In the last quarter of the 20th century St. Mary’s County Maryland still had outhouses, tobacco farms, fishing villages and plantations. One of the last live radio stations in America carried the only available daily news. There were a couple of traffic signals, a couple of dress shops, small community grocery stores and a Navy base that most military personnel considered a hardship posting.

Still, just as the first English settlers had determined 350 years before, there were always some who saw the remote and marshy peninsulas for what it is: a marketable paradise.



Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Dee of St. Mary's Leaves Home



All red markers to port leaving Island Creek.

The Dee of St. Mary’s left home today.

For 30 years her port of call has been Sea-Fruit Oyster House on St. George Island.

This morning she headed out to Calvert Marine Museum on Solomons Island, MD and docked early afternoon at the museum's Lore Oyster House exhibit.
It has taken the past 12 years for the Dee of St. Mary's to find a safe harbor to see her beyond this generation. A two-year renovation funded by members of the Chesapeake Bay Field Lab and the Maryland Historical Heritage Administration now coupled with an outreach from Calvert Marine Museum still isn’t a guarantee. It is not merely that skipjacks are relics of a bygone era, their supporting industry gone. Public and private funding suggest that historic artifacts no longer carry the intrinsic cultural value they did even a decade ago. Skipjacks, in a blunt assessment recently put to me, are passé.
Be that as it may, the Calvert Marine Museum remains committed to preserving the maritime heritage of the Chesapeake Bay. The organization is welcoming the freshly renovated and re-certified Dee of St. Mary's for an extended visit. In cooperation with the Chesapeake Bay Field Lab, the 501(c)3 that owns the Dee of St. Mary’s, the museum is exploring future opportunities for this youngest member of the last commercial sailing fleet in North America.
Please keep in touch with both organizations ( Calvert Marine Museum, Chesapeake Bay Field Lab ) for ways to help.

Couple Kinks in the System

As might be expected, there were a few things not perfectly rigged on the mast which was lying on the ground at the time. Naturally whatever kinks might be in that rigging became obvious only after the sail went up.
Welcome back Bones. Eugene Ramsey by any other name sailed as first mate aboard the Dee of St. Mary's for her entire oystering career from 1981 to 1990. Currently living in West Virginia on a mountain top where he can see for miles and miles he got the call.
John Fulchiron, first mate for the Dee's educational career from 1990 through the present, says only one other man has gone up the mast besides Bones. A Coast Guard inspector quite a few years ago who got green half way up and nobody else has ever asked.



2000 Square Feet of Sail Rigged to the Dee of St. Mary's


When the Dee of St. Mary’s set out for the 1981 oyster season, her first working season, she carried 2,800 square feet of sail, roughly 2,000 square feet in her mainsail and the remaining in her jib.
 The vast surface of sail is for strength, not speed. A good sailing day’s work had the Dee dragging steel cages attached with steel elevator cable  running off both sides of the boat. The dredges’  maws were lined with chisels for teeth, each dredge able to hold a hefty sailor. 
"If you didn't have enough wind you threw out one to the windward," Jackie Russell said of the decade he oystered from the Dee.
Below Cedar Point, at Little Cove Point off the Chesapeake Ranch Estates, trying to get home to St. George Island, a “flaw” caught the Dee full sail and she heeled over. “Water was five or six feet up the deck,” Jackie  recalls.  “When she spilled her wind she popped right back up. Needless to say I had already spilled my wind back at the wheel.”
Flaws, erratic and unexpected gusts of wind, are prevalent along the Calvert County Chesapeake Bay shore cliffs, from Solomons Island northward.
“It was a sail day,” Jackie said of the day the Dee ultimately spilled her wind. “We were drujin’ down the shore. We had a conveyor chain on a clam rig off the bow. Hung it down right at the water line. We had it to break ice. It helped save the wood. In the morning, going out of the harbor, you’d go to the crick. The goddamn crick was froze up half the time, because we had winters at one time. No one would break you out. You had to do it yourself.”
In 1988, the U.S. Coast Guard certified the Dee as seaworthy to carry passengers with a double-reef proviso.  Reefing is the processes of lowering the sail to reduce its surface.
Reef points are lines of grommets that run horizontal from the boom on triangular sails. They are threaded through with short, secure lines. The Dee has four rows of reef points. The line threaded through each falls 18 inches from both sides of the grommet. To double reef her, the second row of reef points from the bottom are tied to the lacing holding the sail to the boom. The sail is considered double-reefed.
The sail is made of a stiff, laminate synthetic which in a 2,000 square foot chunk is heavy. Really heavy. Members of the Seafarer’s International Union attending classes at the Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship at the Paul Hall Center in Piney Point, Maryland helped put the sail back on in early July 2012.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Boom, Boom and Ballast


