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  • Brady Stroh

Beautiful Swimmers - William Warner

Updated: Jul 2, 2020

The first book I ever read about the Chesapeake Bay was William Warner’s classic, Beautiful Swimmers. I read it in the months leading up to the birth our our daughter in April 1982. The book’s subtitle “Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay” piqued my curiosity about a body of water of which I knew very little beyond the fact that the river I grew up along emptied into it. I knew that the Chesapeake Bay began at the mouth of the Susquehanna River. I knew when high tide was each day at Havre de Grace, since it was regularly reported on the weather segment of the 11 o’clock news on our local TV station. And I knew that lots of people went to the Bay to fish or sail their boats. I had also heard that it was very muddy and dirty. But beyond those few bits of knowledge, I knew almost nothing about one of the world’s greatest estuaries.

Warner’s 300 page, Pulitzer Prize winning work takes us into the lives of Eastern Shore watermen and the commercial blue crab (callinectes sapidus) fishery of Chesapeake Bay. The book comprises twelve chapters: The Bay; Autumn, Deal Island; Winter; Follow the Water; Beautiful Swimmer; Spring; Lester Lee and the Chicken Neckers; To Market; Swimmer and Scraping; The Islands, Looking Ahead; Out Main Bay; and Crisfield. It also contains many rustic pen and ink drawings by Consuelo Hanks.

Warner draws us into the quaint places and simple lives of the people who earned their keep in, on, and around the waters of the Eastern Shore in the mid 20th century. He focuses on the men in boats who ply the tidal creeks, rivers, and sub-estuaries and who have come to be known as watermen. And the male form of the title is accurate, as historically almost no women took to the crabbing skiffs and deadrise boats used to catch Callinectes sapidus. But success of the watermen hinged on the women who supported them at home and in the picking and packing houses. It is the totality of “waterpeople” who built and sustain the Chesapeake crabbing industry.

The author embeds himself into the ranks of the waterpeople and gives readers a first hand account of the crabbing life on the Bay. He begins a typical day at Ewell on Smith Island:

“ A strong southwest wind came up early in the morning. Leaves rustled, shutters banged, and a large metal sign at the gas dock creaked and groaned in the dark. Lights shone in a number of houses and out at the crab pounds, where people were already fishing the floats. From the skipjack Somerset, moored just below us, came the various sounds of carpentry. A solitary figure, probably her captain, puttered about the large vessel doing some kind of off-season maintenance work. The thoroughfare, or the narrow waterway that is the main street of the village of Ewell on Smith Island, was coming alive at it’s customary hour.”

(Beautiful Swimmers, chapter 9, Summer and Scraping)

Some aspects of the place in time that Warner paints still exist. But many have vanished or have been transformed into 21st century versions of the old ways. Beautiful Swimmers gives us peak back in time — not to nostalgically long for those days, but to vicariously experience and appreciate them for what they were.

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