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Good day on the water: a skiff, crabs, old friends

I have been following the rousing adventures of sailing writer Angus Phillips for more than 35 years, mostly during his stint as the outdoors editor of The Washington Post from the mid-1970s until his retirement in 2010. I have also sailed casually with and against him, and struggled to compete with him while covering America’s Cup regattas in Newport, R.I., in 1980 and 1983 for different newspapers. And as a non-angler I even read his well-spun tales of “feeeshing.”

Chicken-neckers Angus Phillips (right) and Gene Miller proudly display two of their male 'jimmies' destined for the steam pot.

Although now in repose from the daily newspaper grind, he still casts off his landlines for occasional out-of-town sailing assignments for national magazines. But in recent summers, between rocking-chair naps on the patio, he has focused on a pastime known as “chicken-necking.” He and a fellow geezer venture forth in pursuit of crabs that scurry along the bottom of a small backyard bay off the mouth of the Severn River in Annapolis called Lake Ogleton, where he lives in comfort with his shotguns, fishing rods, kayaks, bows and arrows, stringed instruments and his stylish, recently retired wife, Fran.

As an old friend and former colleague at the Washington Star in the early 1970s, Angus, who is 68, graciously accepted me barging in on him and boating-fishing-crabbing mate Gene Miller, 76, in a spot of trotline crabbing. I came along as a keen observer, taking notes and staying out of the way aboard their cramped, backyard-built workboat as they went about in search of yet another free dinner. They supplied a folding chair for this third geezer.

They sally forth from a rickety dock in their community of Annapolis Roads about 5:30 a.m. to set a 1,000-foot trotline baited every 6 feet with a glob of chicken necks. Also along on most mornings is Angus’ black Lab, Nellie, an otherwise fine hunting dog that goes with her master everywhere but shoots him worried glances whenever their sailboat heels.

Chicken-necking is a time-honored waterfront tradition on Chesapeake tributaries for recreational crabbers and a frugal way to have fun on the water while fetching free seafood. Some neckers just tend a few lines hanging from a pier or from the sides of an anchored rowboat, but those advanced in the art prefer setting a “trotline” that sinks to the shallow bottom with floats anchoring both ends of the line. And woe betide another trotliner who dares come too close or, worse, crosses their line.

The men land crabs as they follow the trotline in their 18-foot crabbing skiff, I Declare.

“Now will you just look at that guy?” an infuriated Angus grumbled to himself, flashing an evil eye at a trotliner who appeared to be getting too neighborly. “Hey, fella! We were here first!” mumbled Gene, aka “Mr. Fixit”. Please give way to these retired geezers in the name of the hallowed, unwritten rules of the crabbing world.

They take turns steering their 18-footer of marine plywood (powered by an old 25-hp Johnson) and manning a 6-foot-long dip net of galvanized wire. As the boat slowly plods along, the baited line rises from the depths to near the surface on a spindle rigged to the starboard gunwale, and whoosh goes the net under the feeding crab and into a basket. Small crabs are measured and tossed back. Crabbing was slow-going in early summer, but catching “a mess” is a proud sign of proficiency in snatching the bad-tempered critters.

Back at the dock, if someone happens to be around with a camera, crabbers will happily pose for pictures while holding their largest crabs in front of their smiling, sun-tanned faces. Angus or Gene will steam the catch and pick the succulent, savory meat for crab cakes, eat some of the crabs red-hot out of the shell, and give away any surplus to neighbors.

On the water, when I strayed from crabbing questions and began pressing Angus about his distinguished career in journalism, he grew a bit uneasy and said it was his understanding that I was interested in his workboats and crabbing. A modest, self-effacing fellow with a snappy sense of humor, he has no ego problems and is no self-promoter. And unlike me, he does not care to dwell on magical memories of the past.

Angus first showed up at the Star in 1970 as a copy editor when I was a “veteran” reporter, feature writer and sometimes sailing columnist. He was a good-looking 20-something with a full beard and long hair who had rebuilt his own car engine. On the side, he rode a BMW motorcycle to gigs around town where he picked at the mandolin while singing bluegrass numbers.

He was not a published writer then and knew little about sailing, although he soon infiltrated a charming circle of sailors who formed the Washington Star Navy, which comprised reporters and editors who moored their sailboats in Galesville, Md. Founding members included Fleet Adm. Duncan Spencer, a young bluewater salt who was to lure three of his Star mates into sailing journalism as lifelong careers; Angus; famed yachting photographer Bob Grieser; and myself. Angus teamed with reporter Ross Evans — a Texan who had never seen a “cove” before — to buy an old 19-foot Lightning and joined the happy few, gathering on the West River as they capsized and bumped bottom while finding their way around to learn our ways.

By 1974, Angus was reading copy at the Post after a non-productive spin as a motorcycle messenger and cabaret entertainer. (Fran describes him as “smashing” in those early days.) Through a series of circumstances and personnel changes he began doing stories for the sports sections, and his natural flair for writing eventually landed him almost total freedom to pick and choose his story material as outdoors editor with a travel budget. “I was lucky in that I had a good mentor in sports editor George Solomon, who took a personal interest in the stuff I was writing about although he knew nothing about it,” he says.

