Thomas, one of the principal characters in last Saturday's wild and wonderful
skipjack sailing race on Chesapeake Bay, is something of a genius in his line
of work. Cap'n Jesse is an oyster dredger, which means he is blood and bone
with the lurid history of his craft—with days of shanghaied seamen, murder and
mischief, and also of thrilling races to the oyster markets to fetch the best
prices. With his clipper-bowed skipjack Sea Gull, Cap'n Jesse slaves from
November to March over oyster banks bearing old evocative names: Love Point,
Tea Table, Snake Rip, Daddy Dear.
Like all Maryland
watermen, Jesse Thomas says "rock" for oyster bank, "drudge"
for dredge and "arster" for oyster. For 40 years he has been drudging
for arsters over banks his father had drudged before him. In a fog he needs
only a marker or two to keep drudging all day, and at dusk he'll find his way
home, never worry. Back and forth across the rocks he sails like a plowman
tilling a field, using the mainsail reefs as brakes to keep Sea Gull's speed
down to a manageable rate of between two and four knots.
dredging by sail is a dying art in this age of easy power, and the Cap'n Jesses
a dying breed. Where there were thousands of skipjacks a century ago, there are
now but a few score—and they are the last examples of working sail in
rarity—plus the Maryland waterman's ancient disregard for nice-Nelly rules of
sailing—has made the annual skipjack race the best-attended sailing event in
the U.S. Some 12,000 spectators assembled on shore, down the bay from
Annapolis, and there were hundreds of small craft out on the water as the 27
competing skipjacks milled about before the start.
Since the day
also marked Cap'n Jesse's 54th birthday, on Sea Gull there was a feast of fried
oysters and crab cakes and soft-shell crabs for his family and a good number of
friends. These did not depart when the race began; in this flotilla any number
can play. All across the fleet, decks were jammed with amiable picnickers.
Among those aboard Sea Gull were Thomas' sons: Jerry, who arrived with an
elaborate cake depicting a boat and birds in icing of blue, buff and white,
Phil, Jesse Jr. and 17-year-old Kenneth, who had passed up the opening day of
the duck season to race. Altogether, it was a sight to turn a yachtsman's soul
cooked the spread in a tiny galley and son Phil served on deck. Most
unyachtsmanlike was he in fedora and leather-soled brogans, but a splendid
disher-out of grub. When the oysters ran out, up came the soft-shell crabs.
"Have another," he'd insist. "Have another."
In the grand
jostle at the start, it quickly became clear that the North American Yacht
Racing rules did not apply—and perhaps not those of the Marquess of
Queensberry, either. "The general attitude," as the late Wendell
Bradley, a chronicler of the watermen, has written, "is to win the race and
hang the rules." The nearest skipjacks come, even to an unwritten rule is,
"The older man and the one closest to home has the right-of-way." The
most fundamental of racing rules—the one giving a boat on a starboard tack
right-of-way over one on a port tack—is interpreted by the skipjack sailors to
contain the rider..."if the port tack boat is chicken enough to give
rules-be-damned approach was demonstrated merrily as the boats Amy Mister,
Sigsbee and, alas, Sea Gull, rounded the first mark of the 4.5-mile course. As
they raced on, stern-to-bowsprit, a collision was unavoidable. Hard astern of
the race leader, Rosie Parks, came Sigsbee, closely tailed by Sea Gull and the
rapidly approaching Amy Mister. Instead of giving room to the inside boats, as
prissy yacht racing rules prescribe, Sigsbee boldly squeezed Sea Gull up toward
the mark and the onrushing Amy Mister. Those of us aboard Sea Gull watched
helplessly as Amy Mister flew onward, a froth of white at her bow, until hazily
she began to acknowledge the peril by swinging in a stately turn. It came too
late. The jaws closed. Crunch went Sea Gull's rail as Amy Mister's stern-slung
yawl boat raked across the deck. Propelled now by Amy Mister, Sea Gull rammed
Sigsbee broadside and stuck fast.
There they sat in
an unholy raft, three skipjacks with their rigs, hulls and gear locked in a
mess. If such an accident had befallen three yachts in a normal race, the
epithets, protests and threats to arm, leg and neck would have been heard in
Baltimore 30 miles away. Watermen who live by sail and work all season long
hull to hull take such smashes more laconically. Without so much as an audible
oath, Cap'n Jesse merely said, "Drop the sail, Wickie. Drop the sail."
Everywhere on the boat there were sheepish grins.
tangle unwound without so much as a mast toppling or a boat sinking, but it
ruined any chance Sea Gull might have had of catching Rosie Parks. She was the
favorite anyway—the winner of the four previous races and smartly sailed, as
usual, by Skipper Orville Parks. Her only real challenger for the $75 first
prize proved to be Kathryn, out of Wingate, Md.; Malcolm Wheatley, captain.
"Where's Rosie? Where's that boy?" was all Jesse Thomas could mutter as
the crew washed away its disappointment with a few swallows of "rheumatism