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Adventuring the Chesapeake onboard ‘F.D. Crockett’

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The F.D. Crockett sits at the Living Classroom’s dock at Fells Point in Baltimore, Md., with the Domino Sugar plant in the background. The ship is unloading raw sugar and the air was filled with a cotton candy smell. (Photo by John England)

by Vera England

On a journey that lasted August 1-14, the “F.D. Crockett,” the 1924 log-hulled buyboat restored by the Deltaville Maritime Museum, joined the 8th Chesapeake Bay Buyboat Reunion Tour in an educational outreach funded, in part, by the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund (License Plate Grant).

Traveling with up to 14 other vessels, the historic Crockett, crewed by John England, Gordon Gibb and Vera England, was able to re-visit many of the ports where she had carried freight or sold seafood, as well as to explore new harbors. The mission was to bring the history of the Chesapeake Bay waterman to those who live along its shores, to show what the bay was like before marinas replaced working harbors, and to share the passion for these old wooden boats. It was also to have fun.

The first day out, as we traveled to Tangier Island, we could feel ourselves relaxing. All the preparations that could be done had been, make-shift replacements had been made for educational displays and brochures lost in July’s Deltaville Maritime Museum fire, and our duffles were packed. We were ready for adventure.

Remembering that the F.D. Crockett is a workboat, not a yacht like many of the other buyboats on the tour, accommodations had been built which suited the vessel, with some concessions to a crew not accustomed to the hard life of a waterman. But not many. The bunks were small and hard; the well-stocked galley bare of luxuries. Our water supply was in jugs. We had our sleeping bags, a coffee pot, an electric fry-pan and a toaster, and a cooler full of provisions. However, unlike former captains Pretty Green or Ferdinand Crockett, we also had air-conditioning, so we counted on the ports where we docked to provide us electrical hook-ups. We also added removable curtains to the pilot house and galley, suitable for privacy for the captain’s wife.

The Chesapeake put on a different face for us almost every day, adjusting her wind and weather to her moods. There were also different types of visitors in every port. Tangier was hot, with a turbulent evening storm racing across the bay, barely skimming the island and hitting the eastern shore with waterspouts. There, as eleven buyboats crowded into Parks Marina, we met the families of former captains who, as youths, learned to swim by diving off the numerous deck boats that would have called Tangier Island home port. We feasted at the docks on crabs and corn and Poquoson clams, and filled up the next morning on a Tangier breakfast at Hilda Crockett’s place. We left for Crisfield with the wind behind us, going in circles to catch a breeze as we waited for the Northern and Southern buyboat fleets to merge before going into the exuberant celebration hosted by the Tawes Museum and the town. As soon as we docked we were greeted by former buyboat deckhands and their families whose connections to Deltaville during the past century were closer than those from one end of our county to another. Crisfield and Tangier brought home the fact that we were indeed bringing living history back to the once bustling ports—grandchildren were able to see firsthand what their grandfathers had experienced, and the F.D. Crockett’s open decks and logs, which were visible in the hold, gave them an idea of the cargoes carried across the bay’s waters. 

Our next destination brought the last three existing log deck boats together, a historic moment. At Solomon’s we joined the “Wm. B. Tennison,” Calvert Marine Museum’s converted bugeye, and the “Old Point,” a log motor vessel restored by Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum and also built in Poquoson. After the rough and tumble trip from Crisfield with winds that had buffeted the boats across the bay, the dozen buyboats enjoyed the peaceful museum where we were swarmed with interested visitors during the day, and picnicked with the crews of the other vessels under the Drum Point lighthouse at night. An onboard shower with the deck hose of the Tennison rounded off the day. The next day the Old Point and her intrepid crew (they slept on the decks) joined the rest of the vessels on our somewhat stormy voyage up the bay to Annapolis on their way home to St. Michaels.

Our next host, the Annapolis Maritime Museum, is located at the former McNasby Oyster Company, and the docks were once again crowded with the boats that would have offloaded their cargo throughout the cold winter days. Its location in Eastport was nearest to the open bay, and was once ideal for the watermen wanting to sell their oysters quickly, but not very sheltered if there is much wind. Luckily, our two nights at the dock were interrupted only by the after-work visitors, the photographers who prowled the docks (and even the building’s roof) at dawn, and by the chicken-neck crabbers and fishermen whose constant pastime we had disrupted by our presence. We explored the capital both on foot and by buyboat, and then left the majestic city under sunny skies to head under the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and toward Chester River, home of the “East Hampton” and the “Thomas J.” Our visit to Langford Creek and Rolf’s Wharf gave us a much needed respite as well as a view of the unspoiled Chesapeake. Much of the waterfront land leading to Chestertown is still owned by families (and sometimes corporations) that have kept the countryside intact for hundreds of years.

We then headed out and up to Rock Hall, home of the “P.E. Pruitt” and the last port before the Sassafras River and the C&D Canal, to be part of their weekend-long Pirates Festival. We equipped ourselves with plastic swords to prepare for buccaneer boarding, though our freight carrying predecessors would have perhaps have had more persuasive weapons when traveling in Maryland waters. A stormy night in the west-facing harbor followed by a perfect day to go across (but not down) the bay convinced a few of the buyboats to make a quick visit to Baltimore, where the F.D. Crockett had once delivered freight from the southern bay.

We docked at the Living Classroom’s Maritime Park at Fells Point overnight, and departed before dawn the next day, while the lights of the industrial city were still bright before the first hints of morning. The sun rose over glassy waters as we passed a cargo vessel under the Frances Scott Key Bridge. We headed back to Solomon’s, half-way home, on “slick ca’m” waters with favoring tides and a pleasant breeze. It was a perfect day, though not to continue for the last day of our trip. We left Solomon’s Island at sunrise with threatening skies, opposing tides, and winds that couldn’t make up their mind. After viewing a waterspout cross the bay as a huge tanker disappeared into a grey mass that replaced sky and water, we were relieved when the clouds cleared that afternoon. We rounded Stingray Point in bright sunshine. The downpour waited until the boat was tied up, unloaded, and the crew of the F.D. Crockett was safely home. Mission accomplished for the F.D. Crockett and the Deltaville Maritime Museum.

posted 09.05.2012

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