ORDINARILY the captain's curses would have melted the ice along Knapps Narrows, but he had a guest aboard the Hilda Willing and did not neglect his Eastern Shore hospitality. His face merely went tight. He sent his son Barry to start a teapot and get the scrapple frying, and Barry, who is 17, ducked below gratefully. The captain, red-faced, puffing steam, fur hat clamped on tight, paced the cockpit stiffly, glowering at the empty parking lot, his stubby gumboots clumping the deck, the red and green stripes on his socks looking remarkably cheery.

It was 6 on an icy Saturday morning in February, and his crew was still home in bed. Pete Switzer is a man of control and his thoughts had to be inferred from Barry's embarrassment and his own comments on the crew: "You know how they are."

Like the rest of the skipjack captains who work out of Tilghman Island, Md., Switzer had been dockbound for a week by bad weather -- snow one day, cold the next, wind the next, all three the next -- and his usual desire to dredge oysters any day he could had frozen into something like a fanatic's zeal combined with the single-mindedness of a starving man. He was neither, but a moored dredgeboat earns no money, and Switzer is not an oysterman because his skipjack looks nice against the sunrise on the Choptank River.

Although there are older skipjack captains on the Chesapeake, Switzer, at 55, is the most experienced with 31 years in the oystering trade, and arguably the most successful.

"He can be hard," said a colleague of his, Captain John Larrimore of the skipjack E. C. Collier. "He's also a smart man. He can do any damn thing he decides to."

Pete Switzer bought the Hilda Willing in 1947, when he was 22 and just out of the Navy. His father, a descendant of a long line of German cabinetmakers, came to Tilghman Island from Pennsylvania to farm the soil, but Pete preferred life on the water. He paid $2,000 for the skipjack. She was 43 feet long, had a 12-foot beam, and had been built on Deal Island in 1905 for $575.

During that summer of '47, Switzer went crabbing from 4 a.m. until 2 p.m. Then he rowed three miles up the Choptank River to where the Hilda Willing was anchored, and, working from 3 until dark -- about 9:30 -- rebuilt her with hand tools. The two of them have gone oystering every winter since, and by now, Switzer says, taking a scalding glup from a cup of tea, the original Hilda Willing no longer exists. Like a human body whose cells wear out and are sloughed off continuously, her various skins, limbs and organs have been replaced as they failed, one by one, until all that remains of the boat he bought in 1947 are the iron davits holding the yawl boat on her stern and a few lengths of Georgia pine in her hull.

Switzer, they say around Tilghman, does everything for himself but make sails. He builds his own boats when he needs one (five so far), repairs his own dredges, rebuilds the engines of his yawl boat and winch. When the Hilda Willing needed a new mast 15 years ago, Switzer searched out a standing pine, felled it, hauled it home, and, using broadax and adze, hewed a mast from the tree's heartwood -- shaving it to a fifth the original diameter. That took him a week.

He may even have enjoyed it; some men do.

Some don't. No skipjack captain is unaware of the romantic light in which his calling is held by people who do not have to do the work it requires, but some feel no need to live up to the image. One Tilghman Island captain, asked how he felt about the life, said flatly: "I hate it."

When you look past the romance of skipjack sails against the pinkening sky, it isn't difficult to see the reasons. "Dredging is a brutal and dangerous trade, a horrible trade," says Bob Smith, who has been observing Bay life for years as associate curator of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels. There is the killingly hard work, the cold, the long hours of both, and the riskiness of the boats themselves.

"You take your life in your hands when you go on the water in the winter," he says. Just two days earlier a 50-foot, twin-screw, diesel fishing boat had sunk.

"The skipjack is a stable working platform, and it has a lot of initial stability -- it doesn't heel much," Smith says. "But when they do, there's a point of no return. They'll flop over like a shingle."

