Bay Journal

Logbook provides a vehicle for cruise down memory lane

  • By Kent Mountford on February 01, 2006
  • Comments are closed for this article.
Bill Roome inspects the supposed “periagua” built at Solomons Island in 1864. The rail skiff poled up from Tangier Sound by our informants is moored at left.  (Kent Mountford) Horse-drawn machines that were once used to harvest salt hay (Spartina patens), in 1964 sit on the marsh near Island Creek, Dorchester County, MD. A wagon partially loaded with hay is in the background.  (Kent Mountford) Bill Roome stands in a churchyard with surface grave vaults typical of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where water tables are very shallow near the Bay. (Kent Mountford)

Charles F. Chapman’s “Piloting Seamanship and Small Boat Handling” was published in the 1920s, as boating began its pre-Depression upswing in popularity. I got my first copy, the 1951 edition, on my Uncle Chick’s recommendation: “It’s the boater’s bible; you need that.”

In it, Chapman noted: “Keeping a log forms one of the most interesting and educational features of cruising and the practice is recommended to all careful cruisers…The data recorded in the log book also may be a contribution to the general fund of knowledge.”

Who was I—new to boating and full of plans—to question such authority? My log books began April 29, 1952. They’ve continued uninterrupted, and have been extended to include scores of trip logs.

I have revisited these journals thousands of times to recall strategies for navigation and relive experiences often long forgotten. “A life unrecorded,” a dear friend once said, “is a life unlived” and I’ve taken that to heart.

This winter, I dug into 1964 and the whole year suddenly flooded back: I was out of the Army, at the bitter end of a long romance and in a crisis at my job. It was also the first year I began collecting the data that would lead to my career in marine science, and I was thrust into my first experience with the Chesapeake. I was amazed at how much that first visit seems to have imprinted on me the great estuary that was to be the center my life years later.

“A near full moon (was) itself soon obscured by clouds that preceded a Northeaster during the night. What is it about the start of these sojourns that almost inevitably brings rain or snow? Such thoughts swished to and fro with the wipers [of my VW bug when I picked up former college roommate Bill Roome]. It was at best cloudy as far South as the Chesapeake-Delaware Canal, the belly of which was full with a steamer as we crossed on the Rt. 13 Bridge.”

This storm, the inland passage of tropical remnants from Hurricane Dora, was one of a dozen named storms that year. We continued down the Delaware, Maryland and Virginia peninsula, a very different Shore from that of today.

The C & D Canal opened in 1828, and 100 years later, dredging turned it into a sea level waterway. In the early 1960s, the canal, which offered big ships a shortcut from Baltimore to Delaware Bay ports like Wilmington and Philadelphia, was experiencing an economic upswing. Shortly after I began living and working on the Bay, a controversy arose over the widening and deepening of the canal concerning the flow of water and the diversion of migratory fish populations from one estuary to the other. At the end of the 20th century, decreasing traffic and escalating expenses raised questions about the economic justification for costly work on the C & D.

“We were quite quickly in oyster country on the Chesapeake’s Eastern Shore and began wending towards the Bay through tiny back roads edged with ramshackle houses and soybean patches (at least so Bill identified them!!!!). Outside the car mosquitoes assailed us and killifish jammed the roadside ditches.”

Thousands of miles of tax ditches honeycombed the Shore at that time. This practice began in the 19th century, clearing and draining once-wet woodlands for agriculture. The soybeans we saw were part of the regular crop rotation with corn: the beans contributed nitrogen; the corn consumed it.

“A salt marsh opened ahead. Today, marsh grass hay is cut by turning the matted grass up into furrows with an unusual, tractor-towed machine.”

William Murphy, who lives south of the Nanticoke River, said these machines were once towed by oxen, whose broad hooves allowed them to work on the marshes without sinking in. The side-delivery rake, a late development, made it easier to follow up with a wagon or hay baler to gather the cut hay.

Salt hay, the marsh plant Spartina patens, was one of the resources recorded by Capt. John Smith in his 1612 “Generall History of Virginia”: “From Wighcocomoco to this place all along the coast is low broken isles of morass grown a mile or two broad, good to cut for hay in summer and to catch fish and fowl in winter.”