Everything's going pretty fast since the the Dee of St. Mary's went overboard May 12, 2012.

Jack rigged the mast while it was still on the ground and Dirtworks lifted it with a single crane and stepped the 76-foot mast into the hull in early June.

The rigging was lashed to the mast to keep it from swinging while aloft. There is a lot of it.

The shrouds, which Jackie explains, are are wire cables that support the mast. They are secured to the sides of the vessel via chain plates. The chain plates are metal plates bolted through the sides of the vessel slightly aft of the base of the mast. The shrouds are positioned there to keep the mast from being forced out of the forward end of the boat if the wind is hard astern.

The mainsail jacks give support to the boom. These are 3/4 inch nylon line that work like slings and support the boom in four places.

What Jack calls the topping lift is a cable that runs from the top of the mast to the aft tip of the boom.

The halyard is the line that raises the main sail and also attached to the mast is the jib halyard.

Shipwright Francis Goddard who built the skipjack in 1979 is carving new wedges to secure the base of the mast through the decking to the hull. Half are done.
 
So all was ready, on a pleasant day toward the end of June 2012, for another willing crew from the Paul Hall Center to volunteered for duty. The student volunteers are from the Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship and are unlicensed seaman training for a career in the merchant marines.

Hundreds of students, upgrading licensed seaman, school employees and members of the Seafarer's International Union have given of time and treasure to see the skipjack restored. She wouldn't be sailing today without the efforts of all of them.

On this day six students lifted the 56-foot boom and placed it back into its cradle, secured the rigging of the boom to the mast and returned three-and-a-half tons of ballast to the hull. Before lunch.

The ballast is in the form of cement blocks and bricks and are counted so the U.S. Coast Guard can have an exact report.  As the ballast was replaced the Dee rode lower in the water showing where cracks between her planking was still not fully sealed. Jack went overboard to caulk them as she gained weight.

The three videos follow:



 




 


Sunday, May 13, 2012

Sinking and Floating and Sinking Again


The captain seems never satisfied.

By dusk the day after the skipjack, the Dee of St. Mary's, returned overboard the bilge pumps ran sporadically keeping her afloat. Apparently that isn't yet right.

By the next morning the plan was to move the bilge pumps higher into the vessel to allow water to collect in the bottom and climb nearly high enough to cover the keel and definitely high enough to cover the stringers.

Stringers are the four-by-fours, two running parallel along each side of the keel. Their purpose is to strengthen the bottom.




http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=592oCwGTsJ0

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Skipjack Floats

The Chesapeake Bay skipjack, the Dee of St. Mary's, returned to the water May 11, 2012.

She has been out of the water since May 12, 2010.

Structural repairs were completed during 2010; deck and hull repairs continued through 2011. By the mild winter and spring of 2012 she was ready to be sanded, caulked, painted, coppered and returned to her home element, water. 









Sunday, April 1, 2012

Just to Catch Everybody Up.



1. There is still a skipjack in my backyard.

This is because a long long time ago I married her owner. Catch the pronouns.


2. He doesn't look exactly like this anymore. But there are times he can still pull it off.

3. A skipjack is a Big Deal in the rarefied air of Chesapeake Bay Preservationists. A Really Big Deal. And a skipjack is astronomically, insanely and cataclysmic-ally expensive. Really expensive.

