Author Q&A: The Making of SKIPJACK

A Conversation with Christopher White, author of SKIPJACK

 

As a boy you grew up along the shores of the Bay, when Chesapeake watermen were commonplace. What inspired you to write now about their vanishing way of life?

When I was young there were more than 5,000 watermen, and their villages peppered the shores and islands of the Bay. But today there are fewer than 800 active watermen—both oystermen and crabbers. When Beautiful Swimmers, the book on summer crabbing, won the Pulitzer Prize, I realized there was strong interest in the comings and goings of Bay watermen. And yet, no one had documented winter oystering under sail. I thought I’d tackle it before all the sailboats and captains were gone. They were a time capsule of American history. To me, they represented the American frontier, the last cowboys of the waves.

 

Handling the sails and dredges of an oyster boat is notoriously dangerous and poorly paid work. How did you come about crewing on a skipjack?

 Researching the book on the captains, I had expected to go along with the fleet as an observer, standing safely with each skipper at the helm. But on my very first voyage, the crew was a man short and I was shanghaied to work as a deckhand. It was a trial by fire: I had to pass muster with the captain. Subsequently, I worked as a crewman a dozen times, when a boat was short on crew, and other times I kept the captains company. As a result of my participation on the middle deck, I was invited into the captains’ homes and their lives. The story followed from there.

 

 In the book, you tell of several oyster boats that sink in sudden storms. Did you have any close calls?

Sailing with the skipjack fleet was always exciting, but sometimes dangerous. One crewman fell overboard in December while trying to guide a dredge aboard. Another lost half his finger in the windlass. My closest call came at the start of one season: The Rebecca was a man short and I was to be the substitute crew, but I was late getting to the boat. She left without me. As it happened, she was caught in a living gale, trying to sail home at the end of the day, and the boat sank. The captain and three crewmen spilled into the water. Waves were topping twelve feet. Miraculously, they were rescued by another boat. I was dry as a bone when the rescue boat brought them into port. The captain has never forgiven my good luck.

 

Skipjacks—propelled only by wind power—are anachronistic, inefficient, some would say obsolete. How did they survive the twentieth century?

 Chesapeake oyster dredging was legalized right after the Civil War, in 1865, under the restriction that all Maryland boats were limited to sail power. This conservation measure, one of the earliest in the country, prevented steamboats from tearing up the extensive oyster reefs of the Bay. When the internal combustion engine was invented, the dredge boats just sailed right on past them. In those days, there were several types of sailboats in the oyster fleet: schooners, sloops, bugeyes, skipjacks. The 1865 conservation law allowed the dredge boats to survive the course of the twentieth century. And their sails conserved the oyster beds for many years, until overharvesting from other oystermen—tongers not dredgers—came into play. By then schooners, sloops, and bugeyes had vanished. Only the cheaper skipjacks could be maintained. Fewer than a dozen saw the dawn of the twenty-first century.

 

At the beginning of your book, there are twenty working skipjacks (down from 1,000 a hundred years before). At the end of the book—today—there are only half a dozen still working. How long can the last few survive?

 The fleet’s profile is even more precarious than that. Out of those six boats, only one actually raised its sails last season. The rest used motor power during the two days of the week that engines are now allowed. Art Daniels, the captain of that boat, the City of Crisfield, is now 88 years old. He goes out oyster dredging every day he can, but he can’t go on forever. When he retires, the Age of Sail will lose its last holdout.

 

 You credit the mismanagement of the oyster fishery by state officials as one of the main threats to the dwindling fleet. Is anyone else at fault?

 An array of forces jeopardizes the skipjack fleet—pollution, oyster disease, poor prices, aging captains, mismanagement. The state of Maryland has favored sportfishing over commercial harvests and modernization over tradition. But the greatest tragedy, the terrible irony, is that the watermen themselves have crippled their own chances for survival. Overfishing has stripped the Bay bottom of oyster beds, reducing profits and rendering skipjacks impossible to keep up.

 

 You changed the names of several characters. Why was that necessary?

 Watermen are a rough crowd and they are very private. Some asked for anonymity. In other cases, I decided to honor privacy—to protect the innocent or the guilty.

 

 This book took many years to write. Are you a slow writer? What’s your creative process?

 When I’m writing, I clear the decks and focus on one thing, every day, every week—for years if required. I spent two years living on a Chesapeake island, working on boats and crewing for watermen, then another two years doing follow-up interviews and research, then five years writing. This gave me some distance, some perspective as did finishing the book in New Mexico. Sitting on my deck, overlooking the Rio Grande Valley, it was easy to imagine the broad desert sky as the sea.

 

 Why did you choose Wadey Murphy as the main character in your story?

 I had a blast both getting to know and writing about the memorable characters in the book. Many, including the three main captains, are larger than life. But it’s true Wadey does take up more space, more oxygen than the others. At first, he seems simple, a hot-blooded captain. But as the story unfolds, he’s more complex: he’s a renegade and he doesn’t suffer fools, but he has a code. He represents the dual nature of the commercial fisherman—a competitive streak that leads to overfishing by some (but not by him) and an altruism that holds the community together.

 

 What is your favorite part of sail dredging on a skipjack?

 Watching the golden sunrise from the bowsprit of an oyster boat, as it plowed through the waves, is one of my fondest memories. But the most touching scene was when a grandfather captain instructed his grandson on how to captain a skipjack—a noble art, a legacy at that moment spanning five generations.

 

 Is it true what they say about oysters being aphrodisiacs?

 I love oysters and downed many in the name of research for this book. The crews eat them fresh from the Bay every day. One crewman claimed he owed his five boys to Chesapeake oysters. For myself, all I will admit is that oysters make you romantic. But just in case, I limit myself to no more than eight.

 

 What was the hardest part of writing Skipjack?

 Every voyage to an oyster bar, every race home to port was likely to be one of the last. The boats were in terrible shape; a few sank during my two years with the fleet. The captains were getting old. Their legacy was tenuous. It was difficult to witness firsthand a great tradition that was vanishing before my eyes.