The Chesapeake Bay waterman taught Cap'n Tom a lot about fishing and even more about life
Cap'n Wilson's day begins as usual, more than an hour before first light. He drives down to the Linda R in his old pickup - the one in which you need boots because the water from puddles splashes up through the holes in the floor.
The Linda R lies to a mooring pole out in the creek. Her thick wood timbers are more than 60 years old, but none of them has sprung, and there is no hogging in the sweep of her deadrise lines. Cap'n Wilson sculls out in his heavy, time-worn skiff, bending to the oar, his checkered shirt and faded work pants hiding hard muscles over every inch of his small body. They've had time to harden - almost 70 years.
The skiff moves swiftly and quietly, as if without effort, a burlap bag draped over the oar slot to lessen the wear. It wasn't too long ago - 40 years or so - that the first outboard had come to the island. Wilson, a tad younger then, said he didn't need any fool thing like that and challenged the owner of the outboard to a race - the boat with the outboard against his boat with his sculling. He won.
This day, after tying the skiff off the stern of the Linda R, he starts the old Perkins 6-354, and it clatters, coughs and roars as he slips the rope from the pole. On some days he has a helper, but they're getting hard to find. It's work people don't do anymore - about as hard and mean as it can be - but the cap'n loves it.
Cap'n Wilson was a Chesapeake Bay waterman from Gwynn's Island, Va. He worked the water and fished pound nets in the lower Bay all his life - a life from past and better times. He started fishing with his daddy when he was 7 and had been at it almost ever since, except for the times like when he'd worked the boats hauling watermelons up Chesapeake Bay to Ball'mr (Baltimore), careful to "not bust 'em in the squalls or eat 'em on the hot days of August." But fishing was how he made his sparse living.
You might say he fished with poles, but not the type with a string and a cork. On bad days, when "she was blowing or freezing," he'd go into the pines and cut down saplings, storing them to season. Or he'd boil nets in tar, so they'd last awhile when he strung them on the poles. In early spring he would take the pine stakes from the woods where they lay, "trim 'em up," and he and a few tough friends would go out in the boat and pound them deep into the mud in his fishing spot up toward shoal waters. They'd set them and rig the nets in a line beginning in shallow water, leading to a circle trap at the deeper end.
He explained the system to me. "Cap'n Tom, you see, the fish'll be swimming along in the shallows, happy as they can be, looking for food. Then they'll run into this net and they'll do what any fish would do. They head for the deep water. And the net herds 'em into this big circle of net and they can swim in through the funnel chute, but it's awful hard for 'em to get back out."
Cap'n Wilson knew everything there was to know about pound net fishing and no man worked harder at it, but it was never a sure moneymaker. So on bad summer days and most spring and summer evenings, he'd get down in the soil out behind the house, tending his rows and rows of sweet 'taters, tomatoes, squash and turnip greens. These helped Wilson and his wife, Hilda, beat the grocery store prices - but barely, because he was always giving the stuff away, driving his old truck along the quiet lanes of the island where the old timers knew him as "Googah." That, I'm told, is because it's the way he pronounced "sugar" when he stopped by the market as a youngster.
He was hardly the tallest, most robust man on the island, but his days were full of robust work. And no day went to waste.
My family and I first met Cap'n Wilson on a good day - a fine morning in late spring. We had just returned to the Chesapeake from the Bahamas. The wind was fair and the Bay was as beautiful as she can be. We had rounded Cherry Point on Gwynns Island and were heading into the Piankatank River. We saw him working his nets, up against a shoal on the northern shore. We doused the sails and motored over, hoping to buy some very fresh fish. He kept working, bending over his nets and watching us over his shoulder as we came in. He turned and waved with a big smile as we got close.
"Can we buy some fish?" I hollered.
"Sure, just stay off of these nets. That's too close for a yacht boat." But he refused to sell us any fish. He'd only give them to us - all we wanted. The first fresh fish from the Bay tasted very good that night.
