Behind the Story of “Skipjack”

Book Back Story

How Joining the Crew Helped Christopher White Write SKIPJACK

A guest post by author Christopher White

Research for my recently published book, Skipjack: The Story of America’s Last Sailing Oystermen, required going into the trenches, into the ship’s galley if you will, getting my feet wetter than expected. Skipjack celebrates and critiques the lives and legacy of the only commercial fishermen in North America still to employ wind power. The book features a handful of captains in the Chesapeake Bay who dredge for oysters with historic wooden sailboats, called “skipjacks.” These boats are an honored piece of Maryland history; the skippers are keepers of a rich sailing tradition; and sail dredging, itself, is a surprising success for fisheries conservation. The captains, called “watermen,” are known to be shy, independent, and wary of outsiders. So, when I set out to chronicle their livelihood and traditions, I anticipated some resistance. And perhaps occasional rejection. Remarkably, my first voyage erased this fear, reversing all my preconceptions.

That first day, Captain Wade Murphy, 55, of the skipjack Rebecca Ruark headed out of the harbor into the eye of the wind at 4 AM. I huddled out of the March chill in the lee of the cabin, next to the captain at the helm. This is where I had expected to spend the day, far removed from the four crewmen who would take their stations up forward on the middle deck, where the dangerous action was—hauling and culling oysters. At the helm, I figured I could safely strike up a conversation with Captain Wade and learn a little of his vocation. I figured I would be an observer, a witness to the action of the day.

At dawn, Murphy called the men up from their bunks below. Only three men emerged. The captain, in a hurry, had left the fourth crewman, who was late, at the dock. Captain Wade looked at me and smiled. “Here’s your chance to learn about drudging orsters,” he said. He handed me boots, rubber gloves, a shovel, and a set of slick rain clothes, called “oilskins.” I tried to object, but he just grinned. He put me to work for a few hours—a day of nonstop strain like shoveling asphalt on a road gang. At the end of my shift, it felt like my back was shot, lifting and tossing seed oysters that morning. But I learned a few things.

I learned that there is no substitute for participation in mastering the task at hand. I also discovered the reward of earning a share on a fishing boat. Later, rumors of my efforts circulated around the homeport—perhaps mixed reviews but my heart had been in it, which counted. I was invited back and grew to appreciate the possibilities of documenting a working tradition from the inside out. It promised to be a more intimate story, and quickly a new world opened up to me. I was invited into the fishermen’s homes. I met their wives. I viewed their family albums. I interviewed the men. The story grew from there.

Another major surprise was an unexpected change in the book’s narrative scope. At first, before my maiden voyage, I envisioned mostly an historical account. The tradition of sail dredging on the Chesapeake was vivid in anecdote and legend. One of my favorite stories is the yarn that, during the Depression, skippers use to shanghai their crews in the autumn from the Baltimore city jail and carry them to their boats for free labor; in the spring, they’d “pay them off with the boom,” by swinging the huge spar across the deck, clipping the unfortunates in the head. Or so the story goes. During the infancy of my research, to chase down these legends, I interviewed every old-timer, every retired captain—in their 80s and 90s—I could find. At the same time, I was making more voyages, helping active, younger captains when short on crew. We got caught in storms, struggled with slim catches, and encountered outlaw oystermen who worked at night and outside legal fishing zones. I discovered that the contemporary skipjack fleet was just as interesting, at times just as outrageous, as the former fleet. When a crewman fell overboard on a freezing December day, I knew where the story was and decided to chronicle the active captains first, leaving history as a backdrop.

To tell the saga of the skipjack fleet, I had eighteen working captains to choose from. I needed to select just a few to tell the story in a personal way. As it turned out, the choice was easy: Three skippers came from sailing families that could be traced back to the schooner days of England in the 1800s. I stepped aboard the boats of Art Daniels, 77, and Stanley Larrimore, 66, and struck up friendships on a par of that with Wade Murphy. The only hitch was that Stanley and Wade hardly spoke—their family rivalry, that of the Larrimores and the Murphys, I discovered, was on even ground with the Hatfields and the McCoys. I gingerly moved between the men, and it made for some exciting dialogue and action.

Serendipity thus played a major role in how the book took shape. I was shanghaied, carried back and forth in a time capsule, and caught in the middle of a feud. Along the way, my preconceptions were shattered. The skipjack fleet, far from being a romantic anachronism, is a vibrant livelihood, which I was lucky enough to witness, to participate in up close.

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