Last Skipjack Captain on Western Shore Quits

By Pamela Wood, The Annapolis Capital. November 6, 2011

Working skipjacks are now a thing of the past on the Western Shore of the Chesapeake Bay.

Capital file photo by Pamela Wood
Capt. Barry Sweitzer, who operated the skipjack Hilda M. Willing out of Deep Creek Marina and Restaurant each winter, is calling it quits. He’s the last working skipjack captain on the Western Shore of the Chesapeake Bay. But he said a massive die-off of oysters in this part of the bay is too difficult to overcome.

The sole remaining waterman who captained one of the wooden oystering sailboats is calling it quits because of the major die-off of Upper Bay oysters.

Capt. Barry Sweitzer has put his skipjack Hilda M. Willing – a treasured sight on the Magothy River – up for sale.

Skipjack season started Tuesday and Sweitzer went out for the first time on Wednesday. What he found was troubling.

The skipjack’s dredges were full of dead oysters.

Over and over again, each lick of the dredge brought up nothing but deceased bivalves.

“The dredge came up with probably 150 oysters in it and they were all dead,” Sweitzer said. “It was devastating. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The first oyster bar Sweitzer and his crew tried is called Six-Foot Knoll.

At the end of last winter’s oyster season, in March, Six-Foot Knoll was loaded with oysters that were too small to harvest. Sweitzer expected that they’d be legal size by now. He expected to bring back 120 bushels on the first day.

Instead, he harvested 10 bushels.

The lack of oysters was the final straw for Sweitzer.

“You can’t make a day’s pay out there at all. It’s a total disaster,” he said.

Sweitzer’s departure from oystering leaves just five working skipjacks on the Chesapeake Bay – the last fleet of commercial fishermen on sailboats anywhere in America.

There are two captains working out of Tilghman Island and three on Deal Island on the Eastern Shore.

In another year or two, Sweitzer predicts they’ll all be out of business.

Generations ago, dozens of skipjacks sailed the bay harvesting oysters.

The shallow-draft sailboats were nimble and able to poke up rivers in search of oysters. They were so iconic that they were named the official state boat. Even a minor league hockey team in Baltimore was called the Skipjacks.

But the old, wooden boats are difficult to maintain and expensive to operate because they need several crew members. The oyster population was hit hard by past overharvesting and a pair of oyster-killing parasites.

Since 1966, skipjack captains have been allowed to use motors to power the boats, but only two days a week.

Sweitzer was able to hang on longer than many captains because oystering has always been a side job.

His father was a full-time waterman, but Sweitzer has a day job as a marine police officer with the Baltimore County Police Department. He uses his vacation time to oyster off the Hilda twice a week in the winter.

But no longer. He has told his crew members to find other jobs and he’s putting the Hilda M. Willing up for sale.

“For me, it’s over,” Sweitzer said. “The boat’s 64 years in my family. It’s heartbreaking for me, it really is. I love that job. I love that boat.”

He’s promised to keep the skipjack docked at Deep Creek Marina and Restaurant in Arnold through Thanksgiving, so neighbors and maritime buffs can give her one last look. Then he’s sailing her home to Middle River in Baltimore County.

Sweitzer said he hopes a museum will buy the skipjack and he’s already made some calls. At 106 years old, the Hilda M. Willing is a National Historic Landmark.

Sweitzer is a perfectionist when it comes to maintenance, and he’s kept the skipjack in pristine condition.

“I hate to sell it,” he said. “It’s inevitable, though. The oyster industry is dead.”