It happened two years ago. The Claud W. Somers went out on a March morning in 1977 with a crew of six experienced oystermen on board under the command of Thompson Wallace, 55 -- the same age as Switzer. It was his first boat. He had paid $5,000 for her. She was old. Her decks were a pith of splinters. Her bottom was a sponge. In a gale of 70 knots off the Eastern Shore her yawl boat developed engine trouble as she ran for sanctuary. Captain Wallace refused a tow. No one knows exactly how, but she blew over onto her side, precisely like a shingle knocked flat by a puff of wind.All hands drowned. They were found in a pile on the bottom of the Chesapeake, in 15 feet of water, directly under the Somers' hull.

"Human error," says Captain Switzer. It could never happen to him, his tone implies, and if survival on the winter waters were solely up to a man, one can believe him.

Skipjack captains like Switzer -- about 30 men who command the last working sailboat fleet in the country -- have come to seem almost mythic creatures, like seagoing centaurs. A flood of sentimentality accompanies their every appearance in print, and they have been romanticized within an inch of what even they now call their "lifestyles." They are the organic gardeners of waterfront life, doing things the "natural" way.

The Hilda Willing's crew showed up at 7:10 with another Switzer son, Bill, 26. Piling out of cars, pulling on clothes, they dragged dredges on board under the skipper's rekindled eye, which they avoided. They lowered the yawl boat, which is used to push the sailboat to the oyster bar, and lashed it to the stern of the skipjack. It doesn't seem odd to these men that a perfectly good sailboat is shoved to and fro on the Bay and on the Choptank River by a clunky homemade tug -- a six cylinder Chevrolet engine mounted in a glorified rowboat. The Hilda Willing moved out the channel.

Dorsey Holliday, 29, the cook, slipped below and began frying eggs. His brother Joe, 25, followed and took off his patent-leather tassled loafers; feet steaming in the warm cabin, he put on rubber boots, Bill Switzer put on a bright blue Schlitz beer hat. Roy Brown, who has been with Switzer for 20 years, came below and rummaged for a spare part.Six men jammed into the five-by-five cabin, four-feet high, cooking, eating, rummaging, undressing, dressing, trying to get warm, talking Saturday morning remembrances: "I said, 'Baby, you still love me?' She said: 'You know I do.'"

The captain was topside at the helm, forgetting his annoyance, and Roy Brown, who has a superhuman indifference to cold, stood in the cockpit of the yawl boat grinning hatless and gloveless into the slice of the wind.

By 7:35 all hands were topside setting sail; the skipjack heeled and started searching for oysters. Early in the season, in November (the oystering season, part of Maryland's conservation policy of making it difficult to capture protected animals, runs from Nov. 1 to March 15), Switzer might expect his two dredges to turn up a day's quota of 150 bushels in a few hours. But now, later in the year, the oysters are thinning out. He would not do nearly that well, and when he returned to prot, there would be another disappointment.

The dredges splashed into the water, shapeless contraptions, all curves, rods, teeth, bracing, cold steel bar and rope net. Odd things, but because they bring up oysters, they have scarcely changed in 100 years. After 10 minutes of dragging the bottom, one on each side of the skipjack, the dredges were hoisted up. Bill, with his foot on the winch-engine lever, bounced them in and out of the water to get the mud off, like a dishwasher rinsing a washcloth. He brought them aboard, dumped their contents on the culling board with a slash-ringing sound, and the crewmen went to their knees and started sorting.

Nobody spoke. It was rote work, and there was nothing to say. Pick out the good ones -- still shut and therefore alive, three inches long or better -- and pitch them blindly backward into four piles on the deck. Slender pickings so far: two passes with the dredges and only a couple dozen oysters per pile.

"Ho," the captain said, rather than shouted, having come about onto a new tack while the crew culled, and the dredges splashed back into the water. The Hilda Willing sailed smoothly along, the dredges dragging and their cables thrumming, Switzer sometimes snatching a cable with a boathook to get the feel of the bottom while the crew stood around the open winch-engine hatch hooting at jokes and warming their hands at the muffler.

Switzer steered in silence. "A captain should say as little as possible."

His florid face in the wind, thick hands lightly on the brass handles of the wheel, he moved back and forth across the deck like the proprietor of a small grocery behind his counter, a man at home in his business. A man of boundless certitude it seemed, a man of faith -- and when faith failed, there was always hard work, which Switzer understood.