4. So a foundation was created.





They clearly need help. If you can help, please visit www.thebaylab.org

5. Meanwhile work continues with a goal of hoisting her back overboard (out of my backyard) this spring.
What follows is a re-cast synopsis of the scary work done in 2010 that ultimately assured the Chesapeake Bay Field Lab which owns the vessel that she would be able to return to service.



 Work completed in 2011 is also documented and will begin appearing on this blog at the end of these re-published 2010 videos, photos and stories.

Launching the Skipjack


 November 1979 -- recalled in 2009

“We had about 3,000 head down here that day.”
Jackie Russell’s face lights up still today, remembering that day in 1979. He’ll draw himself from the peace of sleep, from even the fury of interruption and turn immediately back to that most exhilarating of days nearly half his lifetime ago.

“ ‘National Geographic’ was there, but the fella who’d followed it couldn’t be there that day and the pictures got rejected and that was why we never got in ‘National Geographic’ magazine.
“All the politicians were there, big hoop-de-la for Piney Point. And of course after they couldn’t get the boat off everybody went up to Swann’s and got smothered drunk. Except me. I slept on the boat that night.”

A roughly treated, large color photograph of that day is perhaps one of those rejected. I found it at the bottom of one of the drawers of Dee memorabilia in the trailer’s closet-bedroom. I can't find it anymore. It must have been shot during the smothering. Jackie Russell is alone on the stern of his new boat, looking down at her V bottom wedged in the muck of a low tide. Aground. He is centered in the heart of the photo, small aboard his big boat. A cap pulled hard over his head. An arm checkered in a woolen jacket dangling from the rail. He does not see the photographer.

You want to think it is a funny picture, but of course it isn’t. But it isn’t foolish or pitiful either. The most appropriate caption would seem to be, “What is wrong with this picture?”


“It floated off,” Jackie Russell continues. “It was three days later. We got a high tide, a sou’ easter’ and a high tide. It was lightly snowing and the fellow who was married to Anita Evans, I can’t remember his name. Doug. He was at the school and got a wet suit and cut the chains loose and pulled them loose from the fifth wheel and the boat floated off. We got her off December 19th and it was lightly snowing. I think we tried to launch it the 16th and we couldn’t get it off.

The deal was, I think the deal was, the wheels were all in a line.” He sits up in bed, staring into middle space, seeing the scene yet again. “Really why we couldn’t launch that boat, all the wheels were in a line and there was an old boat ramp there at Swann’s and somebody had been digging some manoses out of that boat ramp, that concrete boat ramp. And as those wheels went off the boat ramp one behind another she bogged down right at the end of that ramp. And it might have even been an old piece of concrete at the end of that ramp got caught up.

“And the tug boat the Susan Collins couldn’t pull her off. They had the tug boat up at Lundeberg School and the tug boat couldn’t even pull her off into the river.”

He falls backs and shuts his eyes. "Enough," he says. "Go on to another chapter."

It was more than 25 years ago I had the first of what sometimes feels a lifetime of ridiculous interviews with Jackie Russell. This night, when he tells again of that day, towel abandoned on the floor, dirty clothes resting on top of clean, it doesn't feel particularly different.
Back then I hadn’t any idea what his business was about. I mean his professional business. I did, finally, notice his eyes.

Almost every woman I met those early years, if Jackie Russell dropped into the conversation the next sentence had to do with his eyes. They possessed the cinematic trick that forced a comic book twinkle out of Tony Curtis’ blue eyes in one of the celebrity vehicle movies of the 1960s. The leitmotif gag played for the duration of the movie whenever Tony Curtis’ character’s blue eyes met the camera.


Jackie could do it, can do it, without the cinematic assist, without the gag. “Jackie is genuine,” one of my least demonstrative girlfriends once gushed in a moment of appreciation. I grunted. Somehow I still suspect something of the trick to it. I can see the glint looking as far back as that first interview when he opened his arm wide to introduce his Associates. “My associates,” Jackie Russell welcomed me aboard his skipjack with a majestic sweep of his arm gesturing up the forward deck, just then being swabbed clear of the last of the oyster debris of the day.

