. Most of the
fishing activity was, of course, carried on in local waters. Some hardy
souls from Europe, however, continued to sail all the way to the Grand
Banks below Newfoundland, an area rich in codfish. Even as late as the
1950s the Portuguese continued crossing to the Banks in their big
My career on the Bay and neighboring waterways actually
got underway toward the end of the 19th century. In the beginning I
sailed on the freight schooners, usually two-masters, which hauled
lumber, coal, oysters and assorted other freight between Bay ports, and
oysters to New Jersey.
The greater number of years under sail, however, were
spent in fisheries activities, principally the taking of crabs and
oysters in the Chesapeake Bay area; sometimes in such neighboring
waterways as the Delaware Bay and off the New Jersey coast.
First Voyage Before The Mast: The Annie
I am the sole survivor of the thirteen children born to
Samuel Thomas and Susan Meekins Hooper. At the age of fourteen it was
necessary for me to quit school and go to work with my father, who was
a waterman -- as was my grandfather -- in order to help make
a living for our large family. From that time until I retired two years
ago, I worked on the water, or as we said then "followed the water," on
the coastal freight schooners as a very young man; later, in the
fisheries business of oystering and crabbing.
When I was seventeen I sailed with Capt. Ellie Phillips on
the schooner Annie Hodges. The Hodges was a main topmast schooner; that
is, she was fitted with a mainsail, main topsail, foresail, standing
jib and a flying jib. She could carry around 2000 bushels of oysters.
Capt. Ellie, his sons Amos and Goldsborough, and I made up the crew.
I was cook. What could I cook at seventeen? Anything that
came aboard; an assortment of good things: fish, ham, pork, beef,
beans, potatoes, hominy, many kinds of vegetables. I cooked all we ate.
Did the crew enjoy my cooking? They did indeed! It was all devoured.
The pay was $15 per month, and all the good food we could
eat. Capt. Ellie told us that when he was our age he sailed for $10
monthly. His father, Capt. Gus Phillips, was also captain of a vessel
in the coastal trade. Capt. Ellie ran oysters in the spring and early
summer, and in the late summer and early fall hauled freight over the
Bay: railroad ties; wood from Baltimore to Philadelphia; coal, lumber,
etc. between various other Bay ports. In the late fall and winter the
boat was used for oyster dredging. Although my official job was cook,
and this was my first responsibility, I also had other duties. When not
busy with cooking I worked on deck, handling sails, steering the boat,
loading and unloading freight. When Amos and Goldsborough were not busy
on deck they helped me prepare the meals. We helped each other, and
worked well together. Capt. Ellie treated me as if I were his own son.
I am the only one left of our little crew.
During the three seasons I sailed on the Annie Bridges we
ran oysters from the James River in Virginia, to Maurice River Cove,
near Port Norris in New Jersey. Port Norris was a beautiful little town
of about 5000 population.
May and June made up the oyster planting season in that
area. However, sometimes we ran oysters up there as early as the latter
part of March. Capt. Ellie hauled the oyster plants for a man who lived
in Port Norris, to be planted in Maurice River Cove on leased bottom.
On arrival, the oysters were shoveled onto pontoons brought out to the
vessel by scow. When a pontoon was loaded it was poled out to the
planting ground and the oysters were shoveled overboard.
We received an extra $3.00 for every load of oysters we
helped to shovel off the vessel. There was usually extra help. Capt.
Ernie would get boys who were hanging around the beach; at times some
of our own boys from here on Hoopers Island could be found there, and
brought aboard to help. They also received $3.00, and their meals that
The tides in that area behave in a most disconcerting
fashion, with an ebb and flow of from seven to nine feet. On one of our
runs to Port Norris in the Hodges we anchored off shore in
approximately eight feet of water, and after the vessel was unloaded
decided to go ashore awhile. While we were on the beach the tide went
and left the vessel high and dry, resting on the bottom. We walked back
to the boat and climbed aboard on a ladder. Why the hurry to get back
aboard? It was supper time and we were hungry. The first rush of
incoming tide may be several feet; and it comes in strong, sometimes
with enough force to sweep a man off his feet. A vessel left resting on
the bottom would refloat in about two hours.
