Two photographs were transposed on the front page of yesterday's Maryland Weekly, resulting in the misidentification of Eddie Farley and Earl White.
Eric Rubin came here from Michigan this fall for the romance of working on the last commercial fleet of sailboats in the nation. But after a day as crewman aboard the oyster-dredging skipjack Stanley Norman, "90 percent of the romance was gone," he said.
The reason? "That thing," said Rubin, pointing to a stocky little motorboat slung off the stern, which pushed the big sailboat along. "If I wanted to work on a powerboat, I could have found a better way than this."
The stocky little boat is called a push boat, or a "six-cylinder breeze," and is the secret of the modern skipjack fleet's success.
Maryland loves its 30-odd skipjacks because they harken to simpler days when men made a living by the wind and the sea. The boats are beautiful by any measure.
People flock to see them and the history they represent, particularly at events like the autumn Chesapeake Appreciation Days near Annapolis. And the state has even proposed a national postage stamp honoring its skipjacks.
But despite all the tourist-attracting claptrap about the last working sailboat fleet in America, skipjacks make the bulk of their money not by the wind but by the internal combustion engine, like everyone else.
"If it wasn't for 'push days,' " agreed the Stanley Norman's fair-haired skipper, Eddie Farley, "we couldn't afford to go sailing."
The history of push days, the two days a week when skipjacks are permitted to be driven by their push boats instead of the wind, is this:
Twenty years ago, the state decided to allow skipjack crews to leave the sails furled on Mondays and Tuesdays and dredge the Chesapeake Bay bottom for oysters using the push boats for power. Thus Mondays and Tuesdays acquired their designation and the rest of the week stayed "sail days."
The regulation guaranteed a supply of oysters for the shucking houses early in the week, regardless of weather, and gave the then-struggling skipjack fleet a boost.
Push days remain the only legal way to dredge public oyster bars under power. State officials believe power dredging is so efficient it could ravage oyster stocks if permitted without tight regulation. They also believe the skipjacks are good public relations for the state, and push days are a compromise aimed at keeping oysters and skipjacks flourishing.
But while oyster stocks slid to an all-time low last year, with more of the same predicted this season, skipjack captains have done reasonably well, as scarcity sent the price of oysters soaring.
Recently, for example, Farley got lucky in a Monday fog and found a patch of oysters near the mouth of the Choptank River. That day and the next, the push boat droned behind the Stanley Norman from dawn to dusk as the crew of four dredged up more than 100 bushels of prime oysters each day. At $20 a bushel, a record price, it made a week's pay for everyone.
By contrast, Farley said he's lucky to catch 50 bushels on the best of sailing days, because wind power is so much less efficient. And shaft-tongers, who use long-handled tongs to catch the bulk of Maryland oysters, consider a catch of 10 bushels per man a good day.
Push days have even managed to expand the skipjack fleet, which had been in decline.
About five years ago Jackie Russell, a waterman from the lower Potomac, had a skipjack built that he called the Dee of St. Mary's. Asked what he knew about sailing, Russell said he'd never sailed a boat in his life.
He intended to earn his living pushing on Mondays and Tuesdays, he said, and would learn to sail the rest of the week. He's still in business, and two more skipjacks have been built since, with a third under construction.
Despite the drone of the push boats and the byzantine legalisms, some romance remains in the lore and work of skipjacking.
"We won't have a breeze today," said Farley as he welcomed two visitors aboard on a sail day. "It's going to be warm and sunny, and the old-timers say the sun eats the wind."
"I was going to give it up this year," said Earl White, 65, a crewman for Farley who has worked under sail for 43 years. "My thighs are aching. I'm sore. But it seems like when it gets this time of year and you hear the fellows say, 'We're doing good out there,' you just want to go."
And there's romance in the boats.
The Stanley Norman was built in 1902 and named for the twin sons of the first owner. When Farley bought it a decade ago, the boat was rough. He has restored it, even installing varnished oak trim on the cabin top. That won him hoots of derision from colleagues who laughed at brightwork on a workboat. "They're jealous," said Farley with a grin.
Also romanticized is the danger.
White worked the season aboard the Claude Somers seven years ago, but quit in March, about a week before she went down in the frigid Cheapeake Bay with all hands lost. "That took something out of me."
There is enough romance to keep Rubin's attention, anyway. He'll work out the winter.
It may not truly be a fleet of working sailboats, but it's as close as he'll get.