"Clean that deck," he said once. And "Ho," shove the dredges over.

That was all. His brown eyes followed every movement on deck. The eyes allowed skylarking while the dredges were down, but none when there was culling to be done.

"If I can keep these men busy all the time, all day," he said, "I can do pretty good.

The six men of the crew, black and white, sons and employes, younger and older, seemed equally to feel the press of the captain's unwavering brown eyes.

Nobody seems to know exactly how many skipjacks remain -- perhaps 30 from Annapolis to Deal Island. When Switzer started, there were 93, and he remembers seeing all of them working a single oyster bar at once. As sailboats, they are unique. Some along the Eastern Shore refer to them as bateaux, and reserve the world skipjack for the rig alone -- a sloop rig with clipper bow, aft -- raked mast set well forward, jib and leg of mutton mainsail. Others call them Crisfield flatties or sharpies.But the generic name has come to be skipjack: beamy wooden centerboard sailboats of shallow draft, between 30 and 60 feet long, with deadrise (slightly V-shaped) hulls. Plain workboats, whose function happened to dictate a form that is beautiful.

When a Maryland ban on oyster dredging was lifted in 1867, watermen went to the beds in schooners and purgies -- big keel boats -- and quickly dredged out the deeper waters. Tongers were working the shallower parts of the Bay and river, and a boat was needed for the middle ground. They tried bugeyes -- round-bottomed, double-ended, twin-masted sailboats -- but it was the skipjack, a design probably adapted from oyster skiffs from Long Island Sound (where they were named after a local term for the bluefish) which proved most practical.

Skipjacks were built as the Chinese build a junk, by "rack-o'-the-eye," a method of construction in which the boatbuilder picks up a plank, holds it to the light, squints an eye, then places it where it fits. The vessels were built along the shore by the hundreds from the 1860s on, but none has been launched since 1955 when Herman Krentz and Bronza Parks built the last three. By then the demand for working skipjacks had dried up. Had a demand existed, Bronza Parks would have been unable to fulfill it. An out-of-twon man commissioned him to build a 22-foot skipjack replica for pleasure sailing. Parks filled the order, but raised the quoted price. The buyer objected with a gun, and Parks died.

Some watermen tend to treat skipjacks the way farmers treat their pickup trucks: using them hard and repairing them only when absolutely necessary. Some are so leaky that in summer they are simply sailed up a creek, anchored, and allowed to sink, to be pumped out in the fall. Many have folded up and died, and many of the rest are "sobby" now, as watermen say, their planks like punk. If one came onto the market, you might buy it for $4,000 or $5,000 -- perhaps less -- but if you weren't willing to work on her as Pete Switzer did on the Hilda Willing, you'd be crazy to do it. To have a new one built would cost perhaps $75,000. You might find a builder. He might remember how it was done.

Oystering being what it has become, all the skipjacks which will ever exist probably exist right now. It is, as everyone on the Bay says, a "vanishing way of life."

"I give it 10 years," Bob Smith says. "Maybe 15."

After a few hours of watching them, one can see why the life is vanishing, why Bill Switzer is not at all certain he wants to follow his father as a waterman, and why watermen, who call oysters "arsters," also pronounce dredging "drudging." It is not like going sailing. There is the work, of course, the constant labor, and it is also unquiet: the chug and grinding clank of the winch engine, the scrape of the oysters on the culling board.

All day it is the same, pass after pass, up and down the river. "Ho." Drop the dredges. Drag them for 10 or 15 minutes perhaps 2,000 yards until they feel laden, delicately maintaining the sailing speed at between 2 and 4 knots -- any slower and the heavy dredge will anchor you, faster and it will bounce and catch nothing -- while Roy, Bill, Barry, Dorsey, Joe and Michael stand around the hatch warming their rubber-gloved hands, wiping at their streaming noses. Hoisting the dredges inboard, dumping them with the slash-ringing sound on the the culling boards as the skipjack, drag lessened, picks up speed in the water and comes about and the crew falls to its knees as before some god of oysters, sorting. Ptich the oysters into the four piles, save out the blue crabs (crabbing is illegal in winter, but watermen say blue crabs hibernating in the mud are too weak, once dug out, ever to burrow back in and would die anyway). Scrape the trash over the side, leaving a smear of mud and grit.

