CHESTERTOWN – From sunrise to sunset, twice a week, Richard Person kneels in freezing weather, raking through mud, seaworn rocks and shells to cull live oysters.
Five minutes later, the lanky 49-year-old straightens to shovel everything that isn’t oyster over the side of the Nellie Byrd, the skipjack sailing dredge boat that provides his livelihood, and to haul a new dredged load up onto the deck for sorting.
He does this for 10 hours – on his knees again, tossing oysters into slowly growing piles, standing, picking up heavy, barnacle-encrusted rocks and heaving them back into the Chesapeake Bay with a splash.
“I try to like it,” said Person, a Rockville native who now lives in Crisfield. “I really believe that good exercise and everything keeps you healthy.”
But mostly, he added, “it’s the money.”
Person has worked gathering oysters in the bay for 14 years, though not always aboard the Nellie Byrd, a 91-year-old sailboat and one of a dwindling fleet of skipjacks – Maryland’s state boat since 1985 – that still dredge the bottom of the bay for oysters every winter.
There are other means of gathering oysters now – hand tongers, which last year gathered more than three times the amount dredged by skipjacks, as well as patent tongers, power dredges and oyster divers.
But the skipjacks are the last of the working sailboats that harvest seafood. With their sails unfurled on a sunny day, these renovated, white wooden boats are a picture-perfect rendering of Maryland history.
In the summer months, working skipjacks charter sailing parties for tourists interested in their historical significance.
Capt. Michael Hayden bought the Nellie Byrd two years ago mainly for the sailing. He dredges oysters “as long as there’s something to catch, but that’s no guarantee.”
More than 800 skipjacks – named after fish they are said to resemble as they repeatedly pass over oyster beds – plied the bay in the early 1900s, dredging more than 10 million bushels of oysters annually. Then overfishing, and now disease and drought, have devastated the oyster population and the livelihoods of those whose work depends on it.
“It’s a dying thing,” says Mark Ward, a member of Hayden’s crew. “I don’t even think there’s 12 working ones left.”
There are only eight skipjacks dredging this year, and scientists say this year’s harvest may plunge below the historic low of 80,000 bushels hit in 1994.
Skipjacks typically dredge oysters while pushed by a small boat with a large motor, called a yawl. While pushed, they may work only two days a week – any two days that weather permits – keeping their sails furled and tied to the boom.
With the harvest season lasting from October to March, the colors are the only thing warm about sunrise when the Nellie Byrd – her yawl boat grumbling and roaring – pulls out in the morning from Tolchester Marina.
Today, 14 mph winds delayed the crew an hour, but by 6 a.m., Hayden pulls her out into the bay under a brightening sky streaked with luminous pink.
The six crewmen don orange and yellow waterproof overalls, boots, knee pads, hats and gloves over heavily padded coveralls. Their breath mists in the bitter 15-degree air, and the bay’s surface is choppy and silver-blue as the sun rises.
“It warms up once we start working,” Ward says. But the temperature never rises above freezing all day, and icicles form on either side of the deck where the two dredges are hauled up.
The triangular, rusty dredges, with chain-link and rope nets, are attached to metal cables on a motorized winch. At sunrise, when the work begins, the men heave the dredges overboard to sink about 18 feet to the bottom of the bay, and Hayden reels them back in after a few minutes.
At least two men are needed to haul each dredge with its wet, bulky load onto the deck.
“It’s a challenge, I like that,” Ward says of the work. “Not everyone can do it.”
A licensed plumber, 36-year-old Ward has an unquenchable love for being on the water. He loves the skipjack work because “you get to see up and down the Chesapeake Bay.”
But he also says it’s good money – $30 per bushel this year, compared to about $22 per bushel last year.
“It’s different from a 9-to-5 job,” he adds. “Sometimes you make $700, $800 in two days.”
By 3 p.m., Hayden estimates they have gathered about 90 bushels. Oysters of this size, which are “as good as you could get right here,” number from 200 to 250 per bushel, he says.
Person says he is “getting exhausted.” In between dredge hauls, he pulls off his wet gloves and smokes a cigarette.
He remembers when skipjacks reached their limit of 150 bushels by this time, but “there’s not as many oysters as there were.”
By sunset, the Nellie Byrd has gathered 117 bushels of oysters – a relatively good day, compared to the boat’s average of 100 bushels per day.
But, “we’ll be lucky if we make it another six weeks,” Hayden says. Person is not as certain about quitting so soon. “We’ve always done this ’til March,” he says. Person chose dredging more than a decade ago when there were actually more options for employment in his Crisfield home. Now, he says, “I’ll keep doing this till I drop.” – 30 – CNS-12-13-02