When the tide went out, local fishermen would drive out in
their horse and wagon rigs and set traps made of poultry wire. After
the next tide receded they drove out again and fished them. They caught
an abundance of many kinds of fish including large trout and flounder.
When we were in the mood for fish they would supply us with a large
basket full. We offered them oysters in exchange, but they always
declined. There were plenty of oysters on the beach; and at low tide
one could pick up plenty of them and clams too from the bottom.
To addition to the fish, they sometimes caught a wagon
load of king crabs, measuring eight to fourteen inches each. These were
piled on the beach to be used as compost.
The fish made good eating, and were especially delicious
with the hot bread I made. We called it yeast powder bread, made with
white flour, salt, baking powder and plenty of lard to make it tender
and flaky. Our saddle-back stove baked it beautifully, with the loaves
browned as evenly on the bottom as on the top.
The saddle-back stove was one especially designed for use
aboard a vessel, and particularly adapted for cooking in rough weather.
It was square, with rods built across the top structure to hold cook
pots in place. Either wood or coal could be used as fuel.
We always had plenty of good food on board, and healthy
hardworking men had the keen appetites to consume it. We cooked and ate
in the forepeak, in the bow of the vessel. The cabin, aft, in the stern
section, provided sleeping quarters.
Other Voyages on The Hodges
On one trip to Maurice River Cove in the Annie Hodges we
had picked up a cargo of oysters from James River for a man who lived
in Bivalve, New Jersey. It was late afternoon when we finished loading
and got under way, so we stopped for the night in a harbor at Great
Macomico, near Smith Point Lighthouse. Next day we continued our
journey up the Bay to the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. We entered at
Chesapeake City, locked out at Delaware City, and continued on down the
Delaware Bay. Night overtook us as we rounded Bennie's Point -- a
familiar landmark, near the mouth of a creek by the same name --
not too far from Maurice River Cove. Delaware Bay has a narrow
channel -- it did in those days, anyway. Since the route from
there on in was full of bars and shallows, and we were heavily loaded,
Capt. Ellie felt it would be too hazardous to try to make it in the
dark. He decided to anchor in Bennie's Creek for the night. There were
quite a few boats already anchored there. It was a good and a very
popular anchorage, with water six to eight feet deep.
It was a crisp, pleasant evening; calm and clear. We let
go our anchors and went to bed. At that time the vessel was smooth, or
as we would say then "still" in the water. She was low in the water,
too. This was around the last of March, and the oyster season was
almost over in the Chesapeake Bay area, but we were loaded to the
gunwales with large fat oysters for our buyer.
About an hour before dawn the wind struck to the north,
that is "down," on the flood tide. The tide runs strong in there when
the wind is down as much as five or six miles an hour, which tended to
keep the vessel side to the wind. We were awakened with a jolt --
I should say a series of jolts -- as the boat rolled wildly,
throwing us around the bunks and knocking down objects in the cabin and
We jumped from the bunks and headed for the deck to see
what needed attention on the vessel. Sometimes the strain of such a
blow would cause the guy ropes to slacken around the sails; or cause
the boat to drag her anchors -- an extremely dangerous situation.
We rode the blow out without any difficulty, but did have
one minor casualty in the cabin. As Capt. Ellie scrambled to put his
pants on the boat went into a particularly heavy roll and tossed him to
the floor. No injury -- except to his dignity. By that time we
boys had reported from the deck that all was well. He took his time
then, and lit his pipe before he came on deck. Nobody went back to bed.