A half-dozen men, layered in rag-tag collections of shirts and jackets and rubber boots to their knees, glanced up from their task and acknowledged me with sudden grins, then looked quickly to the captain before returning to their tasks or sauntering off.

“I call them my associates,” Jackie Russell confided to me, walking me aft. “It sounds better that way.”

Jack Russell was an egalitarian captain, well, as egalitarian as a captain can become. A huge snort of laughter bursts from him today as he reads over my shoulder.

“I can’t remember the name of the one who worked with Tynan Poe’s son, who, the two of them, beat up Eddie Poe so bad that time,” Jackie laughs. “He told me they were doing all the work and I was making all the money. He laughed.
He welcomed me aboard the skipjack, that first time, with his wide open arm, such a smooth gesture that it goes unnoticed once his eyes get you.
He draws that inclusive arm back, his left arm, and then brings it forward to grasp your forearm in a near embrace, then suddenly blocking that embrace he swings his right hand around and reaches for yours and grabs that handshake to pull you in closer. He holds you face to face, and he’s just a little bit too close but he stays too close, shaking your hand, close and tight. Without quite knowing how, you’re too close for refusal, too off-balance to step back.
Before you know it, you’re aboard, you’re a pirate too, you’re in his world and pleased with yourself. You’re possibly even lost to yourself.

Removing the Boom

video

 April, 2010

With the support of a generous grant from the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority, the Dee of St. Mary's skipjack will undergo a tremendous restoration this year. Planning began in late 2009 and continues. This month labor began to prepare this 30-year-old wooden boat for major surgery.

The Dee of St. Mary's is 56 feet long with a 20-foot beam. Her mast is 76 feet tall and her boom 56 feet long. She carries about 2,600 square feet of sail with a hull speed of roughly 10 knots--about 11 m.p.h.

The large amount of sail enables skipjacks to pull large iron dredges--toothed scoops--along the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay even in minimal wind. The few skipjacks still oystering today use hydraulic motors to pull the dredges from the bottom.

The boom of the Dee of St. Mary's weights 750 pounds. This boom, the vessel's second, was made in 1987 in Jack Russell's yard. It is made of laminated pine. The boom is held in place by lines rigged to the mast.

Helping Cap'n Jack Russell in a delicate dance of balancing and weight lifting to remove the boom are:
Antonio Hernandez, Joe Panella, Roman Pauley, Andrew Sarenceno, James Burnett, Jr. and Marcus Fields.



3.5 Tons of Ballast Taken from Skipjack

March 2010
Jack Russell and crew currently training at the Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship at the Paul Hall Center in Piney Point removed this week 3.5 tons of ballast from the skipjack Dee of St. Mary's.

Skipjacks are commercial sailing vessels used to harvest oysters. The vessels, when working under sail, drag man-sized toothed mesh claws from both their port and starboard beam. They carry a great deal of sail in order to gain the speed and power to pull the dredges along the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay scooping up oysters. The Dee carries more than 25,000 square feet of sail.

Despite carrying such sail capacity, skipjacks are shallow-bottomed for maneuverability so their ballast consists of many small weights nestled in their bottom hull between the ribs.

The Dee's ballast included:

Removed from Wings (beneath aft cabin bunks)
Starboard: 24 bricks; 13 cinderblocks
Port: 55 bricks and 13 cinderblocks

Removed from Stern: 
Stern: 8 bricks, 1 lead and 25 cinderblocks
  
Removed from beneath Aft Cabin:
Port: 96 brick; 44 cinderblock; 1 lead in keel
Centerline keel: 17 bricks, 0 cinderblocks 11 lead
Starboard: 88 bricks; 55 cinderblocks

Observation from C. Caryn Russell, "You'd be surprised how small three-and-a-half tons of brick are."

