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Out Before Dawn


From: Skipjack - The Story of America's Last Sailing Oystermen by Christopher White written in 2009. Chapter 3: "November, Howell Point"


The night had been clear, but fog now overwhelmed the Choptank, cloaking the river in white.  Everything disappeared, as if we were floating in a cloud  The shoreline dissolved, and the water vanished.  Even our sails melted into the mist.  Yet the change had been incremental.  In the hour before dawn, under a bright full moon, the fog had slowly enveloped our fifty-foot skipjack like a tiptoeing ghost.  At last sight we had been running parallel to the shore.  Now strange shapes materialized, left and right, then evaporated as if they were apparitions.  A bell buoy clanged nearby, its direction uncertain.  Hearing it, the crew grew more nervous.  They were already on edge, and the fear on their faces was palpable: We could run into a boat or a buoy any second.  If tragedy struck, the river water was too cold to survive for long.  Only Captain Art Daniels seemed calm, unruffled at the helm.


Now, just before sunrise, there was another illusion: a slight diffused light -- perhaps dawn approaching -- but it seemed to come from all directions.  North and south, east and west, were indistinguishable.  How would we find our direction? A green "can" buoy took shape to our starboard, but in the haze, its number -- painted black -- was obscure.  Little matter to the captain, it seemed, for in the midst of all this confusion, I saw him quietly examining the ripple of current against the can.  Art Daniels, white-haired, well into his seventies [early 1990s -- now 90 years old], was reading the tide -- to him as good as a compass.  The tide was ebbing, flowing toward the open Bay.  From his memory of the river -- upstream was east -- he knew the sun would rise behind us.  He was on course: bearing west downriver toward Tilghman's Island.


We were sailing aboard City of Crisfield (1949), just out of Cambridge Harbor and heading for Howell Point, the most prolific oyster bar in the Choptank.  It was a Wednesday -- November first, opening day of the sail-dredging season.  At the Helm, Captain Daniels directed his crew to stand watch so they could join him in trying to outwit the fog.  His son Robert and grandson Bobby took the bow, while brother Jimmy manned the port side with the cook, Howard Jones, and me.  On starboard, Howard's two brothers, Larry and John-Boy, searched for boats and buoys at mid channel that might emerge from the mist.  The three bothers were sons of Elmer Jones, for fifty years the black cook aboard Art's father's skipjack, Robert L. Tawes (1901) -- a tenure spanning the years from the First World War past the Great Depression to the moonwalk. On the Chesapeake, little had changed.  The captain sailed downriver through the mist, in the family tradition, a light touch on the wheel, guiding the wooden craft through the current.

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