It was much too rough for sleep; and it was necessary to keep a close
watch for the safety of the vessel. Sometimes when a heavily loaded
vessel was being tossed around in such a manner while riding at anchor,
the cargo would punch a hole in her hull, or loosen planking --
especially if she was not a new boat. We felt some concern about these
possibilities that night. Capt. Ellie kept the Hodges in good shape,
and she was a smart sailer, but she had some age on her.
As we prepared to weigh anchor that morning, the man for
whom we were hauling the oysters had himself and the men he had engaged
to help unload the cargo ferried aboard; he had guessed we were
harbored there for the night. The wind had moderated by that time, so
we proceeded to Maurice River Cove and threw off the oysters.
Afterwards, we continued to Bivalve, put the men ashore,
tied up and went to bed. Bivalve is just a little way up the Maurice
River from the Cove.
Next morning we set sail for home. On up the Delaware Bay
to the C&D Canal again. Entered the Canal at St. George's and
locked out at Chesapeake City into an area known as Back Creek, and on
into Chesapeake Bay and down past Swan Point. By that time it was
blowing a stiff breeze to the northeast. We were bound home light, so
had a good sail down the Bay that night.
Unfortunately, by early morning the wind had practically
died out on us. We could have used some of that mischievous breeze that
bounced us around Bennie's Creek the previous night. That morning
another happening, in a lighter vein, further served to lift this
voyage out of the ordinary.
I cooked breakfast, and called Capt. Ellie and Amos down
to eat while Goldsborough and I remained on deck. The wind had died out
calm by that time; there was scarcely a breath of air stirring. We were
in the stern of the boat, with Goldsborough perched on the stern seat;
I was at the wheel. As he casually leaned over the rail he noticed some
corks bobbing on the surface, moving along with the boat. He said "Will
Hooper, what do you suppose is hung up in that rudder? Maybe we hooked
a shad seine as we passed Swan Point."
We decided to launch the skiff and have a look. I put the
wheel in the becket. (A becket is a device for holding the wheel in a
pre-set position. It usually consists of a length of rope attached to
the deck beneath the wheel, with the other end of the rope forming a
loop which can be slipped over a spoke of the wheel). The vessel was so
becalmed she was scarcely moving; there was no danger in leaving the
wheel unattended for a short time. The skiff launching attracted Capt.
Ellie's attention, and he poked his head from the forepeak to ask what
was going on. Goldsborough replied we were just going to paddle around
We took the boat hook -- a large metal hook set in a
handle about twelve feet long -- and rowed around to the stern to
investigate. It was indeed part of some poor guy's shad seine! We
removed it from the rudder with the boat hook and were pleasantly
surprised to find three large roe shad entrapped. They weighed about
six pounds each. The Swan Point fishing ground was also a busy traffic
lane, plied by all kinds of commercial and pleasure craft. The
fishermen had been warned to put their nets deep enough so that boats
would clear them -- whether light or loaded. If they failed to
heed this warning and lost their nets they could blame only themselves.
Although we sympathized with the owner's misfortune, we did enjoy his
fish. We cooked one shad, and all the roe, for dinner. Capt. Ellie
salted down the other two for our enjoyment later.
Hairbreadth From Eternity
Probably the nearest I came to having my career ended
prematurely -- at the tender age of 19 years -- was the day I
fell overboard from a moving sail skiff, wearing boots and oilskin
A number of us were crabbing in the cove below the
steamboat wharf that morning. We were using trotlines. A trotline is
one of the oldest devices used to catch crabs, and is still in use. As
used today, at predetermined spaces in a stout line of desired length,
a loop is put in the line, a piece of bait placed in the loop and the
line pulled tight to close the loop and hold the bait in. We used a
variation of this technique. Instead of the loop, we tied small nooses
of line six to eight inches long on the main line, then tied our bait
to the dangling ends of the nooses. The baited line is payed out
between two weighted buoys, or poles stuck in the bottom, with the line
submerged to the desired depth -- that is, whatever depth one
thinks necessary to have crabs become interested in it. A rack, usually
made of wood, is attached to the side of the boat. Beginning at one
end, the line is hooked through this rack. As the boat runs slowly
alongside, the line will be lifted from the water -- hopefully
with some crabs hanging onto the bait. At this point a small net is
used to scoop up the crabs. Using the nooses instead of putting the
bait directly on the line made it easier to dip up the crabs while they
were still submerged. They will loosen their hold on the bait faster
while still in the water.