A Lot of Work Ahead

March 2011

Shipwright Benjamin Goddard, Marine Surveyor Michael Previti and Captain Jack Russell spoke in somber,sometimes outright grim tones as they prepared to write the plan for




the reconstruction of the inner keel. The men are standing in the aft cabin on the bottom of the skipjack (flooring was removed ahead of the ballast earlier this week.

The Dee of St. Mary's skipjack was built in Piney Point in 1979 -- the first skipjack to be built in 50 years.

.




Left: from disparate collection of photos taken during the 1979-1980 construction of the Dee.
 Her first sail in November 1980.



.

Removing a 76-foot Mast



Friday, April 23, 2010 the mast was removed from the skipjack the Dee of St. Mary's for the second time. The mast was removed once before in 2001 to dig out the damage "clinker bugs" had done to the wood.

video

Travis Mattingly, overseen by his father Aubrey Mattingly, pulled the mast the first time. Aubrey's son Aaron Mattingly operated the crane to pull the mast this year with the assistance of Joe Hockinson.
Francis Goddard, who built the Dee of St. Mary's skipjack in 1979, advised on both projects down to specific inches and pounds on the 76-foot mast and (estimated) 22-ton vessel he built. For example, Francis determined where the strap would be secured on the mast for a safe pull, swing and placement.
Jackie Russell, former owner and still Captain of the Dee -- now owned by the nonprofit, Chesapeake Bay Field Lab, Inc. -- performed on-site supervision and labor.
Eugene "Bones" Ramsey, former first mate of the Dee during her oystering years, went aloft to fasten the strap.
The entire process from the arrival of the crane to its departure took less than 2 hours.

When the Dee was built in 1979 her launch came before her mast was stepped. The photos below were taken before and after.

The mast is a single tree. A pine tree Francis, Jackie and George Bean floated across the Potomac from Virginia once Francis found the tree he wanted. George pulled the tree is his boat the Cathy Lynn -- also built by Francis. The tree would dive deep into the river, Jackie Russell recalls and the men would lose sight of it and not know when or where it would rocket out of the water. Or when it would dive again.

Tensions Are High

May 2010

All in all things aren't floating too well around this place, at this time. The winds have blown all the water out of the creek and the de-masted skipjack lists in the mud.

A group of Merchant Marines in-training at the Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship in Piney Point came down a week and a half ago on a high tide and helped Jack nudge the skipjack into the bulkhead. This is so the cranes can reach it and swing it onto shore.

The cranes are due today. They say.

For a week Jack has hunted down huge wooden blocks and more importantly lifting straps that can nestle the boat as the cranes lift it from the water. There will be two cranes. The boat might be as heavy as 30 tons, Jack says. Francis shakes his head and shrugs his shoulders. "Twenty-two?" he says.

Other men help locate the blocks and jacks. Danny Holden leaves a half-dozen nice solid blocks at the dock as his contribution.

Jack finds heavy rope and threads it through the sleeves in the straps he borrowed from St. Mary's Yachting Center, Brandywine Motors and one from David Adams. The rope he finds in the infinite stores of the endless rigging snugged somewhere within the dark and cavernous attic above the oyster house.

And on another high tide he slips the straps beneath the bottom of the skipjack the Dee of St. Mary's and pulls the ropes onto her deck.

There is a late call Monday night and a date given for the cranes to arrive. The date is set and rain dates aren't an option. There is a flurry of paperwork. The wind blows harder, the skipjack is immobile in the mud. Our daughter who is teaching the Wooden Boat station at the Chesapeake Bay Field Lab this semester reported to me last week, "The skipjack is on the ground."

When Jack and I agreed to create a nonprofit to continue the life of the Dee of St. Mary's beyond our own we spoke with our daughters --- Hoot and Holler -- about their loss of inheritance, that the boat would not pass to them.

"Whoo - hoo," they both cried and pumped their arms in the air. Despite their hooting and hollering and the one who dramatically flung an arm to her forehead at the tragedy of such a loss, they made it clear that neither were considering the life of a waterman.

Yet the day she reported, "The skipjack is on the ground," she didn't think to mention until later that a tool at her teaching station needed to be replaced. She shrugged that she could use something else in the meantime.

