Editor’s Note: December’s Past is Prologue ended with the purchase of the workboat, Geda. This month explores the history of this boat and its environs.
One October morning 32 years ago, my wife, Nancy, and I were aboard our yawl, Cemba, heading toward Smith Island.
About noon, the first hints of our destination, the disembodied tops of tree hummocks, hovered in mirage above the horizon, slowly merging as we approached into the shape of an island.
This was the view that had tempted John Smith and his crew out to what he named Russell’s Isles during his first Chesapeake exploration in 1608.
Settlers didn’t arrive until 1657. Theirs was a tough, isolated existence and some linguists hear, in the broad accents of modern Smith Islanders, hints of Elizabethan English. Others claim it’s nonsense, as nobody alive has ever heard Elizabethan English and we can only guess at its sounds and cadences from the free-form spelling and grammar in written record.
That day in October, the spire of a church, then stark white houses joined the island’s silhouette—all sharply etched against the deep blue of autumn sky. By midafternoon, we were easing Cemba into the narrow, angular channel at the village of Ewell. The marshes were bathed in golden light, the sheltered water so calm it appeared oiled a light purple.
We motored past many small crab-shedding shacks that islanders had erected on pilings along the well-flushed tidal channel, each separated from its neighbors to assure good water supply for the “buster” and “peeler” crabs being nursed to perfect market state for shipment on the next mainland boat.
We lay Cemba alongside a wharf at the town where we purchased eight gallons of marine gasoline for $3.33, almost 42 cents a gallon. These were the days of cheap oil, when regular gas ashore was 29.9 cents a gallon, but the proprietor had the fuel way out here where it was needed, and when it was needed.
Small waterfronts almost always have someone watching the world go by and Capt. Edward Harrison was right there to take a look at these new people and their old Bay-built yawl. We enjoyed a pleasant conversation, not realizing at the time that he was probably the most famous and productive crabber in the history of Smith Island.
Harrison mentioned that he had been in Solomons the week before and had noticed Geda lying alongside at Harbor Island. “Built by Leon Marsh over at Rogues Point,” he announced. Rogues—Rhodes Point on maps—is one of the three principal communities on Smith Island, lying south of Ewell and connected to the rest of the island by a single lane road across the marshes.
Harrison pointed out the the third community, Tylerton (pronounced Toylert’n), which was to the east and was only accessible by water.
Smith Island is slowly being inundated by rising sealevel and picked away by shoreline erosion. What was once connected terrain is now honeycombed with marsh and waterways; what was once farmland is now salt marsh. Another islander said there was farm equipment that had been abandoned in the marshes decades ago as water and salt intrusion made the land untillable.
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One Sunday morning the following spring while at Tangier Island, VA, we struck up a conversation with a “Tangierman” aboard a boat anchored near us who mentioned that his father had owned a sister-ship of Geda and that, indeed, she had been built by Capt. Leon Marsh at Smith Island.
We headed up Tangier Sound that morning and felt our way into Big thoroughfare, the channel between Peachorchard Point—its namesake long swallowed by sealevel rise—and Horse Hummock, now just a shoal in the Bay. We sailed past Tylerton in the “back” or eastern side route to Rhodes Point.
Inquiries led us to a place to tie up just as the ferry Island Star was leaving with a joyous complement of gospel singers from Crisfield headed for Ewell to help raise money for a church air conditioner. We walked south toward the boatyard.
“Come in here!” a voice boomed from a crab-packing house. Inside, a man named Billy showed us a box of softshell crabs, neatly stacked like cookies; layer of ice, windrow eelgrass, another layer of crabs. “Twenty-five dollars a bushel,” he announced. They’d been as high as $60, as low as $20. A porpoise skull from the Bay lay on his dock and he showed us a flint scraper and arrowheads found in one of the island’s shell piles. There were also stems from colonial clay pipes.
Billy introduced us to Donny, Leon Marsh’s tall, brawny son. I’d seen him at Solomons during the last oyster season, but had no idea of his connection. Donny pointed us on along a path lined with wild asparagus to the boatyard. A sign as we approached announced: “All Launching and Yard Work MUST BE CASH (we mean business).”
Leon Marsh, who was in his 40s, was delighted to hear about Geda. She was built for Frankie Dize—this explained the cryptic initials we found painted on its stern—and was supposed to be named Geraldine, but little Frankie couldn’t pronounce that as a tyke, so the boat was named Geda (pronounced Gee-Da).
Marsh and his father built about 75 deadrise crab scrapes, “Jenkins Creek boats, we call ’em.” Most of the Marsh boats were 24–25 feet long, but about 1959 he’d built three scaled-down boats which cost about $220 new: Gladys, Geda and Miniature. I had admired the latter at Benedict on the Patuxent before finding Geda. Marsh shared my sentiment. He thought Miniature was the prettiest and had tried, unsuccessfully, to buy it back.
All three of the boats were originally powered with six-horsepower, air-cooled Briggs and Stratton engines, although they were built with an eye toward adding a centerboard and sloop sailing rig with “a high head” and bowsprit, Marsh said. This never happened.
Geda had been sold off the island after scraping crabs one summer in Tangier Sound.
