Capt. Stanley Larrimore has been following the water for 34 years. Like his father before his grandfather before that, he's the man who swings the wheel on a skipjack, sailing after oysters.
Last week he watched the men shoveling out the day's catch from his sturdy sailboat, Lady Katie, at Levin Harrison's oyster-shucking house at Knapp's Narrows.
"Every year my father used to say it, and every year I say the same thing. We look at what we've got at the end of the season and we say, 'I don't know where we'll find either oyster next year. Better find something else to do.'"
Yet every new year they find the oysters again, new oysters in quantities to fill their state quota of 150 bushels a day and be in port before the sun begins to set.
"We think it's the way the bottom shifts," said Larrimore. "We fished that same place last year until we couldn't find the first oyster. This year we come back and get our limit. Now those big oysters up in one year."
At 5 a.m. on Wednesday it was quiet and dark on the dock in front of Harrison's. Lady Katie lay against the dock next to the E. C. Collier, which was tied to her.
"Captain Stanley, he'll be along shortly," said Captain John Larrimore, Stanley's cousing and the skipper of the E. C. Collier. "You never been on a skipjack? Well, you're on one now."
The crews filed sleepily onto the two boats and at 5:30 Captain Stanley arrived, a beefy man, wrapped in layers of goose down and wool.
Skipjacks have no internal engines. State law allows dredging for oysters under sail with a few exceptions, and that law is what keeps these broad, shallow-draft anachronisms operating on the Bay.
But to get to the dredging grounds the boats can use power. The drive is supplied by 10-foot "push boats," which are floating platforms for hughe automobile engines driving giant bronze propellers.
The push boats were lowered off the two boats and nestled against the sterns. Captain Stanley fired up the 454-cubic-inch Oldsmobile power plant, and the Lady Katie burbled under the bridge and out into the Bay.
Both boats would work that day on the Claybanks, shoals south of the lighthouse where Sharp's Island once stood before it was washed away by erosion.
"Once there was a big hotel on there, and a town. I've got pictures of it back at the house," Stanley Larrimore said. Now Sharp's Island is just a shallow spot on the Bay floor, littered with oysters and old oyster shells.
To the east, up the mouth of the Choptank River, Larrimore spied more skipjacks on the way. He had dridged his limit off the Claybanks in five hours the day before, and word had spread.
State law says dredging can't start until sunup, which came a few minutes after 7. Larrimore gave no signal or order, but when he peered down the hatch where the six-man crew was digesting breakfast in the warm tiny galley, the men were already pulling on their hip boats and heading up the ladder.
The killed the push boat motor and dragged the little boat up on davits off the stern. The crew set the mainsail first, a huge mass of dacron that rises 63 feet up the thick pine mast and 50 feet out the boom. Then they set a small working jib.
Larrimore eased the 50-foot Lady Katie off the wind and the sails filled.
Whoa," he roared.
That's the signal to start dredging. Three men stood on each side of the boat amidships and hoisted the steel and chain dredges over the side. They fell to the bottom 12 feet down and dug in.
Lady Katie shuddered when the dredges hit bottom, but the massive power of the great sails pulled them free and they began scraping and bumping over the bottom.
In three minutes the first "lick" was finished. Larrimore gave no order. He simply pushed a lever that engaged the winder motor -- a six-cylinder Chevrolet engine mounted amidships to hoist the dredges back aboard the boat.
When the Chevy motor sped up the men gathered around the rollors on either side of the boat and waited for the catch to appear.
The grabbed the four-foot-wide dredges and pulled at steel rings to dump the load out of the pockets.
Rocks, crabs, oysters and old oyster shells tumbled out on deck.
The men fell to their knees and began picking over the catch, tossing good oysters between their legs to a spot where a pile soon would begin building and sweeping the refuse over the side.
Larrimore swung the big boat through the wind. The boom swept over the deck and came to rest on the other side. He set back down the path he had just run.
"Whoa," said the captain, and the dredges went over again.
"How was that?" he asked his son Steve, 22, who was culling on his knees. Steve shrugged. Not much. Perhaps a dozen oysters out of each dredge.
By 7:30 there were five other skipjacks working the same immediate area, tacking back and forth across the shallow bottom and gathering only modest oyster catches. Larrimore set off apart from them, searching for new ground.
The wind kept building and he kept moving further west, dropping a marker buoy whenever he hit a good lick. But it wasn't until 9 that he found a really ripe spot.
"Good lick," said crewman Tony Worm, sorting through a particularly fruitful bundle of oysters and bottom junk.
Larrimore, who had been subdued, grew suddenly animated. He threw out a marker and paced in front of the wheel, swinging it briskly to keep on course.
"I might have to take a waste lick," he said. He eyed the other skipjacks, working in a bunch. "If they see me working this same spot and loading up the dredges like this, they'll be here fast. Don't think they're not watching with those spyglasses. Just like I watch them."
He had other problems, too. The wind was beginning to howl out of the south. The dredges were starting to swim up off the bottom, and he had to shorten sail to slow down. The crew hurried to the boom while the dredges were on bottom and reefed the mainsail down. Then they reefed the jib.
The sea was building, too, and from time to time it would lift Lady Katie's bow high and steal her momentum, stopping the dredges again.
"People think this is the easy job," said Larrimore. "Just stand back here and swing the wheel. Well, it's not that easy. When I go home I'm drained out."
There are rewards, though, not the least of which is sailing a beautiful big boat among a half-dozen beautiful big boats on a windy day on the Chespeake, and getting paid for it.
One of Larrimore's toughest jobs on a good day is to figure out when he should quit. If he goes over his limit of 150 bushels the state takes the average and levies a fine. If he's under, he cuts his earnings.
Larrimore doesn't like to quit when he's over oysters and the day is young.
He plays it right to the edge. "I think we'd better stop," he said three or four times before he finally ordered the dredges up and stowed. Four piles of oysters a yardacross there squared on deck. He turned for home with a stiff following breeze and sailed the Lady Katie up the mouth of the Choptank and around the bend into Kent Narrows.
"I don't know," he said over the gentle sound of the Choptank's chop lapping at the skipjack's flat bottom. "We could be over, but it won't be by much."
The tally man at Harrison's kept the count as the bushels were swung over the gunwales, onto a conveyor belt and into a waiting truck.
One hundred. One twenty, 130, 140. One forty-eight. Larrimore smiled.
"You can't hit it perfect every time," said John Larrimore, who had come in at 146 bushels.
They set the crews to work cleaning the ageless boats, and before descended the E. C. Collier and the Ladie Katie were clean and trim, ready for the next day's sail.
There are 10 skipjacks working out of Tilghman, 13 miles south of St. Michalel's on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Stanley Larrimore's is the youngest. She was built in 1956. There are some that date from the 1890s.
They are kept in service because of a Maryland law, banning power dredging in the Bay. There is an exception these days under which the skipjacks can oyster using the power of the push boats on Mondays and Tuesdays. The rest of the week they must use only sail power.
These days six of the Tilgnman skipjacks are working the area around Sharps Islaned. The remainder of the fleet has moved temporarily to other areas.
Oysters are selling wholesale at the dock for about $10 a bushel. Even split seven ways, with a share for the boat, it's quite a day's pay.
"You won't find anybody that's ever got rich off one of these boats," Stanley Larrimore said. "With weather and all we lose half our days each year. We get by, but we don't get rich."