"It's on the bottom," I said.

"It's on the ground," she repeated.

So Jack stalks the waterfront, snaps at the wife, has no chance to kick a dog because none cross his path, instinctively smart enough to stay out of his way as he waits for the cranes to arrive.

"Well if they drop it, it drops," he says during his 90 seconds sitting at the kitchen table this morning. He leaves his coffee to chill and curdle.

Right, I think. And the boat is on the ground. Nobody's worried at all.

Skipjack on Land


May, 2010
Last week Keene Mill School in Fairfax, Va. saw a skipjack fly. One of their accompanying teachers was Robert Abell, former principal of Piney Point Elementary School and descendant of the Chesapeake watering industry.

video
The day began threatening with thunderstorms in the forecast. Before the Chesapeake Bay Field Lab teachers arrived a nervous captain paced the parking lot. The students arrived before the cranes.

It would require two cranes -- the smaller engined at the skipjack's bow the other at her stern. The boat's builder, Francis Goddard, arrived before the first crane. Next arrived was Charlie Knott, a man capable of inventing on the spot any necessary mechanical contraption out of the immediately available junk; within his realm he is a veritable Thomas A. Edison.

It is loud and then louder when the second crane appears. Holly Staats and John Fulchiron have joined the workforce in addition to the two crane operators, Mike Eagan and Aaron Mattingly of DirtWorks.

The cranes are in position quickly but it takes more than an hour for the men to satisfy themselves about which ropes and straps and hoists to use. They adjust, readjust, consider, reconsider, reconfigure.

Aubrey Mattingly was the only crane operator Francis Goddard permitted work on the Dee when her mast needed repair in 2001. With an ancient crane nicknamed Big Red Aubrey removed and then re-stepped the mast nearly a decade ago. His son Aaron inherited the touch and just as smoothly removed it again last month, April 23, 2010, preparing for this day -- May 12, 2010 -- when the skipjack would be lifted out of the water for restoration.

All appears ready. The cranes are revved, their arms extended and their back wheels off the ground allowing the legs to compensate the weight. Aaron yells above the noise into his cell phone, "I don't want to be the one breaks it in two."

As the straps tighten and the men jump off the boat and the hull is no longer floating but cradled, a loud creaking begins, louder than the cranes.
It was the straps, I am later told.
"I thought it was the wood," I said. Francis overheard and whipped his head around. He scolded in a single sputtering sound, walked on without pause, behind him he raised then dropped his long expressive arm in disdainful dismissal of such an impossible consideration.

Later I bring Francis a ladder. Of course the nervous captain wouldn't have thought to have one handy, I told Francis.
"You leave off him," Francis scolded me again. "Jackie Russell's doing fine. Just fine."

Sad Story

Somewhere there is a black and white photograph of Jackie Russell taken the first day I met him. In this old black and white photo self-consciousness shows in his eyes which are averted from the photographer. Otherwise it is an unusual photo of him. He wears a sports coat, no hat and holds a pencil with its eraser touching the perfect bow of not quite pursed lips.

For a newspaper, the description of a photograph is in the present tense. The cutline sustains the action. Even if the photograph is centuries old, its description is of its current depiction, even if that which it depicts no longer exists today.
It is perhaps merely this that makes old photographs seem poignant. Makes us keep them. Makes them worth a thousand words.

“His is a sad story,” Joseph Norris intoned the day that photo was taken. We sat side-by-side in cold metal folding chairs. He looked up at Jackie Russell. First time I’d seen Jackie Russell. Joseph Norris hung his head. His arms draped over his thighs and he looked at the lean reporter’s notebook held in one and a pen held in the other of his dangling hands. “A very sad story,” he repeated and slowly shook his head.
Joseph Norris is an authority on local sadness. He sings woeful ballads of the disappearing Chesapeake culture and munificence. He writes prodigiously of St. Mary’s County’s losses. He calls it The County. He carries about himself a moroseness and appreciation thereof. At barely 30, he was a tradition, under his belt a decade in local print on the subject of all that was gone or headed that way. That morning at 4 a.m. he showed me how to work the audio switches in the closet where he broadcast the news. And where, on Monday, I would broadcast the news.
“It’s good on Wednesdays,” he told me when the closing bars of the “He IS Southern Maryland News” promo played and he opened the door, unfolded himself from the closet and joined me in the hall. Wednesday was the day The Enterprise published so the local stories were fresh. “But you’ll have some good local stories for Monday,” he assured me. We were to meet up again at 8 a.m. for the Potomac River Fisheries Commission meeting held in Colonial Beach, Va., a two-hour drive but right across the river as the radio beams fly. “Probably the most important story you’ll face,” Joseph Norris told me.

