Skipjack: Read an Excerpt

[Captain Wade Murphy] and his crew battled driving rain alone to land seventy bushels of prime oysters, before heading home [early] at three o’clock. The captain made this unusual concession in the face of a green crew-two brothers, Ward and Walker, and their friend, Mike, from Crisfield. They were cold, soaked, and tired, and when Wadey quit early, relieved. The wind was spiking to twenty miles. Visibility was poor. Rainsqualls danced around the boat.

Rather than retreat to Cambridge, as the Deal boats had done two hours earlier, Wadey turned Rebecca downriver, casting caution to the wind. The two-hour voyage to Tilghman’s began as a routine, if wet, trip. The yawl boat did all the pushing, and Rebecca cut through the whitecaps with ease. The rain continued to plummet, stinging the faces of the crew. Later, Mike said sheets of water slapped him as if he had stepped through a waterfall. Each gust brought another bucket of rain. The wind-picking up to twenty-five now-streamed from the south, creating a following sea. Swells approached six feet. With the wind behind him, Wadey feared for his yawl boat. If she sank, he’d be dead in the water, or worse, she’d pull Rebecca down, too. When the wind hit thirty, Murphy ordered the men to haul aboard the auxiliary. Rebecca turned into the wind, and the crew tied three reefs in the main and raised her tight….

With the rain, Wadey couldn’t see the squall line, wind clouds, or a darkening sky. He hoped the wind would cap at thirty; he counted on the status quo. But the wind and seas almost immediately began to build. The wide mouth of the Choptank gave the waves a broad fetch to grow. Whitecaps topped eight, maybe nine, feet. The wind, now double the strength of his morning at Trappe Creek, worried Wadey. It wasn’t a steady blow; it punched like a boxer and seemed to multiply in strength all the time. The wind screamed through the rigging, climbing an octave with each notch in velocity. And, in turn, the waves rose up, peaking at ten feet. The captain winced each time a swell washed over the deck; the boat had several rotten boards nailed to the foredeck, and he worried about water seeping below. But as long as they were sailing northwest toward the island (away from the wind), the waves did little damage-no water came over the stern-and the three electric pumps held their own in the hold. Still, Murphy, clutching the wheel, knew to prepare himself for the worst.

When the wind topped fifty, the mainsail shattered. The sail literally blew up, torn into a dozen pieces-like little rags. Wadey had been smart to shorten the sail; fewer reefs could have brought down the mast. In any case, his propulsion was gone; he was dead in the water.

Thinking quickly, Wadey ordered the anchor dropped over the bow-to stabilize the boat and bring her head into the wind. The greatest danger would be for Rebecca to lay sideways to (“beam-to”) the gale; waves would likely swamp her with her profile exposed. Now with the bow and anchor chain nosing the wind, Wadey felt better but he still feared he might lose her. Waves were spilling over the front rail, penetrating the bad place in the deck. Water always discovers a weakness. So the second thing Wadey did was call his wife, Jackie, over the radio. He told her he was taking on water, to send a couple of boats out to tow him in. She ran next door to Robbie Wilson’s house, and within minutes, Robbie and his son Jason were driving their workboats, Miss Brenda II and Island Girl, out of the harbor, bearing south toward Rebecca.

Halfway out, a rogue wave smashed Robbie’s windshield, but he kept on coming, barreling through each crest, diving into each trough. By now a strong ebb tide was retreating against the wind, producing monster waves, perhaps twelve feet tall. Meanwhile, Wadey was taking on water. The pumps were no longer keeping pace. He began to bail-with a bucket, by hand. The crew didn’t join him; they were too scared to descend into the hold, where the water was up to the captain’s knees. Nobody thought to put on life vests; they sat in factory wrapping in the cabin. It took the Wilsons half an hour to reach the wounded vessel. When they did, they attached a towline to Rebecca. Wadey cut loose the anchor, and the tow home commenced. As dusk descended, everyone thought they’d be okay. But it was a race against time.

Time and water. Each wave that broke over Rebecca added to the surplus in the hold. And the skipjack “broached,” nose-diving into each trough, which caused more water to penetrate the leaking foredeck. Wadey bailed until his arms ached and then returned to the helm, where Mike stood, hanging onto the davits. The two brothers, Ward and Walker, clung to the shrouds near the mast. Another twenty minutes to safety, but that was to be outside everyone’s grasp. As Rebecca passed over Bar Neck onto tongers’ ground, the Bay landed a one-two punch. First, a huge wave swamped the boat, listing her to port. Then, as she came back even, another, larger assault plunged into her, and she went down. She sank fast, right underneath the feet of captain and crew in twenty feet of water, spilling her cargo of oysters onto the bottom. The stern went down first, submerging Wadey and Mike. Both were certain they would drown (Mike couldn’t swim; Wadey had cracked three ribs), but Robbie threw them a life ring, which landed nearby. They struggled over it while something pinned down their legs-perhaps the boom or the topping lift. But they drifted free. Up forward, Ward and Walker still hugged the shrouds, the most stable element of the rigging. As the boat sank, water rushed past the hatches into the hold, and the brothers feared they would be sucked into the bowels of the skipjack. They were spared one death for the threat of another. Rebecca rolled over on her starboard side and the brothers spilled into the turbulent, near-freezing water….

The four men bobbed like corks in the swells. Miraculously, Robbie and Jason plucked the men from the water without mishap. Miss Brenda II and Island Girl motored back to Dogwood Harbor with the men, leaving Rebecca on the bottom with only three feet of her mast exposed above the waves. When I met Wadey at the wharf, he was already paying off the crew-$300 each for their trouble. Looking them over, he said, “I’m just glad you boys are all right. I can get another boat, but you can’t replace a life.” For the crew’s part, they acknowledged they were lucky to get out alive. Walker summed up their feelings: “No, I ain’t never going out on neither dredge boat again. No way, I quit.” I had never heard that many double negatives before in one sentence, but the day deserved it. The rest of the crew agreed. “Not on your life. Neither skipjack for me.”