Captain Pete Sweitner is a one-man media event as he knocks cotton caulking ("not the compound stuff") into a crack on the cabin cover of his skipjack, the Hilda Willing, one of the remaining sail-power oyster dredgers on the Chesapeake Bay.
"We're some of the last ones left," he says, waving a sunburned arm at the other skipacks berthed in the calm waters of the public dock at Tilghman Island, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Sweizer, 58, has lived in the village only half a century, "and that don't qualify you as a native. You got to live here a hundred years to be one of the boys," he laughs.
Sweitzer is braving the Sunday-morning heat to trim up his single-masted boat. "I'm a German -- the only one around here," he says, tapping on his caulking iron. "A German is industrious, you know. Them other fellas -- Irish, English -- they like to drink. Just look at the other boats." Knock goes the caulking iron.
The Hilda Willing, the only working skipjack called by its rightful name in James Michener's novel Chesapeake, gleams stark white like the side of a new-painted house. The other half-dozen rake-masted, broad-beamed sailing oysterboats, truth to tell, look not only long in the tooth but a bit soft in the timbers as well.
Captain Pete's boat is not young: built in 1905. But hardly retired. "We're out six days a week in oyster season" -- November to April -- "and Sundays you work on the boat. Might get bored sittin' around home."
With fresh-painted decks, varnished spar and aluminum paint on the winches, the ship looks so spanking new it's hard to believe it's 76 years old. Is it the original boat? "It's like the fella had an ax 100 years old," says Sweitzer. "He'd replaced the shaft three times and the head twice."
Since he bought his 43-foot skipjack in 1947, Sweitzer reckons he has replaced every board on board except keel, side timbers and twenty percent of the hull. He uses Oregon fir for the boom, Eastern Shore pine for the mast, deck and hull, and white oak for side timbers and hatch coaming.
Finding a raconteur on the order of a Pete Sweitzer during a 350-mile tour across the Eastern Shore is, in travel experiences, akin to meeting Ingemar Stenmark on your first trip to the lift line at Aspen.
In the forty minutes that we chatted -- he chatted, I listened -- while my 12-year-old son scampered around the gorgeous working sailboat, Sweitzer was combination tour guide, historian, aquamarine editorialist and working waterman. In plaid pants (after all, it was Sunday), Pabst cap and the sunburned topless look, Captain Pete could caulk and talk at the same time.
The skipjack is the legendary craft invented just after the Civil War specifically and purely for dredging the Chesapeae Bay for the succulent oysters we eat all winter around here. It's said to be the last remaining sail-powered workboat in the United States. In the Middle East, where all boats look made for Sinbad, and in Asia, where poverty dictates boat style, one still sees working sailboats. And on Tilghman Island.
The skipjack is anachronistically still with us because of a brilliant stroke in the Maryland conservation laws, which must be given credit for handling the treasures of the Chesapeake with Solomonic wisdom. The law says watermen may dredge for oysters all they want -- under sail. Dredging with power boats, a system the oystermen claim has killed many an oyster bar, may be used only for dredging clams. Oddly, skipjacks are allowed to dredge two days a week under auxiliary power that comes from a separate boat.
These laws are why the oysters not only survive but thrive -- those laws plus the restriction limiting an oysterman to a 150-bushel catch per day. "Some days we stay out until three or four," says Sweitzer, who always clears harbor at sun-up, "and still don't make our limit."
"Sure 'ud be a lot easier in a power boat," says Sweitzer, after explaining the complexities of the skipjack's enormous sail area and its ability to turn faster than a bugeye, its twin-masted cousin on the Bay. "But we'd empty the Bay in a year. A man's greedy, you know. Put our own selves out of business."
The Maryland law has produced anomalous adaptations. Every skipjack today has suspended over its transom what looks like a small launch or dinghy. But on closer inspection it has virtually no open deck area, its space being chiefly filled by a 150-horsepower engine. It's not a launch; it's a pushboat.
Pushboat is a linguistic truism for what a tug does. The pushboat came along after World War I to make up for the skipjack's single dreadful drawback -- in light air, it had to be rowed in and out of port. Picture your galley slaves: two members of the skipjack crew leaning bodily into 16-foot oars (try lifting any piece of lumber 16 feet long, even without water resistance); the oars were braced against chocks just aft of the dredging pulley three feet above the waterline (the chocks are still there, but no longer used). While the bugeye can scoot in and out of harbor in the lightest of airs -- it has two raked masts and a much narrower beam, and is sometimes even refitted as a pleasure ketch -- the skipjack often falls dead in home waters.
That is when the pushboat is lowered and its bow nuzzled into a niche on the starboard side of the skipjack's stern. The old Chevrolet engine is fired up -- exhaust pipes shooting to the sky, in the manner of all watermen's workboats -- and it acts as a simple tug pushing its mother ship through narrow channels, past drawbridges, in and out of slips.
But the economics of oystering -- "arstering," as Pete Sweitzer and his Tilghman Islanders call it -- dictate that for two days a week, the pushboat in fact runs the skipjack, turning it into a furled-sail power boat.
Besides its single raked mast, which to non-sailors appears to have been built by the same guy who designed the Tower of Pisa after too much chianti, the most striking feature of the skipjack is its enormous boom. Sweitzer's is 45 feet long, three-fourths the length of the mast itself -- a ratio unheard of in most sailing craft. This obviously creates a huge sail area.
"You need it for power," he explains, "to pull the dredges. We're dredging all the time. It's like trying to pull two anchors across the bottom."
Having said all that, one must point out that when time came for a new spar on Hilda Willing, Sweitzer bought a 70-foot native pine trunk and made the mast by hand with a broad ax and planes in his own back yard. Then he stepped it nearly straight up. "Plumb mast holds the wind longer," he says, looking up from his caulking iron. "I come about, pick up power about five degrees off the wind. With the raked mast, you got to fall off about fifteen degrees." These seem incredible angles for any sailing vessel, but Sweitzer has been making a living on the Hilda Willing for 35 years, so who can argue?
The case for the single-masted, if clumsy, skipjack over the sleek bugeye is also a practical one: "I can turn around in a much smaller area," says Sweitzer. "When you're dredging, coming around is what it's all about. You only go straight as far as from here to there" -- he points to a house about 150 feet away -- "then you got to come back almost over the same spot. I can make three runs to a bugeye's two."
The biggest changes in skipjack oystering during Sweitzer's 35 years on the Bay are the predictable ones -- cost and labor.
When young Pete Sweitzer left his father's farm, spent one year crewing a skipjack before deciding he'd rather be captain, then bought the Hilda Willing, he paid $1,600 for the 41-year-old ship. Today, whenever an all-wood skipjack is still built, the cost is like that of a house in Washington -- over $100,000. "Last one out, built a few years ago on the Potomac, cost $110,000," says Sweitzer.
And labor, as every manager in the world will tell you, just ain't what it used to be. "We used to stay out for a week," says the raconteur. "Now the crew won't allow it. They got to be back in to drink their beer and watch their TV every night."
For water-lovers accustomed to rarefied Annapolis discourse on the relative merits of brass lanterns and the color of new cockpit cushions, a sweltering morning perched on an unsheltered piling listening to Pete Sweitzer is like a puff of air in a becalmed sea. It's also a trip into the age when sailing was not something done for pleasure. It was the only way to get from here to there or, for Tilghman Islanders to whom fishery is the only occupation they ever considered, the only way to get the product out of the water, from source to market. Thanks to Chesapeake conservation laws, it has perpetuated the skills of our less technology-dependent ancestors while preserving nature at the same time.
Think of Pete Sweitzer when the oysters come in this fall.