This was a cool rainy morning in late August, hence the
oilskins -- a waterman's waterproof outer garments. The others
were using push skiffs powered by one oar and a great deal of muscle.
Plutocrat of the lot, I was working in a sail skiff eighteen foot long.
My friend, the late Bill Dean helped me build her. He died several
years ago, having owned and operated a seafood factory in Wingate,
Maryland, for more than half a century. We all had our lines out that
morning. I had caught almost a barrel of crabs, but when several runs
down the line brought up only a few scattered here and there, I decided
to move down the river a ways and try my luck in a new spot -- a
considerable distance from the others. While running the trotline out
at this new location, I sat on the stern seat steering the boat, with
the tiller in one hand, and sort of leaning hard on the head of the
rudder with the other hand. When the line was about halfway out,
suddenly the head of the rudder gave way beneath my hand, threw me off
balance and caused me to tumble overboard. The skiff quickly sailed
away from me -- still paying out the line another fifty yards.
Encumbered with boots and oil skins I was unable to swim fast enough to
catch up with her. As a matter of fact, I was unsuccessful in shucking
the heavy boots and oilskin pants, and quickly became exhausted just
trying to keep afloat.
Meanwhile, my plight had been noticed by the other
crabbers. Capt. Frank Booze, my future father-in-law, was the first to
notice me bobbing around in the drink, and sounded the alarm. Brady
Dean, a future brother-in-law, was closest to me and started to push
his skiff as fast as he could to the rescue. He noted that she would go
faster stern foremost, and that's the way he pushed her -- so hard
and fast he cracked his oar just before reaching me. It was the only
oar he had aboard. He felt he dare not slacken his pace, so just kept
hoping it would hold together. Fortunately, it did. One might say my
life that morning hung not only by the proverbial thread, but also on a
I saw Brady coming, but by that time I was in deep
trouble. Exhausted, lungs waterlogged, and spending increasingly longer
periods submerged, I felt I was drowning. As consciousness faded, my
vision could no longer discern the surroundings. First, a twilight-like
dimness, then ever deepening darkness seemed to engulf me -- as
though I were passing through a thick dark wilderness.
Brady saw me surface briefly, when he was almost there,
but by the time he reached the spot I was again submerged --
probably for the last time. He reached in past his shoulder and just
managed to grasp my thick black hair. Unconscious by that time, I have
no idea how he alone managed to haul a strapping specimen like me into
his small skiff without capsizing it. He draped me across the middle
seat with head and feet resting on the bottom of the boat. Pressure of
my midriff against the seat helped to drain my chest.
By the time he met the others, who were all pulling for
the scene, I had regained consciousness enough to mutter "I'm all wet."
An understatement, no less. Wet indeed! Inside and outside. Several
large sailboats working outside had seen the flurry of activity and
were also on the scene.
They took me ashore to Capt. George White's General Store.
Capt. George was a fine old gentleman with a large grey mustache he was
fond of stroking. A rugged individualist, who usually knew what to do
in any given situation, he instructed his wife -- a gracious lady
affectionately called "Miss Lovey" to go upstairs and bring me a drink
of liquor from his 'vial.' Whiskey came in gallon jugs then, and Capt.
George referred to his as a vial. Miss Lovey returned with a teacup
half full, but he felt this was not enough to furnish the stimulation I
needed. He took the cup back upstairs, returned with the contents
spilling over the rim, and made me drink all of it. I felt no effects
whatever from what should have been a staggering potion -- because
my stomach was full of salt water. Capt. George knew what he was doing.
