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Admiration of Bay visionary runs deep

William W. Warner was famed for a Pulitzer-winning book and his love of the Chesapeake

William W. Warner was famed for a Pulitzer-winning book and his love of the Chesapeake

Before his best-selling book “Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay” won the Pulitzer Prize, years before William “Willie” Warner’s research focused national attention on the tenuous condition of Chesapeake Bay and its watermen, he bought a boat.


Pandion, named for a seabird, was a 35-foot Dickerson ketch. “My father would go down there [on the Eastern Shore] and watch it being built,” recalls Warner’s son, John B. Warner, of Washington D.C. And once the boat was launched, “we would go sailing every weekend. This was my father’s first hobby toy. That was his maiden voyage to the Chesapeake. We would get grounded going through the narrows.”

Upon his death April 18 from Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 88, Warner was remembered across the country not for poor navigation but for his vision concerning the future of the Bay. “Willie [with his book] really brought the Chesapeake Bay national attention at a time when we were just beginning to realize the pressure that 20th century man was putting on it,” says John Page Williams, senior naturalist on the staff of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “The other thing he did was to paint a really accurate picture of the waterman’s community of the Bay in the ’70s. He caught those people beautifully. He also taught all of us a tremendous amount about blue crabs, about blue crab biology and blue crab behavior [in] an immensely literate style.”

The inspiration for “Beautiful Swimmers,” which has never been out of print since its first edition in 1976, came from the family cruises on Pandion, his son says. “He had his family’s encouragement to explore the Bay,” he says.

Warner bought the boat in the late 1960s after he left a career in the Foreign Service and the Peace Corps and joined the Smithsonian Institution. There, he was instrumental in creating Smithsonian magazine. At the same time, Warner had begun submitting articles to major publications, including The Washington Post, The New York Times and Atlantic Monthly. It was an article about the Fulton Fish Market in New York — part of his research for “Beautiful Swimmers” — that was first accepted by Atlantic Monthly, his son says.

“Then an agent in New York saw it and contacted Willie,” says Warner. “The agent said, ‘You should turn this into a book.’ He said, ‘OK, you’re on.’ ”

A key to Warner’s success was his “unassuming character and his ability to listen,” says Williams. “In the ’70s it took something to get those [crabbers] confidence, and he did it, he got it. Willie was extremely good at drawing people out that way.”

“It’s quite a feat in itself to be accepted by these watermen,” says Ed Darwin, a Chesapeake Bay charter captain who has read “Beautiful Swimmers” a half-dozen times and knew some of the characters in the book. “I don’t think anyone could have captured the watermen as he did.” Darwin has spent more than 50 years on the Bay and says he learns something new each time he reads the book.

One of Warner’s subjects — Morris Goodwin Marsh of Smith Island — says Warner was a “good-natured fellow.”

“He was ’bout the best writer that I’ve ever took out, and I’ve took out a lot of them.” Marsh says. “Most of them, when you say you want to leave the dock at 4 o’clock in the morning, most of them didn’t like that at all. He was always ready to go. He was always on time when we went out.”

Then Warner was either asking questions, writing or taking pictures, Marsh says. He says he was one of the few who accurately described the lives of crabbers. “Everything that he wrote that might have been a little bit controversial, he asked me if it was OK to write it. I never did turn it down,” he says.

Marsh says he and Warner became good friends, and until his health deteriorated, he never failed to send a Christmas card.

Warner was raised in wealth but without much affection, according to his son. His father figure was a stepgrandfather, Col. George Washington Cavanaugh, of New York City, who owned a summer home in the wealthy seaside community of Spring Lake, N.J. When Warner and his brother, Shot, were quite young, they plotted to launch a rowboat in a marsh near Spring Lake and “escape their stepgrandfather’s clutches” by rowing to Portugal, the son says.

Warner married his wife of 57 years, Kathleen, in 1951, and they moved to Chile almost immediately, beginning a family that grew to six children. He remained in the Foreign Service in Guatemala and Costa Rica before returning to take a high post in the newly formed Peace Corps.

After writing “Beautiful Swimmers,” which won the 1977 Pulitzer Prize, Warner wrote “Distant Water: The Fate of the North Atlantic Fisherman,” published in 1983; “At Peace With All Their Neighbors,” 1994; and “Into the Porcupine Cave and Other Odysseys: Adventures of an Occasional Naturalist,” 1999. His writing has been widely praised not just for the depth of his research, but also for its literary value. When focusing his attention on the blue crab’s feeding habits, he writes:

“We can but little imagine the sheer terror which the sight of a blue crab must inspire in a fat little killifish or a slow-moving annelid worm. The crab’s claw arms will be held out at the ready, waving slowly in the manner of a shadow boxer. Walking legs will be slightly doubled, ready for tigerlike springs, and the outer maxillipeds — literally ‘jaw feet’ or two small limbs in front of the crab’s mouth — will flutter distractingly. The effect must be mesmeric, such as the praying mantis is said to possess over its insect victims.”

Ironically, Marsh says the book made no difference in his world, but Warner’s actions did. “When they first started coming out with regulations, he helped,” says Marsh. “They had a time limit for crabbing. I called him and said these kids go out at night and after school. They can’t do that no more. People been doing that for 300 years.

“He went talking to them in Annapolis. They can do it now. If a child wants to go crabbing in evening, they can go, mostly just for fun. A couple of boys in a skiff.”