The land that Roome and I crossed, then denuded and intensively cultivated, was in the early 1600s “all covered with wood as is the rest of the country,” according to Smith. Today, regrettably, the region has changed. The Wicomico is so polluted that goals for water quality in some areas of the Wicomico River may be unachievable. A Maryland Department of Environment Draft Plan has set a goal where only about 4 percent of the E.coli bacteria in the river can come from sewage plants and factories.

“Along a tiny estuary that led in from the Wicomico Creek’s (River) mouth we found a weird old hull pulled up. She was about 28’ long and if possible was a cross between a sharpie and a log canoe. As we were photographing her some locals slid up the creek in a narrow bateau and hailed in almost unintelligible dialect: ‘Fahrty dollar a pitchure tha’, tharsa Criss Craft’.

Their speech mannerisms, I learned years later, were those of Smith and Tangier islands, often falsely believed to hark back to Smith’s Elizabethan English. The islands, though, were not truly settled until about 1800. Linguists, interviewing people who were young residents between 1820-1850, concluded that those speech patterns were from the middle 19th century, not Queen Elizabeth.

“These men told us they’d been “atakin’ trout out t’ th’ (Tangier) sound” and gave us detailed information about the hulk. She was a ‘perriauger’ one of two built at Solomons Island up the Bay. This specimen dated from 1867. She’d been rigged down and pierced for a (motor and propeller) shaft years ago, and was hauled here by her ancient owner for rebuilding. ‘He died before she did but, She died before he did, ’y know what I mean?’ We did indeed.”

At the Calvert Marine Museum, at Solomons, MD, records indicate that the first shipyard was run by Isaac Davis in the 1870s. This doesn’t mean that shipbuilding was absent from Solomons Island, only that 1867, when the periagua was alleged to have been built, predates the records.

The periagua rig was used on Naval gunboats circa 1809 during fleet preparations for the upcoming War of 1812, in which the Chesapeake figured so prominently. It had evolved from sailing log canoes equipped with so-called “stick up” rigs, and was technically a schooner with a large boomed mainsail aft and a foremast and foresail, leaning improbably out over the bow of the boat at an unnatural angle. The Smithsonian Institution’s late maritime historian, Howard I. Chapelle, claimed these boats did very well as windward sailors, with the loose-footed foresail acting like the big jibs that modern sloops employ. In light winds, the masts are canted in opposite directions, leaving a huge space between in which an immense fisherman’s staysail could be set.

I sailed into Baltimore Harbor few years back and there, just off the Domino Sugar Plant, a whole fleet of periaguas, each just 8 feet or so long, was zipping around as a training ground for inner city youths learning about boats.

“Across the low marshland causeway to Deal Island we noticed all the graves in a tiny cemetery were above ground, that is with lids protruding from the sod. We could get little information on this but it is probably a hedge against moisture from the marshes. We found one caved in but ghoulishly found nothing but stone and rubble inside.”

In later years, I learned that deep graves with high water tables ran the risk of the air-filled—and thus lighter—coffins or vaults floating and bursting up through the soil.

Wenona, on Deal Island, is the center of the sailing Chesapeake oyster industry.

“Quite a number of the old gals (skipjacks) survive, many with age-sprung spars, but some in fine fettle. …perhaps the most nicely fitted out of the commissioned (boats)….was the Robert L Webster.

“A small dragger (dredge boat) was hauled and wooded down [her paint stripped off, with], a Negro workman caulking her with cotton and a mallet. (He told us that dredge boats)…to be legal can carry no power, and to get home after licking the beds, they carry a tiny yawlboat rigged on davits over the transom, which is nothing but a floating engine bed, with sometimes 200 horsepower in a 10 ft boatlet. They are never cast off, the double six-part tackles remaining rigged. …A very ancient hull along the harbor at Wenona lay on the bottom and was rotted beyond belief with the topsides still standing but much of her decking just caved into the water from decay.”

I would see the Webster repeatedly at Deal Island in later years.

One after another, the skipjacks disappeared or fell away exactly this way. Only a few remain, mostly in care and feeding programs that keep them alive as part of a charity.

There was a youth swimming off one of the boats and I looked down into the water to see one of the Chesapeake’s stinging nettles, which was then an unfamiliar sight on the New Jersey Coast, where Kenneth Lynn Gosner, my mentor in those years, was curator of the Newark Museum.

“I took a ‘young’ nettle intact for the Newark Museum, and (the) youth informed me that conditions had cooled the water and made them less common than earlier in the season.” Gosner later said that this was the first of the species in their collection. It might still be there.