A few days later I saw him again. We were both in that great melting pot of all poor cruisers and great fishermen - the local NAPA store. Each of us was buying stuff for an old Perkins 6-354, and there are few better common grounds for a surefire bonding. His oil pan, after years of salty water splashing against its bottom, had sprung a big leak. The store owner, Vail Dozier, said they didn't have a spare oil pan for that ancient Perkins, but they were going to try to find him one.
I thanked him again for the fish and we struck up a conversation. It was the beginning of a long friendship with Cap'n Wilson Rowe.
THE CAP'N WAS IN HIS LATE 70S THEN.
For years, when Chez Nous was visiting Gwynns Island between our long trips, I'd sometimes go out to work the nets with him, just to learn what it was like and to help in whatever way I could. I'd hear him hollering over the low rumble of his engine as he approached our boat at O'Dark Thirty. "Cap'n Tom, get outta that baid and come on out here and do some real work."
I'd pull on some clothes, boots and rubber coveralls and stumble over my aft rail in the last of the dark as he swung the bow of the Linda R into my stern. And I'd slip into a time and place and life that, if it didn't make me better, it was only because I had so far to go.
The morning I was telling you about at the beginning wasn't unusual at first. When he headed out the creek, leaving the old pickup truck on the shore, it seemed just another day. But when you're at sea, things can quickly change. Alone, as he so frequently was, he rounded the spit and headed to his nets, slowly emerging from the mists to the east.
His nets were "she," and they brought him his living and his life. He talked nice to them when they were full; he fussed when they weren't. Full nets meant money; empty nets meant they didn't even pay for the trip out. When a big fish or storm or "yacht boat" tore the nets, he'd come alongside in the bouncing skiff, lean over the gunn'le, and carefully and lovingly mend them with his strong but gnarled hands and one good eye.
Sometimes as he worked the nets, the wind would come up, slinging into his face and arms droplets of water and fish slime and the long, red, tenacious tentacles of stinging nettles that made welts on his skin and tortured him for hours. Sometimes it was just a pretty day with a lot of hard work, which Cap'n Wilson didn't mind.
This particular morning he ties the Linda R to the stakes, jumps into the skiff, drops a section of the net circle to just below the water and pulls the skiff over into the trap. White belly fish swarm and flash, broil and flicker beneath the surface, promising a big haul. He grabs the "bail," a large scoop net on a heavy, 10-foot wooden pole. He lunges into his work, bailing up 20, 30 pounds of squirming fish at a time, the deepening pile wriggling and jumping, rising up around his legs as he fills the skiff, which he would tow - loaded with the catch - back to the buy dock. He is almost through when a huge, dark shadow catches his eye and then hits his bail hard enough to push it back against him, like no fish from the Bay could do. It almost knocks him overboard, backward.
A bonito, he figures. He's never seen one, but he's heard many stories about them. He's heard they can be really big and they sometimes come in from the ocean, where he doesn't go, "'cause I don't need to." This one is "all riled up and fixin' to tear every inch of my nets." He tries to scoop it in the bail, but the fish is far too big. On one of its swoops past the skiff, he leans out, catches its tail and tries to pull it in tail-first, but it thrashes away. Next he gets his arms around its middle when it is "bent," but it is too big and escapes before he can heave it into the boat. Finally, he gets it headfirst - "by the gills, you know" - pulls it to the skiff and, with all his strength, flips it in.
The fish thrashes back out over the side, almost capsizing the skiff and smacking him mightily on the way over. "Cap'n Tom," he tells me later, "It was time to get mad." He scoops it by the head again, gets it close, leans over the gunn'le, and grabs around its body, pulling it back over and inside with a bear hug - a small, tough man and a huge, tough fish. He wrestles it some more in the skiff full of squirming, jumping fish. This time he keeps it in the boat, hitting it with a pin "‘till it settled down some. It was hard, Cap'n Tom, that fish was a whole lot longer than I was."