News of my accident reached my mother, who was seriously
ill; when I reached home she cried, and begged me not to use the sail
skiff again for crabbing. I spent a good bit of time with her until she
died in September of that year. Eventually, I sold the boat to a man
from Fishing Creek (Upper Hoopers Island).
I had other water-connected accidents during my long
career, and some near misses, but none had quite the impact of this
one. I suffered the effects of all that water in my chest for a long
time. A year passed before I felt normal again. My near-tragic episode
taught me some valuable lessons early. First of all, respect for the
water, and the realization that man is not a fish. I learned to be
careful on all boats, and to behave as though my life depended on
staying in the boat. It did! Most important of all, I was convinced
that the lone occupant of a boat in motion is particularly vulnerable
Unprofitable Season on The Henry W. Ruark
One dredging season I shipped with Capt. Jake Waters on
the sloop Henry W. Ruark. A most unprofitable berth, as it turned out,
but rich in the insight it provided in one of the less desirable sides
of human nature. The Ruark, as described in an earlier chapter, was a
big square-sailed sloop, built in Flag Cove marsh by Capt. Henry Ruark
and his brother Capt. Tom Ruark, my wife's grandfather. Capt. Tom died
of pneumonia before the vessel was completed.
Capt. Jake was a gruff, hard-driving, unpredictable man
and the local boys disliked working with him. However, when he asked me
I decided to go. I needed the job, and the oyster season was usually
the most profitable one in the waterman's calendar year.
There were nine of us in the crew: Capt. Jake and myself,
who served as mate, and seven deckhands from Baltimore. Beginning
October 15th we dredged in the Potomac River for two weeks, then
returned to Honga River and worked there until a few days before
None of us received any pay for our more than two months
of what surely must be the hardest work in the world. Capt. Jake kept
promising to pay us; I believed he would, so just kept on doing my job.
The other crew members were fed up with mere promises instead of cash,
and apparently had been looking for a chance to get away. One night
Capt. Jake came back aboard somewhat in his cups from the partying
ashore, and left the skiff overboard -- instead of having her put
back in the davits. The men piled in, rowed to the steamboat docked at
the wharf, and returned to Baltimore.
Why he blamed me for losing his crew -- when I was
off duty and fast asleep was something of a puzzle. Anyway, he used
this as an excuse for withholding my wages. Fact of the matter was, of
course, he had spent all the money.
My elders in the community were incensed about this
treatment of a crewman, and tried to persuade me to sue Capt. Jake for
my pay, or attach the boat -- which at that time belonged to Capt.
Levin Creighton of Fishing Creek. I rejected the lawsuit idea, but did
go to see Capt. Creighton with the thought that he might intercede in
the matter. He told me to go ahead and attach the boat; that I had
every right to do so. He had received no payment for the use of the
It was the custom for the man who owned the boat to
collect a third or fourth whichever had been agreed upon for the use of
the boat. In other words, one third or one fourth of the gross proceeds
from the catch, or as we said then, what the captain "sold for" was
considered the boat's part, and belonged to the owner of the vessel. It
was a flexible, unofficial lease, with no contract signed. A man was
considered honest until he proved himself otherwise.
It was also the right of a crewman who had been denied his
wages to obtain a warrant and attach the boat for the amount owed him.
This action would tie up, or immobilize the vessel until his claim was
satisfied. I felt I could not do this to Capt. Creighton. My misfortune
was not his fault.
I let the matter drop, and have always been glad I did.
Soon after we laid the Ruark up fortune smiled on me and I began a long
and rewarding association with one of the finest captains who ever set
foot on a craft.
First Voyage on The Arianna Bateman
Several days before Christmas, and shortly after I had
finished my ill-fated work on the sloop Henry W Ruark, Capt. Avalon
Simmons, who sailed the schooner Arianna Bateman in the coastal freight
trade, asked me to go with him voyage to Rappahannock River to deliver
a consignment of oysters.