The heavy rains from Dora that September might also have knocked back their population, but I did not know that 42 years ago.

These were the early years of the U.S. Weather Bureau (forerunner of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service). As Bill and I were starting this trip, a hurricane was forming in the Atlantic far east of Barbados. By the time we were well down the Eastern Shore, she was named Gladys, and was off Florida and turning northwest, taking a dead bead on the Virginia Capes, a Category 4 with 125-mile-per-hour winds. The warning systems 42 years ago were not what they are today, and we continued blithely on, not at all concerned.

“Along the roads we were surprised to find the roads virtually bordered with… bushes 12-15 feet high some with ‘trunks’ over a foot through.” These were crepe myrtle (Lagerstromia indica) a common southern ornamental which were not seen at the latitude where we lived.

“Took lodgings at the Peacock…near Cape Charles where we enjoyed two exceptionally fine meals exquisitely served (Bill still remembers their clam chowder after 42 years!) the use of local maps and the off season leisure and kindness of host Ray Hutchinson, the owner.

“He introduced us to his Chincoteague pony, Dusty, one of 70 sold each year at auction for between $60–70. The beneficiary, I learned, was the Chincoteague Fire Department. At the time the drive of these ponies into Chincoteague Bay and their shepherded swim to the mainland was an informal means of thinning this herd of feral horses on the barrier island where food supplies make subsistence difficult. (In 2005 the average price for these ponies was $2,000, and one horse went for $10,500.)…Having crossed four states this day, we retired to sound sleep.

“After breakfast on the 20th, of eggs barely an hour off the nest we braved a stiff 18 knot easterly to investigate two landings on the ‘ocean’ shore which is separated here, as in Jersey from the open sea by barrier beaches about six miles out. These little landings dot the shore, some just a track through the bush at the end of a cornfield others, like Steelman’s a tiny fishing post with a few boats and mounds of shell. Here at 0930 with high water (flooding in) from the Atlantic (the water was) 71.5 F, the hydrometer (showed water here in the back bays to be less salty than the sea at 28.5 0/00). A three and a half foot snake swam by my hand as I took the reading….I was in the future more cautious!

This visitor was a northern water snake, Nerodia sipedon, which strikes repeatedly when cornered, and which has both sharp teeth and an anticoagulant that makes its wounds bleed profusely.

“Driving to…the southermost extent of Cape Charles (Wise Point, looking out to Fisherman’s Island) I found at the foot of the great “Bridge Tunnel” it was 72 F.” [The salinity was 31.70/00, full ocean salinity from the tidal surge of the approaching hurricane.]

This area is known as Kiptopeake, which John Smith named for Kiptope. Smith wrote that the brother and lieutenant of “this laughing King of Accomack who tells us the land is not two daies journey in the broadest place, but in some places a man may goe in halfe a day, betwixt the Bay and the maine Ocean, where inhabit many people, so that the narrownesse of the Land there is not many Deere, but most abundance of Fish and Fowle.”

We “drove up the bayshore to Butler’s Bluffs along which we strolled under breaking clouds til noon. They run purse-like seines out from the beach here and pull them in by donkey engine catching, according to one local ‘all the fish that swim in the bay!’…Fishermen had wooden rails on which they hauled their boats and catches out of reach of storm.”

The haul-seine fishery, abundant as Smith had promised in 1624, was a post World War II hallmark of the lower Eastern Shore and many other sites along the Chesapeake. There are still some who work this method in Virginia. Their boats leave telltale scars in the submerged grass beds of the lower Western Shore. The Kiptopeake beach fishery, though, was abandoned within several years of our 1964 visit, leaving stark fishermen’s shacks behind.

From the allied pound fishery—nets rigged permanently to stakes, Native American-fashion—there was, nearby, a toxic mound of congealed toxic cuprous oxide, where for years the men soaked their nets in boat bottom paint to prevent fouling by marine growth. This was not widespread pollution, but it created a curiosity: around it grew only the most stunted and most tolerant vegetation. I hope the recent Kiptopeake State acquired by Virginia will preserve it as such.

This adventure concludes in March’s “Past is Prologue.”

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About Kent Mountford

Dr. Kent Mountford is senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Program in Annapolis.

Read more articles by Kent Mountford

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