Capt. Edgar Lewis, a Maryland state icebreaker and buoy tender, was a fifth-generation waterman.
Aboard the 72-foot, steel-hulled John C. Widener, he unblocked marinas, creeks and rivers along the Chesapeake Bay that had been paralyzed by ice. Ramming the floes at "full forward," the ship would float atop the frozen obstacle, sometimes two feet thick, and then crush it beneath the hull.
With such aggressive maneuvers, Lewis aided countless fishermen, clammers and oystermen. He cut ice that could devastate docks and slashed a path for emergency vessels to navigate toward stranded ships in remote parts of the bay.
He had just one standing order from his bosses: "Don't break the boat."
Lewis, 85, who died July 1 of arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease at his home in Cambridge, Md., had great respect for sea vessels.
He was raised by his paternal grandfather, who rigged one of his workboats with a swing for the boy. He later operated freighters and buyboats, which would follow fleets of watermen and buy their catch, then sell the shellfish to seafood houses around the bay. His wife was his crew.
With price fluctuations affecting watermen's livelihoods, he took a state job in 1974 skippering the Widener so he would have a pension. He retired in 1989, having trained as mates men who went on to captain the governor's boat and other ships.
He did not outwardly mourn the loss of the sail-powered schooners of his boyhood on which he had hand-tonged for oysters; in fact, he loved powerboats, the rockets of the water. Of the Widener, he once told Chesapeake Bay Magazine, "She's not a very pretty boat, but she is practical."
Edgar Reese Lewis Jr. was born on Hooper Island, an isolated fishing community off the Eastern Shore named for some of his mother's ancestors. After his mother's death during the 1918 flu epidemic, he lived in Cambridge with his grandparents.
In later years, he loved sharing his knowledge of Hooper Island patois with younger family members. His niece Gwen North of Laurel, Del., called the speech a blend of southern and Elizabethan sounds that Lewis never entirely lost.
"Two root beers and a lemon soda, please" became "Toe roat bars and a lamon sodey plaize."
Lewis grew into a tall, rugged and handsome man who was always cleanshaven and well dressed. Years later, his friend Bob Davis, who owned a clothing store in Cambridge, asked Lewis to model clothes. Lewis disliked being the center of attention and declined.
The young sailor married a local beauty, the former Jean MacSorley, who often wore her flowing black hair below her waist. Together they traveled the Chesapeake on the Andy, a schooner converted into a coal-burning freighter, and delivered grain, seafood and other cargo.
They were experienced seafarers, but one night a ventilation problem occurred, causing smoke to billow into the cabin where they were sleeping.
"My wife and I both woke at the same time," he once told Chesapeake Bay Magazine. "There was only a small door and the two of us got jammed into the opening, each trying to be the first out. We certainly were looking out for each other!"
After her death in 1995, he kept her clothing in its place at his home. And he was largely silent about his loss, even to the group of regulars he'd meet mornings for coffee.
"When his wife died, he never mentioned it," said Davis, one of the gang. "If you didn't know Edgar, you'd think the poor bastard had no emotion. But years ago, I lived near a creek outside of Cambridge, and there was a 2-year-old kid, a neighbor of ours, who drowned. All of us were devastated. I just cried all night.
"The next day, Edgar shows up in my house, never mentions the drowning, and spent two or three hours there, just to be of whatever comfort he could. He knew I'd be upset. He never brought it up, but he knew I appreciated it."
The coffee group became more important to Lewis after he was widowed. They were mostly conservative Republicans, and Lewis was a staunch Democrat. He was an observer, Davis recalled, someone who preferred to sit back until someone made a statement so full of political hyperbole that he had to speak up. He usually dismissed the offender with a commanding display of salty language.
He shared boats with these men and enjoyed the simple pleasure of the sun, the water, the tangy taste of the salt air.
For years, he had told the mates of the Widener, "Just think, we're getting paid for doing this."