When he goes through the bridge on the way home, he runs out of the wheelhouse, yells up to the bridge tender, dances a little jig and points proudly back to the wallowing skiff astern with the big payday inside. The tender calls "down to the wharf to let 'em know that Cap'n Wilson is coming in with a load." A half-hour later, the owner man at the wharf stands over the Linda R, looking down long and hard. Finally, he says, "I ain't going to buy that fish."
Stunned, Cap'n Wilson looks up at him, from down in his boat. "Why not, man?"
"'Cause it's not a fish. It's a shark and nobody I know'll eat a shark."
"Cap'n Tom, I just couldn't believe it. But I told him to put it on ice anyway, and somehow it got in the newspapers, and you know, some fool from Washington came down and bought it from me - for a pretty penny." He pauses a moment. "But I guess maybe the best thing about that day was I got it before it ruint my nets."
THE DAY OF THE "BONITO" WAS LONG before my time with Cap'n Wilson. But later we spent many a morning heading out to the nets, talking about things like fishing and the sea he knew. Sometimes my entire family - Mel and our young daughters, Melanie and Carolyn - would go out with him and it was special beyond words. He was anxious to teach us. But it frustrated him when I never could learn the special knots he used to tie the nets. And he'd grow even more upset if I tried to tie them my way. He'd put me to work as soon as I hopped aboard, doing something I couldn't "mess up."
"Get up there on the deck, Cap'n Tom, and sluice this boat off with this bucket before the dew dries. Get all that dew off; the dew'll make it rot like you won't believe less'n you get it off afore it dries."
He caught plenty of other big fish; his favorites were the rockfish (striped bass). They'd bring a "pretty penny" because everybody loved to eat them, especially in the restaurants. But Cap'n Wilson would always take the best of the catch to his friends first. He'd get on his old bicycle with a big, lidded wicker picnic basket wired to the handlebars, heads and tails of the long fish dangling out both sides. He'd ride around the quiet lanes of the island, delivering fish to friends who were too "sickly" to catch them and could hardly afford to buy any. And for some special friends, he'd also show up with vegetables and, occasionally, his favorite dish Hilda would make from time to time - prune pie. If you've never had it, you don't know what's good.
Cap'n Wilson had many problems trying to live from the sea, but a major peeve was the "yacht boats." And I can't say I blame him. "They always keep running into my nets. They tear her up and sail on. And all the fish are gone and I can't catch any more or make any money till I come out here and drive some more stakes and mend the nets. They run into them in broad daylight. But they 'specially get them at night. Why they have to be out here at night, out of the channel, close into the shallows where my nets are, I don't know."
I asked him once why he didn't have lights on his nets. "Cause, Cap'n Tom, I tried that already. Soon's you put a light on one of these poles the danged fools will come over to see what the light's all about and run into the nets anyway."
Once a yacht boat ruined his nets and another friend, Ralph, and I went out with Cap'n Wilson to put down another pole. Through the hard work, he never stopped talking, just as he never stopped talking while working the nets. It was all an education I'll never forget, even though I wasn't familiar with some of the vocabulary.
"Ease 'er down now, ease 'er down now, Cap'n Tom. Me'n Ralph'll drive it. How's she laying now, think she's too far off? Nawsuh, Cap'n Ralph, nawsuh. I b'lieve she's jus' right. Les put 'er down now Ralph, jus' where she is. C'mon now, Ralph, me'n you, me'n you, lets put 'er in the bottom. Push, c'mon now, push. I b'lieve that's got 'er. I b'lieve she's jus' right, right beside that stump. Gimme that bakeit, gimme that bakeit. Oh Lord, did I leave that in the boat? Don' tell me I'm getting old. I wantcha to know now, I'm getting old. There it is, up there in the bow, get that bakeit for me, Cap'n Tom."
There were many mornings of other conversations as we headed to the nets - very special conversations I'll never forget. He remembered the bad times, times that few of us can imagine.