Plenty turns up in the dredges that are not oysters, of course. Beer cans, for one thing, although fewer now since the government cracked down on pollution: the Bay is cleaner than it has been in years, Switzer says. Bill, with his greater capacity for wonder and amusement in a process his father regards as simply work, tells of watermen finding Indian artifacts, stone bowls, a brass and ebony snatch-block, a big rusted shackle now used on the Hilda Willing to anchor a marker float, the enormous ossified vertebra of some primitive beast, a petrified prehistoric shark's tooth shaped like a half-pound guitar pick, and an AM-FM eight-track stereo receiver.

Grinning, up forward Roy Brown had just opened a sample oyster. It was a good one: big and plump, a hefty double mouthful on the half-shell. It didn't matter. "The weather's been so bad," Switzer said, "the packers will take anything with two shells on it."

Slowly the four heaps of oysters grew. And, paradoxically, when the sun came out the river began to freeze up. "See? That's the way ice makes," Switzer said, his face red as the stripes on his socks. His Eastern Shore accent turned the word to "oyce." "It makes in pancakes, then it'll knit together. I've been out here when the whole damn river froze over while we were working. Everything just quit."

It looked like doing that. When Bill or Roy scraped the trash over, it stayed on top of the river, little heaps of shells up and down the skipjack's track. Slabs of ice the size of four ice-cube trays frozen together were coming up in the dredges. The wind cut; my ballpoint pen froze.

Even for cautious, wise and courageous men, dredging has never been an easy life. Not many young men want to try it. Or, having tried it, decline to continue. "You need three or four years just to learn how to do it, to sail, where to go, how to dredge," Switzer says. "And you can't get a crew, because without knowledge you're not making money, and crew goes where the money is."

Switzer's boat, at 43 feet, is one of the smallest on the island, yet one of the most successful. Seamanship and commitment make some of the difference. He goes out when others stay in port, stays out longer, works his crew harder and probably knows more. And the Hilda Willing is a smart boat. "Boats are smart or dumb, like people," he says. "It's how she answers the helm, how steadily she'll pull dredges, how fast she'll come around. The smart boats make the most money. Ninety percent of oystering is the captain, but boat-handling is the main thing, and 50 percent of boat-handling is the boat."

To master all of this is to earn a kind of advanced degree in seamanship, and few young men will take the trouble. "How many would do what I did to get started?" Pete Switzer asks.

"How many had the opportunity?" says Bill Switzer, who enjoys baiting the Old Conservative, as he calls his father. "Hell, all I had was some hand tools," says the Old Conservative.

Bill declined to pursue the exchange; his respect for his father is palpable, perhaps because Pete Switzer has accomplished things Bill knows he himself could or would not do. Instead, he changed the subject, or tried to.

"I'd like to build a skipjack out of ferro-cement, with hydraulic, not mechanical, winders [the waterman's word for winches], and automatic cullers and Dacron sails. On a federal grant. Not many people know it, but I think I know where you could get a grant."

Pete Switzer said, "See?" and grinned.

It seems unlikely Bill Switzer will end up an oysterman. He sees the life perhaps too clearly for that, and he regards the Bay with the respect of a generation reared on earnest talk of conservation.

"Lots of dredgers and crabbers are in it just for the money, and they're taking everything the Bay has, even to the point of breaking the law to do it. They'd take it all if they could. They don't know what they're doing to the Bay, or care -- it's just a lot of money to them."

Bill might be talking about his father; he might not. Captain Switzer worries about the oyster population; his recollection is that last year's harvest was down a million bushels from the year before, and he blames a topheavy bureaucracy in the fisheries division of the Department of Natural Resources. But Bill Outten, a biologist with the shellfish program of that agency, is not worried. He says the oyster population has been stable over the past few years, the harvest ranging between 1.8 million and 2.4 million bushels annually, which he regards as acceptable (the all-time high was 8 million bushels in 1910).