Those deadline decades of reporting on great yachting events in faraway, romantic places for the Post are now over. He covered seven America’s Cups as far away as Spain and Australia, but has no clipping file of that coverage and nothing of his countless Post columns. This year’s Cup doings in San Francisco, raced between “freakish catamarans,” hold no interest for him.

On assignment for National Geographic magazine to write about the 1997-98 Whitbread Round the World Race, Angus boarded a RIB in Fremantle, Western Australia, that would deposit him aboard the eventual winner, EF Language, for the finish of the second of nine legs:

The waves look huge from (our) tiny boat, and in the troughs our target sometimes disappears. But on it comes, sails cleaving the sky in tomahawk chops until at last we make out the bodies, then the faces, then the smiles through the whiskers of the weary seamen. We speed in under the stern quarter, throw over my sea bag, and the blue-clad lads on EF Language hauled me up by the seat of my oilskins.

The men land crabs as they follow the trotline in their 18-foot crabbing skiff, I Declare.

“Welcome,” says watch captain Kimo Worthington, extending an oak-hard hand, fingertips blackened by frostbite, “though I can’t imagine why you’d even want to come aboard. Everything’s broken, everybody’s hurt, the boat stinks, and we haven’t been out of our foul-weather gear for 16 days.”

As I survey the wreckage — broken steering wheel, patched sails, ruined winches, life rails ripped away by boarding seas — and whiff the stench from the living quarters below, which reek like a gym bag left to fester, I can see it’s been a harrowing 4,600 miles since the start in Cape Town, South Africa.

Oddly enough, there is no “Best of Angus Phillips” book out there on Amazon, although there should be. A few magazines with his bylined stories are scattered here and there in his den, but that’s about it. In 2010 he decided it was time to retire and knocked out a final column to say farewell. Much to his surprise, he received more than 250 letters and emails in response, “which was very gratifying,” he says. I asked for a copy of that column but got no response.

Now, let’s get back to crabbing. “About 15 years ago, Gene and I decided to build a boat for crabbing,” Angus recalls. “I had George Gordon’s self-published pamphlet/booklet on building a 16-foot flat-bottom skiff of common construction plywood, but unfortunately George had a philosophical aversion to spending money. He felt that if you slathered epoxy on it and glued everything together with [3M] 5200, it would last forever.

“Eight years later, there were places on the sides where you could poke your finger right through,” he continues. “We had a great time with that boat, and it only cost us $300 or so to build, so no worries. However, it died. I wrote a column bemoaning the loss and the fatal flaws of cheap wood and mentioned that we were looking for a replacement, ideally about 22 feet with a diesel engine. Well, a reader named John Asher in Remington, Va., said, ‘I have just that boat, and I’m getting too old to use it.’ It’s a Joe Reid [of Mast & Mallet in Mayo, Md.] replica of a Smith Island crab scraper made of Alaskan spruce and other fine wood, and a real work of art.”

They trailered it home and tried it out for crabbing. “It didn’t turn well and ran too fast for the trotline,” Angus says. They banged it up and soon realized “this boat is just too nice for the kind of rough work crabbing entails. We named it Clarence S., after the old-timer who designed it, and we use it to ferry the ladies over to the yacht club for Sunday cocktails.”

Their next crabbing boat was an 18-foot Nova Scotia design of marine plywood that someone built in a garage. “It’s a terrific crabbing boat, all open space and very nimble, but it busted loose from the dock and got hammered in a hurricane two years ago. We painted it yellow and called it the Banana Boat,” he says.

Their current crabber is a Carolina Skiff they found in Beaufort, S.C. “Unlike our first two plywood boats, which were lightly built without frames using the West System, this one has stout frames of fir 2-by-4s and 2-by-6s,” Angus says. “It was partly finished, and all we had to do was put on the bottom and sides and finish it. Last winter we worked on it for many days and launched in the spring. We call her I Declare, which is what Gene’s late mother-in-law, from Richmond, Va., said when he told her he was building a boat.”

Gene and Angus also own a fiberglass lobster boat, a Passamaquoddy 20 they found moldering away in a parking lot two years ago, which they restored. “We have been looking everywhere, but have yet to find any lobsters in the Chesapeake,” Angus reports. “Actually, we use it for a winter boat, as it has a protected wheelhouse and windscreen for geezers to get out of the weather.”

Angus remains fit, robust and agile enough to move quickly about a sailboat and shift his moveable ballast as crew demands require. But he prefers a more stationary position of tending the mainsheet as he races with others on Chesapeake Bay and offshore. He leaves the steering to the skipper, preferring a silent owner to a loud one who shouts.

He is too busy in retirement to get nostalgic about anything. Immediately after our crabbing outing he departed for Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, to “cover” a weeklong regatta for Sailing World magazine. Upon returning, he and Fran headed north on the Chesapeake to the Bohemia River to pick up their latest sailboat, a 1984 O’Day 34 designed by Ray Hunt. And then they were off to Vancouver, British Columbia, to join an old friend on a sailing cruise.

Angus and Fran will spend the entire month of February in Sydney, Australia, visiting their son, Will, the South Pacific rep for Under Armour, the sports clothing and accessories company. Angusphiles will be “rooting” for him and expecting some lively copy on those colorful, sailing-mad lads racing down under in Oz.

September 2013 issue