"It gets cold out here in the winter, son, it gets damn cold. I've heard the ice coming in growling, growling and rumbling so you could hear it miles inland, all the way from out on the Bay. Sounded like an animal, sounded like a train coming down a track, that ice out on the Bay pushing in."
Often he'd sing a hymn as we headed out, looking for the first "offshore" buoy. Years ago, he'd written his compass courses in pencil on the white painted framework over the forward wheelhouse windows. He'd also written the times it took to run between the marker at the end of the Narrows where the Linda R would emerge from behind the island, the next one out, then the next and then off to his nets. This way he could find his way in the fog.
One foggy morning he was particularly talkative and forgot to look at his watch. "Danged, Cap'n Tom, now we're lost. If you just hadn't been talking so much I wouldn't have forgot to look at my watch." But we found our way. I think he could feel it.
A beautiful sunrise always made things better. Cap'n Wilson and I shared a common sentiment: We didn't like bureaucrats and politicians. Cap'n Wilson and his friends had been victim of plenty of legalized abuse during his years. One morning as the sun broke the horizon, he said, "There she is, son. Look at that. There she come. You ever see it pretty as that? Now you try to stop that sun from coming up. You jus' tell 'em to try to stop that from coming up. All those people in Washington, all put together, no matter how hard they try to mess things up, they'll never do that. That's one thing they won' never be able to do. You better b'lieve it."
On another morning you could tell, even before the sun came up, that it was going to be a beautiful day. It was clear and cool, and just as the sun was breaking from the water on the horizon, he mused, "Cap'n Tom, you know, I wonder how far away it is?"
"How far away what is, Cap'n Wilson?"
"The sun, you know. Where it's coming up out of the water over there. Sometimes I think it's as far away as Norfolk."
SOME WOULD SAY CAP'N WILSON - and others like him - was provincial. But I think not. Cap'n Wilson had sailed from Norfolk and Cape Charles up the Bay to Ball'mr on buyboats and schooners. And he'd had other jobs on other boats. But most of his life he lived with Hilda in the same little house on Gwynns Island, fishing, mending nets, setting out stakes, repairing his boat and gardening. He and Hilda had married back when they were in their teens and he showed me where they first lived - a house across the field from his yard. But you don't have to cross oceans or round horns to be a seaman and to develop the unique and universal wisdom and special passions that come from it.
Cap'n Wilson Rowe passed some years ago. I visited him; sat by his bed. Sometimes he'd talk about the old days, before there was a bridge to the island. He told me about the "August Gust," the great hurricane of 1933 in which "pretty much the whole island was under water. There was chickens and pigs floating down the streets."
He talked about sculling. "That sculling oar is the best piece of machinery there ever was. Now my scull's 15 inches too short and a little wored around the edges - jus' like me - but she'll do." He talked about his clothes. "Clothes ain't never comfortable till they're wore out. Like I am." And he worried about his nets.
Today, each time I sail past Stingray Point or Cherry Point and round into the Piankatank River, I look toward the mouth of Jackson Creek, over to where his nets were. They aren't there now. And the Linda R is gone. It's a hard life, what they do, and few are around who still have what it takes to do it. But all the fancy folks in Washington and New York and places like that say we should be eating more fish. Yes, you can grow them in a "farm," swimming around in water thick with their own excrement and fattened from whatever it is they're fed, but it isn't the same, and it never will be. And sometimes we don't seem to get it. Before you can eat 'em, you've got to catch 'em. And that takes good fishermen.
I've been on the waters for a long time now and it's introduced me to some very special people with stories that are bigger than life, but true nevertheless. They'd fill a book. There are the sporty folk and there are the folk who work the water for their living. It's seldom like it is in the songs. It's seldom a sunset cruise. But it's a good cruise and it's a good life.
Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, "All in the Same Boat," at www.tomneale.com.
This article originally appeared in the August 2010 issue.