Oysters were plentiful that year. The market glutted
early, with the season not half over; it was difficult to sell oysters
anywhere. A Rappahannock River planter had called Avalon and told him
if good oysters could be bought for 15c a bushel (imagine that !) to
load his vessel as deep as she would swim and bring them to his
planting ground, or leased bottom, in the Rappahannock. Avalon, cousin
of the girl who later became my wife, was rather a young man for
coastal captain, but he handled the job flawlessly. He was strong,
intelligent, big-hearted, pleasant and imperturbable. Most important,
he was an excellent seaman.
The Bateman was a main topmast schooner: that is, she had
two masts and five sails. A smart sailer, too; and Avalon kept her in
good condition. We loaded the schooner with 3200 bushels of the most
beautiful oysters I ever saw. Taken from sandy bottom, they were big as
horse shoes and fat as butter. We left in the late afternoon and sailed
on down the Bay to the Rappahannock. You will remember this is Virginia
waters. We had unloaded our cargo by noon the next day, and immediately
set sail for home. Only two days remained before Christmas. We came out
of the Rappahannock in a light breeze, and by sundown were in sight of
the Windmill Lighthouse, situated on the lower end of the Windmill Bar.
Avalon instructed me to go to the cabin and get some sleep. I had been
up most of the previous night.
I had been asleep about two hours, and the vessel had long
since passed the Windmill Light, when I was awakened by a commotion on
deck and horns blowing the distance. When I opened the cabin door and
poked my head out to see what was going on, it was as if I had thrust
my face in a wad of cotton. We were enveloped in thick fog -- so
dense I was unable to discern the others on deck.
Avalon assured me they were getting along alright and told
me to go back to sleep. My response was to the effect that in such a
situation I would rather be on deck. He told me if that was my wish to
come and take the wheel and he would join the other crewmen on the
Presently the wind breezed up from the southeast. We had
all five sails on and all of them were drawing -- that is, each
was filled with wind and furnishing its fair share of propulsion. She
was sailing smartly; really cutting the water. We were bound home light
and, of course, this increased the vessel's capacity for speed.
Avalon on told me to hold her north by east, which course
took us past North Point Lighthouse; we passed within a hundred yards
of it. The fog was not quite so thick there, but the Bay was still full
of noise from horns and whistles. Several steamers were navigating the
area, honking continuously. It was altogether a dangerous time to be
abroad in the Bay.
'The captain said our course would bring us to the
Southwest Middles, and from there we could head into Hooper Straits and
on up Honga River without any difficulty. The Southwest Middles is an
area in about the middle of Chesapeake Bay where the bottom contains
oyster bars, stone piles and assorted other debris; a kind of bar,
where the water is shallow -- but not too shallow for safe
navigation. There is also a Northwest Middies.
I asked how long it would take to get to the Southwest
Middles. Avalon looked at his watch and remarked that from our position
in relation to North Point Light, and with such a breeze as we were
under, he had made it there in an hour and five minutes.
In exactly sixty-five minutes he picked up the lead line
sounder, threw it over the side and measured exactly two and one-half
fathom. This was the depth he expected. As I said before, he was a
captain par excellence.
I held the vessel in east by northeast for the Straits.
The fog had lifted by that time and we sailed on up Honga River and
anchored in Hickory Cove. We were ashore, in Capt. Johnny Simmons'
store, by 9 p.m.
Avalon came to me in the store and asked how much he owed
me for my services on the trip. I told him not much of anything; we
were only away a little over twenty-four hours. He said, "I heard about
your treatment by Capt. Waters -- his refusal to pay you for two
months work. Now Christmas is almost here, and you must have some
money. You have to buy your girl a gift." He handed me twenty-five
dollars. That was a lot of money then. Crewmen were usually paid
eighteen dollars per month.
The 3200 bushels of oysters, bought for 15c per bushel,
were sold to the planter for 28c per bushel. He grossed good freight on
the cargo, and did not mind sharing his good fortune. He was that kind