Satisfied at meeting and getting to know Geda’s builder, we talked a long while, then walked Rhodes Point stem to stern until the vicious salt-marsh mosquitoes appeared.
Our night was spent behind insect screens aboard Cemba next to brightly lit crab shedding boxes full of peelers, with water constantly being pumped through them, as their owners checked through the night for fresh soft crabs.
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In the 1960s and 1970s, large electricity-generating facilities were built adjacent to large waterbodies like the Bay, to take advantage of their ability to carry away the immense amounts of waste heat generated by the fuel-burning technologies of the time. There were concerns, though, that the heated discharge water from these plants would harm the Bay.
It was my job was to examine the potential effects of temperature changes on phytoplankton, the microscopic free-floating plant cells at the base of the estuarine food web. They are the link between energy captured from the sun and all of the higher organisms that form the Bay’s aquatic ecosystem, including fish, shellfish and crabs.
These were the early days of working with single organism cultures in a laboratory, and many species dominant in the Bay refused to grow under artificial conditions. We chose—when we could—to work with “captured” natural bloom populations encountered while doing other survey work in the Potomac or Patuxent rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.
We actively looked for such opportunistic collections and with competition high for the lab research fleet, Geda, with its ability to cruise easily in a foot of water, and talent for running a long way on a gallon of gas, was sometimes pressed into service.
One lunch hour, my colleague, Bob Shippen, and I were out exploring and encountered an extremely dense diatom bloom. We had a large carboy in which we collected several gallons of this material and quickly headed back to the laboratory.
We’d been out cruising a bit too long on this calm winters’ day, though, and up Indian Creek, well short of our goal, Geda ran out of fuel and the spare can was empty. Geda proved how economical she really was: We started the engine several times, running on fumes, then dying out until, in Benedict, MD’s, Mill Creek, we glided up to the gas pump at Ray’s Marina. We were too clever by half —this occurred in the middle of the Middle East fuel crisis of 1973, and he was closed.
Shippen was always resourceful and drained almost exactly three quarters of a cup of gasoline from Ray’s pump hose into Geda’s tank. We weren’t sure it would even be enough to fill the carburetor bowl, but she started immediately and ran us at low speed about a mile back to the laboratory dock without missing a beat.
I figured that she ran at about 21 miles per gallon; almost double the mileage of our lab van.
Geda enabled many lunchtime breaks. During one February thaw, Nancy and I were up one of the Patuxent’s many tributaries and had lingered long enough in 65 degree sunshine, that a huge patch of ice from the recently frozen creek broke loose from the shoreline, drifting out on the tide to block the creek mouth against our escape. Crunching against the ice with Geda’s bow and prying with long oars, we eventually got home.
The next summer, we gave Nancy’s sister, Barbara, her and boyfriend, Bill, the job of bringing Geda down the Patuxent to our pier at Osborn Cove. I thought that we’d explained the lay of the river pretty well and given them an estimated running time, but they were Colorado mountain folks not water people. As Bill said, “We just didn’t understand about the tide turning to speed our trip downstream, and by the time we’d realized it, we had to turn back and run—against the tide—upriver again.” Eventually, they came chugging in near sunset, almost out of gas.
Geda prospered at Osborn Cove and its classic lines were a delight to see. Geda was even selected as full-color glossy “Miss July” on the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s annual calendar. In spring and fall we took Geda exploring up the many beautiful coves along this part of the Patuxent and during extremely low water, we collected big cove oysters below the tide-line, which Nancy’s used to make succulent stews.
I even brought out an old pair of oyster tongs and taught myself to get a few oysters that way as well, standing on Geda’s wide flat washboards and culling my take on the afterdeck. The boat was as steady a work platform as any of her larger commercial sisters.
These were bitterly cold years, and Geda took a beating in winter. The boat’s seams opened and began to leak a couple of times and she filled with ice. I had to shovel the snow out of her many mornings.
In March and April, the Chesapeake experiences fierce, prolonged northwesterly gales. One of these coincided with the time of full moon spring tide and Geda was left hard and dry on the bottom.
We did not waste the opportunity, and using big wooden levers and some blocks, raised her thousand pounds up off the sand where once dry, she could be thoroughly scraped and painted. Amazingly, the tide stayed out for about four days, and when it returned we’d completely refinished her for the coming season.
But, caulking her leaky seams, I found worm damage had dangerously softened some of her planks. Geda was getting old, and those wormshot planks were beginning to give out.
One man working alone can only handle so many boats and I had five in the water by that time. It was either pay some really serious shipwright bills in a wooden boatyard, or retire her to a safe and proper home…
In a late August, 1977, the Calvert Independent published an article announcing the official opening of a small craft exhibit at the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons that would showcase 10 small Chesapeake workboats, including a "Jenkins Creek crab scrape." My logbook for that week reads: “Thus, our long-serving Geda has gone to her reward and (to) future generations.”
See Geda For Yourself
Geda is on exhibit at the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, MD. For information, contact the Calvert Marine Museum at P.O. Box 97, Solomons, MD 20688; 410-326-2042; or www.calvertmarinemuseum.org