Category Archives: oysters

Skipjack and Cold Front

I’m often asked what my favorite picture is. The answer is that I can’t single out any one, from many preferred images.

One of my most endearing shots was taken the day before Thanksgiving, 31 years ago. I was into my second season of oyster dredging on the Chesapeake Bay, aboard the sailing skipjack, Virginia W.

There were reports that the day before another workboat, Hilda Willing, had dredged its limit of 150 bushels near the mouth of the Choptank River. With oyster populations in steady decline, that was a rare occurrence.

So early that Wednesday morning, all the Tilghman Island skipjacks set out for the same spot. There was no wind, however an approaching cold front was forecast to sweep in. We had our sails up ready to work. A light breeze began to fill in, though we were still underpowered and moving at a slow pace, barely able to pull a single dredge.

skipjack frontSkipjack and Cold Front-1982- prints available on request

As was typical of my working the middle deck, throwing the starboard dredge, I had my Nikonos rangefinder camera by my side. The massive clouds of the cold front began rolling in, getting closer. I looked over to see the Sigsbee, full sails up, waiting for wind. I took 6 shots, then put my camera away.

The front was an ominous sight as we prepared for more breeze. We tied 4 reefs in the main, deployed a second dredge and began catching a few oysters. Our speed increased, a gust of wind hit, and the boat heeled over, filling my right boot with sea water. There were some tongers  working nearby, and maneuvering was tight. Coming about for another lick, we had a near collision with one of them, our massive bow sprit crossing over his cabin top.

By that time it was blowing a gale, and impossible to control the boat safely. We dropped our sails, deciding to call it quits after bringing in 4 bushels and headed home for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Another Old Christmas

Our holiday season officially ends with the traditional celebration of Old Christmas. It takes place at our Community Building the first Saturday after the new year begins. This year I had a good time and downed plenty of roasted oysters.

Dave Harvey is shooting a couple of stories for National Geographic, and one of them is about the Outer Banks. I first met him when he was shooting another Outer Banks assignment back in 1986. We attended Old Christmas together back then, so this year was a sort of reunion. Here he works at the oyster shoot. Look for his story in an upcoming issue.

Joey O’Neal demonstrates the fine art of roasting oysters to his son Joey Jr. No doubt, Joey’s dad taught him the same thing. Back on the left, Willy Smith shucks a raw one.

Here comes John Edgar leading Old Buck.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen anyone mount Old Buck.

Old Buck is led away only to return next year.

When Old Christmas is over, we get one more look at our tree, then take it down.

For more, see my blog entry from the January 2009 Old Christmas.


This is a time of year when new life is born to maintain a continuance of species. Signs are all around us. Much of it is obvious, as in nesting birds or budding plants. But much of it we cannot see, unless we look closely. Take the eastern oyster, for example.

For as long as I’ve lived on Hatteras Island, oysters have been a fascination to me. Whenever I go collecting, it’s apparent that they grow in certain areas more than others. I notice that even in those more prolific spots, that the oyster population has generally been in a steady decline. This is attributed to over-harvesting, water pollution, parasites and lack of substrate material for new oysters to attach and grow.

Mature brood stock oysters emit egg and sperm into the water column, which in turn combine to produce eyed larvae, the beginning of becoming a true oyster. A scientific collection permit has allowed me to gather brooders for my own oyster garden spawning. I also donate collected brood stock to the aquaculture program at Carteret Community College and to the University of North Carolina Coastal Studies Institute at Cape Hatteras School.

Several years ago I attended an oyster conference in Morehead City, where I saw a number of scientists and people like myself looking for answers. It was here where I met Dr. Kemp. He runs the aquaculture program at Carteret Community College. A number of us got together and founded Shellfish Gardeners of North Carolina. We are interested in growing oysters, not only as a recreational activity, but also as a way to help the environment. We have had workshops to learn more about life cycles, water quality and to educate others.

For oyster gardening in eastern Pamlico Sound, Skip Kemp has been my mentor.

This has evolved into a network of people compiling and studying data. I collect water quality data for the Citizen’s Monitoring Network out of East Carolina University, and also compile information for the Oyster Spat Monitoring Project based at University of North Carolina in Wilmington.

Past data indicates that now is a prime time for local oysters to be spawning, so I have to keep a sharp eye out to see if there are any new oyster spat.

These eyed larvae have attached to an oyster shell and are 1 day old oysters.