I located Joe in the first row. Sliding into a seat next to him I jumped when my skirt slid up and my thigh made contact with the cold metal folding chair. I realized I was the only woman in the room. At the far wall a bank of white men faced the room. They sat across the width of three tables pushed together end-to-end. Behind them, sitting off to the side next to the wall, I spotted one other woman. She was also taking notes.
Behind us sat 40 or 50 men, mostly with their hats in their hands but a few with caps affixed atop their heads that they’d methodically take off, punch or fold about a bit with their hands and replace. They wore mostly old clothes, outdoor clothes, long-sleeved shirts and heavy woolen vests. Some held thick coats in their arms wrapped tightly around their chests. They were brightly clothed above their underpinnings of gray and brown and scuffed workpants, creased and greased. Their shirts and coats and hats filled the room with tufts of bright red, faded hunter green and flecks of yellow-gold.
I wouldn’t have noticed that day, but there would have been no blue. No blue beyond faded denim. A bad luck color aboard a boat, blue is. As bad of luck as carrying a women aboard I have had occasion to learn since.

The watermen were all a sad story, Joseph Norris had told me before we left The County. Their way of life was disappearing. The oysters were dying. None of the fish populations were what they used to be.
“Who’s that?” I asked Joe, squirming to warm the seat.
“Jackie Russell. He’s one of the saddest stories yet.”
He didn’t look all that sad to me. He looked, actually, to be in pretty good shape. Jackie Russell had the round face of a little boy with a couple broken blood vessels to enhance rosy cheeks. A small curl actually did curl down the middle of his forehead. He had lips like a bow when he pursed them together in a pose of attention. I mention this only because of the photo mentioned above. Because, actually, usually he was grinning.
He had a quick smile and bestowed it widely, speaking to nearly everyone in the room. He moved smoothly through the rows of chairs, suddenly up from his seat at the front table to grab a man’s upper arm and clasp his hand in a pumping shake, then startling me only a row away, pulling another man near to whisper something short before leaning back with a guffaw. Straight, white teeth. He’d throw his head back when he laughed. He’d reappear behind the table, his arm around yet another man. Shaking hands. All the while smiling, laughing.
“He doesn’t look sad,” I said to Joe.
“He’s from The County,” Joe said in a mournful tone. “He’s local,” Joseph Norris said of Jackie Russell.
“Oh yeah?” I said. “Local, like St. Mary’s County?”
“Oh yeah. More than that. St. George Island. He built a skipjack.”
“Uh, huh,” I said, looking finally from Jackie Russell and registering a blank look for Joe Norris.
“A skipjack,” Norris said, lifting his arms up from their dangle in a struggle to convey to me the colossal nature of such a thing. “First one built in half a century. The Dee of St. Mary’s. A boat. A big boat. A big working boat. A wooden sailing boat.”
Joseph Norris was upright in his sea. “She’s the youngest vessel of the last commercial sailing fleet of North America.”
“Uh, huh,” I said, looking back at Jackie Russell, who was still not looking back at me.
It’s even possible Joe Norris told me the whole skipjack story that day, that first day I saw Jackie Russell. But I don’t remember Joe telling me the story of the skipjack. I only remember Jackie Russell telling that story.