Switzer thinks the trouble -- if it is trouble -- is that since 1972, "We haven't had the spats, young oysters, the spawn, in big numbers. But no one knows why. I've seen it before; it's a natural cycle."

But as will be seen later, this is a business of feel, less science than art, and not everyone agrees on such matters as spat fall, natural cycles and the future of the oyster population.

With the sun out it was warmer, despite the thickening ice, and almost pleasant. Switzer used to sail for pleasure in the summertime, he recalls, but he doesn't anymore; he plays the organ. Maintaining the Hilda Willing and his summer crabbing boat are almost a full-time job in themselves, and making a living from the bay gets harder every year.

Skipjack men used to go crabbing in summertime and use their boats to haul freight up and down the Bay in spring and fall. But trucks haul the freight now. And the crab and oyster populations have dropped. Four years ago, Switzer said, he could get his 150-bushel quota in two hours some days. Now oystering is allday work, for an average of perhaps 100 bushels. To break even, Switzer has to net $10,000 a season. Some skipjack captains, like Stanley Larrimore of the Lady Katie, have gone into the tourist business, carrying summertime sailing parties of six our for $160 a day.

Once skipjacks remained on the Bay for days at a time; buy-boats would come out and take the oysters off. The romance was more real then: cooks prepared hot, heavy dishes and elaborate stews, and crews broke from work to dine family style. Those amenities have been stripped away. Crewmen eat egg sandwiches, hot dogs or Switzer's luncheon favorite, beans, snatching meals between passes. And the cook works topside with the rest of the crew.

Just then Switzer, face to the wind and sun on his big flat hands, was having an attack of the romances. "Imagine the wind doing all that," he breathed, gazing up at the lovely white belly of the sail. "Pulling those dredges -- they can weigh 800 pounds when they're full. And it's been doing that for 10,000 years. Look at that."

His paean was interrupted by the arrival of the police boat. Roy and Joe removed the divers -- steel planes that help the dredges dig deeper, and sent Barry below. Divers are not allowed, and Barry was unlicensed. "Most oystermen use 'em," Switzer said, referring to the divers. "But it just irritates the police to see 'em."

Aboard the police boat was Sgt. Joe Jones of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, a square-faced man in a pressed uniform and sunglasses. He enforces laws governing his former colleagues; for 27 years, Jones was an oyster-tonger out of Tilghman Island.

Seen from the police boat, the Hilda Willing was low and graceful, a pert and insouciant craft skimming sedately back and forth through the ice, dredges splashing.

"A lot of 'em didn't come out today," Jones said. "They don't like that ice. I've seen that ice saw the bottom right off a tong boat. She went right down. But Pete came out -- he'll probably do 75 or 80 bushels today."

About the future of the Bay and its oyster population, Jones was more optimistic than Switzer. "There's more small spat out there than I've seen in 10 years. Two years from now'll be a good year if nothing happens to them."

While the Hilda Willing finished up her final few passes, I rode into Tilghman with Jones and waited on the dock of the Harrison Oyster Co., where Switzer would tie up, unload and sell his catch. Only three years ago, Jones had said, 15 oyster buyers were in business on Tilghman Island; now, with the harvest about the same, there are only three.

For several years the price of oysters has also remained the same: about $7.50 per bushel for quality grades -- three inches long or longer. There are about 350 oysters of the three-inch size in a bushel, which means they bring about 2.1 cents apiece on the dock.

At 2 p.m. the Hilda Willing came down the channel, her sails down, pushed along by the chugging yawl boat with Roy grinning gloveless in the cockpit. Four heaps of oysters were on the deck.

When she had tied up at the Harrison dock, the crew began shoveling their catch into steel bushel-sized buckets. Roy would latch a hook over the handle and shout: "Yeah!" The bucket would rise and swing ashore to be dumped into a wheelbarrow. Roy would shout: "One!" And, slowly, "Two," and "Three," and "Four," and every fifth bucket, "Tally!"