This composite image shows new oyster spat at weekly intervals beginning with 1 week old at the upper left and 4 weeks old on the lower right. The initial growth rates are dramatic. The ruler scale is in centimeters.

These are almost 5 months old.

Yearlings can come in different sizes, depending on environmental conditions.

Chesapeake Bay Skipjacks

My fascination for oysters didn’t kick in until I moved to Hatteras Island. Starting out, times were tough financially, but it was a worthwhile tradeoff for the experiences in store for me. Back then you could walk the shore of the Pamlico Sound and get all the oysters you wanted for great meal. I remember picking them with Larry Midgett and some of the other locals, and it became one of my favorite things to do.


Larry Midgett, Tim Merritt and “Big Leroy” picking some oysters in a creek in 1974. Today this creek on Hatteras Island doesn’t produce much anymore.


In the early 80’s, I began going to Easton, MD to participate in a photography exhibit at the popular Waterfowl Festival. During the show in 1981, an acquaintance that I knew through surfing the Delaware shore told me that he was dredging oysters on the Chesapeake Bay Skipjack, Stanley Norman. He invited me out for a sail, so once the festival was over, I took Trent Palmer up on his offer. The wind was light, and so was the oyster catching, but I knew right then that I wanted to spend some more time photographing the only commercial fishing boats in the United States still using sail power. The next day, I returned to Hatteras to resume my life there, still thinking about the skipjacks.


Trent Palmer out on the bowsprit of Stanley Norman furling the jib in November of 1981.


Later that winter, Trent told me about a couple of boats that had openings for crew members. So I drove to Tilghman Island to see about working on a Chesapeake Bay Skipjack. My intention as a budding photographer was to shoot some of these historical workboats under sail. The only way I could do so, was to seek employment to pay my way. I was a little nervous at first, but once I stepped aboard the Virginia W in the predawn hours, I met Tim Stearns, the owner and captain of the 1902 built skipjack. He didn’t fit the mold of what I expected from a typical sea captain. From the very beginning, he was welcoming, kind, didn’t shout at the crew, and we became very good friends. I was also impressed that this young man of small stature had bought this rotten, derelict boat, and restored it nearly singlehandedly in about a years time. It became a very seaworthy workboat and had a new life once again.



Virginia W in port at Tilghman Island rafted up to the Anna McGarvey as ice flows through Knapps Narrows. According to records at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, she was built in Oriole, Maryland in 1902, and is 44 feet in length.



Captain Tim Stearns is at the helm of Virginia W near the mouth of the Choptank River.



Me the “greenhorn” after a good day of working a muddy bottom. Tim asked me to hand him my camera to take this shot. Then I reciprocated and took his picture amid 120 bushels of oysters. We had a good hard working crew, and I dredged aboard Virginia W for the better part of 2 winters, always with my waterproof Nikonos camera close by to catch those magnificent boats sailing by.




With the Chesapeake Bay Bridge behind us, I jumped out on the bowsprit of the Virginia W to make this photograph while we sailed into Annapolis. We spent the night on board there with 100 bushels on deck.


Leigh Hunteman handles the bow line of  Virginia W to shovel out at the dock on Tilghman Island. Leigh later became the only female captain of a skipjack by running the Sigsbee.  



The Stanley Norman was built in Salisbury, MD in 1902 and is 47 feet long at the waterline. Here owner/captain Ed Farley steers her over an oyster bed.



Sigsbee at 47 feet was built at Deal Island in 1901. Here she pulls dredges under full sail, with Captain Wade Murphy at the helm.



The skipjack Kathryn at 50 feet, was built in Crisfield, Maryland in 1901. Her bottom is planked fore and aft with rounded chines, rather than the typical herring bone, hard chined bottoms of most skipjacks. Here she flies by us pulling both dredges, 4 reefs in the mainsail, with captain and owner Russell Dize at the helm.



After a day out on the water, Captain Darryl Larrimore guides the 42 foot Claude W. Somers back to port powered by the yawl boat. She was built in 1911. Part of the history of this skipjack is tragic. In 1977, she went to the bottom in a storm near Crisfield, taking all of the 6 crew with her.



This stern view shows the Kathryn as she follows a path cut by a state ice-breaker in order to get back to port. The temperature was 10 degrees and the ice a foot thick. My feet were still cold despite felt-lined work boots and 2 pair of socks. This was one of the last days of my experience on Chesapeake Bay Skipjacks. Thus ended my career as an oysterman.