Maryland Marine Police Coast Guardsmen and private searchers gathered in three boats off Tilghman Island in the Chesapeake Bay yesterday. Shortly after noon they sent divers through the ice and into the frigid water.
Sixty feet down the divers found the sunken wreckage of the Hay Russ IV, Garland Phillips' 50-foot workboat. They didn't have time to look for bodies. According to Larry Simns, head of the Maryland Watermen's Association, the boat was ringed with fishing nets that had broken loose when it went down. The divers dared not penetrate it with ice reforming on the surface.
There still is no confirmation of death, but mourners on Tilghman Island have about given up hope that they will see Garland Phillips, 46, and his crew of four again.
The boat went down Friday evening in high winds. The five men are lost and presumed drowned. On Tilghman, where all five lived all their lives, the mood is somber.
"We lost a good bunch of people," said Russell Dize. "It's the most tragic thing that's ever happened here."
Phillips had been a waterman all his life, as had the four family relatives that were with him Friday -- George Cummings, 65, his uncle; Muir Cummings, 30; Rusty Cummings, 26, and T. R. Cummings, 19, all Phillips' first cousins.
The loss of Phillips will be felt beyond the waterman's haven of Tilghman, which is on the Eastern Shore about 20 miles south of the Bay Bridge.
Phillips was among the last and best of a declining breed. He was a Chesapeake drift fisherman. For about six months each year, starting at the end of November, he was a waterborne nomad, following the fish as far north as Chesapeake City at the head of the bay and as far south as Crisfield at the bottom end of Maryland waters.
Drift fishermen fight a ceaseless battle with the weather. "It's probably the hardest and most dangerous job on the bay," said Simns, who has done it. "You have to travel so far and carry so much net, and you catch the most fish when the conditions are worst."
Drift fishermen call whatever port is nearest the fish home. They sometimes sleep aboard their boats for days and even weeks at a stretch. Each cold morning they wake before dawn and watch to see if ice will lock them in port.
If they can get out, they go.
Once there were many more drift netters. As many as 50 boats cruised the winter bay in pursuit of rockfish 10 or 15 years ago. But declining stocks of the prized table fish have turned drifting into work for only the most dedicated. Only 15 or 20 drift boats are working now.
Phillips ran the queen of the fleet. His 50-foot fiberglass Hay Russ IV was the sturdiest, most powerful, best equipped of the winter fishing boats, according to colleagues.
The boat was well known and so was Phillips. "There isn't a place in the bay that he hasn't fished," said Rock Hall waterman Ronnie Fithian. "He was the type of fellow, he'd never get up in the morning with the idea he had to hide anything from anybody. Some people think they've got to keep it a secret when they find the fish, or they won't get their share. Garland wasn't like that. He would tell you what he was catching.
"He's helped me a half-dozen times. If you were in trouble, you called Garland. If he was on the bay he'd give you help."
Said waterman Wayne Brady, "He was a gung ho fisherman. He'd spend $1,000 to make a dollar. Here he had a $90,000 boat running up and down the bay, but he was always willing to help anybody. Garland was the kind of guy who was willing to jeopardize his own life to help somebody else."
Phillips was within a few miles of home port in Knapps Narrows when the accident occurred Friday. Other fishermen say he was in an area that he had set net, and apparently he was taking those nets up. He reportedly called his wife by radio before sunset to tell her he'd be back within an hour.
There were unconfirmed reports that he stayed later to help another fisherman pull in some troublesome nets.
There were hard northwest winds that evening and ice was forming near all the boats, according to Dize.
"There was a lot of activity on the radio. There was ice making all over. Everybody was having trouble. We had one boat taking water right here in the channel. Some of the boys remembered hearing someone saying over the radio they were taking water and bailing with buckets.
"But they figured it was the boat that was in trouble in the channel. They asked those boys later and they said they never said anything like that on the radio."
"Now we think it could have been Garland."
The Coast Guard and Marine Police intended to resume diving operations today.