The crews of skipjacks are paid on shares. Most boats work on a system of one-third to the boat, the rest shared equally among captain and crew. Switzer does it differently: half for himself and the boat, the other half equally split among the crewmen. Earlier in the season when oysters were plentiful, a crewman could earn $100 a day, on days when he worked. But as the season progressed, not only did the oysters thin out, but the weather kept oystermen in port more often. "Last year during the hard freeze some of these boats never moved for seven weeks," Switzer said.

Now, watching Roy, Bill, Barry, Dorsey, Joe and Michael unloading the results of their day's work, I think again of the comparison of this life to the farming Pete Switzer's father practiced. Exchange land for water and it is almost the same: the capital investment, the physical demands of the work, the demeanor of independence among practitioners contrasted with their actual dependence on the vagaries of nature, the loss of money some years, the chance, theoretically, of a great killing in some other year that never seems to come, or, when it does, brings, of course, lower prices.

The oysters crashing into the wheelbarrows did not look like much for a day's labor. I had just finished lunch at the Tilghman Volunteer Fire Department's annual mid-winter oyster roast, had enjoyed what seemed like a half-bushel myself: four dozen, plus a fat delicious fritter. It had cost $3.50.

Bill Switzer guessed the day's work would tally out at 70 bushels; his father thought 75.

Switzer came up quietly to stand beside me. "Years ago," he said, "when nobody had worked for a week, the way it is now, the price would have been a dollar higher. That would be a fair price. A fair price would be $9, but it's been $7.50 for four or five years now. Nine is fair. But this man says the same price: $7.50. It's monopolistic. The price is all fixed, all over the Bay. All the buyers pay the same. There's no more open market; no more free enterprise."

This man was Levin Harrison, who was relaxing inside his steam-heated office, wearing a chubby leprechaun face and plaids. It is years of experience, he says, that teaches an oyster buyer how much oysters are worth. "You can pretty well tell."

Do all the buyers pay the same?

"Just about."

They pretty much get together and decide how much oysters are worth?

"Yes, more or less," he said. "Everybody's within 50 cents of one another."

So, Captain Switzer would take his $7.50. Harrison would resell the unshucked quality oysters to packers like the Bivalve Oyster Co. of Mt. Vernon, Md., for about $9 a bushel. At Bivalve, they would be shucked, washed and sorted into four categories: standard (the smallest), select, extra select, and count (the biggest). From a bushel, Bivalve would get perhaps six pints of shucked oysters -- three-fourths of a gallon. They would be packed into gallon cans, and the cans would be iced down in boxes for shipping.

Bivalve would sell them to wholesalers around the country for between $17 and $19.50 a gallon. Maryland harvests more oysters than any other state, and combined with Virginia, a fourth of the U.S. oyster catch, worth $22 million dockside.

Back outside, the crew had finished unloading. They had sluiced down the gritty decks with icy water from Knapps Narrows. Bill was passing around bottles of Michelob.

Still grinning, Bill looked at his father, then at me. "If you hadn't been here, he'd have called us all kinds of no-good sons-of-bitches for being late this morning."

The tally was complete: 71 bushels. Perhaps 25,000 individual mollusks from the mud -- worth, according to Levin Harrison, from whose opinion there was no appeal, a total of $532.50. As always, he would pay in cash. Oystermen pay their own income taxes.

Levin Harrison, inside his warm office, counted out the bills. He handed them to Pete Switzer, who leaned over in his chair and counted them, looking toward the floor.

Half would go to him and the Hilda Willing: $266.25. The crew of six would split the other half: $44.39 for the day's work, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., a half-day they called it.

"He'll give us $45," Bill said. "He's good to us."

Switzer paid the crew. Bill came back and said: "He gave us each $50. He takes care of us."

Barry, the youngest son, came up next and stook quietly. I looked at him. He looked at his father, then at the Hilda Willing.

"Fair," he said.

After a while Barry said, "See what we found after you left?"

He held out half an oyster shell. What looked like a dirty gray pebble was stuck on its dished surface.

"A pearl?"

"No," Barry said. "It's what we call a mother-pearl. It isn't worth anything."