I didn’t get the story that day. I couldn’t even pull that glad-handing man’s eyes to mine that day. That day I was too far away to get the story. To get that story. But I got the drift, which was more than Jackie Russell got as I tried again and again to catch his icy blue eyes and suspected for the first and not for the last time that he might be pointing them steadfastly away from me. “Well,” I said, determined, not for the last time, to not take it personally, “he doesn’t look sad at all to me.”
“But it is a sad story,” Joseph Norris insisted with his hanging, shaking head. “He built this beautiful boat and then him and his wife split up.”
“Well,” my head jerked up and I tried yet one more shot at those icy eyes. “Well break my heart.”

Legends

     It’s more than a quarter century now I’ve watched and written about this dwindling handful of watermen parading themselves and their vanishing culture, resignedly and relentlessly before governing councils, scientists and their incoming neighbors of far deeper draft boats.
     “Indeed by God!” and “Christ may kill me,” they’ll sing, their lilting vernaculars lifting even their cursing to Shakespearian levels.
     I have seen them fall to their knees their clenched hands raised in mock prayer.
     Science, bureaucracy, progress and diplomacy fail to inspire in the face of a man resembling a Paul Bunyan icon with broken blood vessel cheeks crying and raising his calloused, stained and torn hands to the sky, “’Tis thee ways of my daddy and his daddy and his daddy as weil.”
     I have seen them sprawl across podiums, sweep chairs aside row by row upon their approach. I scratched out quote after quote of their increasingly irrational pleas for reason.
     They make for incredible copy. They say ludicrous things. They say uncanny things. They know things. Things about natural order and secrets about nature itself, like where a spring of freshwater bubbles out of the bottom of the Potomac River. Really. It is as David Sayre said, a mason jar could catch a fresh drink midst crabbing if you timed it right.
     They can make electricity from gasoline engines and from batteries. They can put food in their families’ bellies. Most can cook the meat, fish and fowl they bring home. Most can cook it well.
     They are dinosaurs. But they are not reptilian in thought. Even those not particularly clever are savvy. Most of them, by the time I started taking notes, knew one another or knew of one another, or of a cousin, brother. There weren’t all that many left, even then.
     Jackie Russell stood out among the pirates. For pirates they were and they remain an uncooperative lot, distrusting, clannish, unforgiving and un-forgetting.
     “Quick, get that basket in the cabin,” Jackie hissed at me the day he first took me trotlining. “In the cabin,” he hissed again and kicked the basket forward. Its lid bulged, the basket packed so full of jimmy crabs. Tossing a basket lid on a partial basket of females he jerked his head to indicate I should lift it onto the full jimmy basket now secured in the cabin. When I did he shut the door with his foot.
     All this time he’s speeding toward another boat, the broad smile on his face never faltering despite his abrupt and impolite commands to me.
     “Latch the door,”’ he said to me, “ and don’t say anything about them,” he added before coming alongside the other man, who, as I thought to be the point, cased me up and down. I smiled. Took his photo. Wrote his name down. Jackie puffed up his chest.
     “Got a good run over at Tarkhill,” Jackie said, and shook his head toward the single partially filled basket in the boat and the one full basket toward the stern. “How’re you doin’?”
     “Comin’ back from Windmill Point,” said the other man, shrugged over at a pitifully small catch and they pushed off from one another and went along.
     “That can’t be enough for him to keep crabbing?” I asked.
     “Hell, he had five baskets in his cabin. I’d like to know where he’s been working.”
     “Windmill Point,” I offered, just as puffed up as he’d been.
     "He hasn’t been near Windmill Point all day. Sonny’s workin’ over there and I just talked to him.”
    
      I met Jackie Russell as he turned 40 looking a decade younger. He dressed like Marlon Brando on the waterfront, only dirtier. Fish guts, dried paint, sweat, the smell of crab crap or oyster mud, depending upon the season. Like a mechanic, his hands never come clean.
     He will grab your shoulder, open wide his eyes and poke their icy blue gaze into your face. He can grin hugely or purse his lips tight when he tells you something in a high pitched laugh or in a hissing growl. Regardless, whichever voice, whatever the tale, you believe him. You believe him with all your heart.