Cap’n Murphy

Around St. Michaels, Maryland, on the Eastern Shore, you can’t spit without hitting a bed & breakfast. It’s a perfect place for a weekend getaway only if your perfect weekend getaway involves lots and lots of shopping. For knick-knacks. If that’s not your thing, then you’ll be better off a few miles further south on Tilghman Island. There, at least, you can sail with Captain Wade Murphy.

Wade is an old oysterman now making a living running charter tours of the Chesapeake Bay. His boat, the Rebecca T. Ruark, is an official national historic landmark, and (he never hesitates to boast), the oldest skipjack on the Bay. Wade is well past sixty but nowhere near seventy, strong, witty, leather-skinned, and sharp-eyed. All of the decomposition that normally comes with age seems to have concentrated itself in his hearing. He sails out of Dogwood Harbor, where the Rebecca is the only ship with a mast amid a flock of yachts and powerboats.

Suanna and I were the only ones who showed up for his two-hour tour this past Sunday afternoon. “I don’t mind,” he said, “As long as you can help with the sails.”

Though I didn’t actually utter the words “goody goody goody,” he may have read them in my eyes. I’m an inveterate landlubber who has harbored a lifetime fascination with boats and all things maritime. I hadn’t dared to dream that I might actually get a chance to hoist a sail on this jaunt. At first it seemed like a guy named Ray would be going along with us, but he disembarked just as we were shoving off. He may have been Wade’s homonculous—he had the same tanned skin, and looked a little bit older, but didn’t weigh more than ninety pounds and boasted no more than three teeth. He waddled around in boats a couple sizes too big for him, making them look like waders.

We puttered out of the harbor under the power of a motored dinghy trailing behind the Rebecca. I got off on just the right start by actually fumbling with one of the slipknots around the sail, before Wade patiently showed me that you just had to pull on the trailing end. We hoisted the sail, Wade stacked up a bunch of multicolored binders filled with pictures, and he launched into the first of his stories. All the while he left the wheel to me, only occasionally muttering something like “aim over yonder” or “full right” to keep us going where he wanted. It wasn’t all that hard, once I got the hang of it, but what was so refreshing was that Wade didn’t treat either of us like customers/walking potential lawsuits, but assumed that, as a reasonably intelligent person, I could probably handle steering a boat.

Wade’s first story was a roundabout defense of the fact that he referred to the Rebecca as “the oldest sailing skipjack.” (A skipjack, by Wade’s definition, has one mast, two sails, and is mainly used as an oyster-shucker. It also happens to be a kind of tuna, not to mention the name of an encryption algorithm created by the NSA.) Since it was built with two masts in 1886, before skipjacks were ever built, and only later became one, this is apparently a sore point for some folks. Mainly for one guy in particular—a 74-year-old retired oysterman who has been, for the past three years, stealing all the advertising brochures for the Rebecca from local brochure-holders and throwing them away. Wade had only recently managed to catch the guy on tape; his trial is actually today. Apparently he had been stalking Wade for quite some time, treating him as a Danger to Society because of his loose use of the phrase “oldest skipjack” among other vague reasons summed up by Wade as “jealousy.” Wade observed that this gentleman had been a “poor waterman,” which, from the way he said it, amounted to the ultimate sort of indictment, accounting for both his lack of success on the water and his lapses of character on land.

After this first story, I had Wade pegged as the kind of person who takes a dim view of what my friend Steve Brown is fond of referring to as “gummint bidness.” The moral of the tale of the brochure-stealer was certainly that, while this guy was clearly nuts in the eyes of the community, he was still able to cause all sorts of trouble for Wade by calling in fabricated complaints about him to distant federal bureaucracies like the DNR and EPA.

Wade’s next story had a different take, though. It began with the sinking of the Rebecca in a big storm in ‘99 or ‘00, and his attempts to get it out of the water before there was nothing left to get. The private contractors he hired brought a puny little crane and charged him thousands of dollars while utterly failing to rescue his boat. At that point “the guvnor” took notice, and (in light of the boat’s historical significance) provided some sort of State of Maryland super-crane, gratis, that saved the Rebecca in half the time it had taken those other twerps to figure out that they couldn’t. This is the first and only story I’ve heard in which Parris Glendening’s stars as a wise and noble super-governor.

Wade’s third story, and running theme, was the systematically stupid ways that humans had behaved in order to eradicate the oyster bays of the Chesapeake. It started with rampant overharvesting starting in the 50’s, coupled with insensitivity to the ecology of the Eastern Seaboard that led in turn to increased salt content in the waters of the Bay. This, in turn, messed up the one defense the oysters had against the nasty diseases that threatened to do them in: the reliable freezing-over of the Bay during the winter months. The end result: no more oysters. Most of the old skipjacks are now running charter cruises for tourists from D.C. We actually hauled up a crateful of oysters during our sail, and Wade demonstrated, with no small amount of bitterness in his voice, that ninety percent of them were dead.

Ironically, if anyone has weathered the death of the industry, it’s Wade. In rebuilding Rebecca after it sank, Wade had to replace the mast; he gave the old one to a guy who makes duck decoys. The world of collectible duck decoys is just another minor point in the the larger lesson: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” I had no idea, but apparently duck decoys made from certifiably historic wood can fetch quite a price. Wade has been selling the ones made from his mast on eBay: $5000 minimum bid. He has a whole passel of them that he’s auctioning off, one per year. In the meantime he does charter cruises, taking a dim view of the newer, snazzier, altogether less-classy boats plying the same trade. (“Newer,” in this context, means “anything built in the 20th century.”)

As we sailed back in toward the harbor, I wondered just how long Wade was going to let me keep driving. We took down the sails, he turned on the motor in the dinghy, and then he took a long and involved cell phone call. All the while we approached the multicolored posts that were clearly meant to signal, in some way, our route of approach, which involved at least two surprisingly narrow right-angle turns. It got to the point where I needed to know quite badly whether we were supposed to go on the right side or the left side of the thingee in front of us, but, since I hadn’t made a total fool of myself thus far, Wade made the dangerous assumption that I actually knew what I was doing. He was sufficiently hard of hearing that it was pointless to ask him, especially when his attention was focused elsewhere. Fortunately he noticed my dilemma just in time and casually muttered “to the right,” which was good enough to get us up to the first right-angle turn. At that point he said “turn right.” What he should have said was “Turn right, which will involve a subtle interplay of steering the craft both right and left, anticipating its movement, which is slightly non-intuitive unless you’re used to it, taking into account both the wind and our current speed.” Thankfully, he detected my internal flailing just in time, and relieved me of the wheel.

Far from feeding my boat-fix, our little trip has only made me hungry for more—for a jaunt where we pick up proper speed, unfurling both sails, dodging the boom as it swings around like a freed guillotine, saying “avast!” and meaning it. It’ll have to be another day.