We stood shivering in the dark on the dock of the Murderkill Creek as we watched the lights on the top of the Bay float slowly, slowly towards us. It was 6:30 on the evening of December 16, 2004. The historic oyster schooner, the Maggie S. Myers, with her newly restored mast and sails was making her way into the cut at Bowers Beach. The tide was so low that her captain, Frank “Thumper” Eicherly IV, had to cross the bar from the bay to the creek at almost a standstill because the Maggie’s bottom was scraping the sand here and there. At 6:45 she tied up at the public dock.
“Oh! She’s beautiful!” we all exclaimed. We were friends and family of Thumper and his wife, Jean Friend, the Maggie’s proud owners. The Maggie had been to the rail to get her sails back and we had gathered to welcome her home. “She’s so awesome!” exuded Jean’s mom, Dot Phair, 82, visiting for the holidays from New Hampshire. “Oh, she’s beautiful!” each of us said again, in turn.
Indeed, she was beautiful with her white-painted, fifty-foot yellow-pine mast and her colorful sail and jib riggings. She looked like the boat she was born to be. She was once again: The Maggie.
Our gathering went back to Jean’s and Thumper’s house a few blocks away, the one with the chimney Thumper built from conch shells. The long table was laid with soup Jean made and bread the guests brought. Thumper said the blessing, and after we ate, he played his guitar and sang a song. Then Dot played the piano; Sadie, Thumper’s old dog, leaned against the wood stove; and a cat jumped onto the table and almost lit her tail in the candle flames.
The Maggie S. Myers, was built by Rice Brothers boatyard in Bridgeton, N.J., as a Delaware Bay dredge schooner and commissioned in 1893. She is the twenty-second boat to get a New Jersey oyster license. She has never been out of commission. She is fifty feet long, eighteen feet wide, drafts five feet and weighs 24.62 gross tons. “She can carry her weight in oysters,” said Thumper.
Below deck the Maggie had four berths and a wood stove for cooking. “In the early days when Maggie was working as an oyster schooner, before she was motorized, they would stay out all week,” Thumper explained. “The oysters were piled so high the captain had to close the windows of the wheelhouse so the oysters wouldn’t come through.
“The crew hurried to harvest the oysters by the end of the week so they could take them up to Philadelphia and sell them on Friday to get back home for the weekend to be with their families. The crew planted seed oysters on beds they leased from the state of Delaware. Later they came back and harvested them.
“Maggie had two masts, sails, and probably some very large oars in case the wind didn’t blow,” Thumper went on. “Maggie is thick-skinned, beefy. Her wooden hull is six inches thick. She won’t get crushed by ice like some boats. In fact, on cold winter days she cuts through the ice in the bay.”
Oyster schooners used to have a trough at the top of the waist, under the gunnels that incorporated salt boxes for rock salt. Fresh water rotted the wood; salt water preserved it. So, when it rained, the rain water would wash over the rock salt and not rot the boat. Now the crew just hoses off the deck with salt water.
Today, with her sails restored, the Maggie is believed to be the oldest continuously-working oyster schooner under sail in the United States. She is listed on the National Historic Register.
She is the little schooner that could.
Thumper makes his own sails out of Gore-Tex. “It’s light weight, doesn’t rot because it’s resistant to UV damage,” he said. “They always had to raise up the cotton sails to dry when it rained, so they wouldn’t mildew and rot.” Thumper made Maggie a mainsail with an image of a horseshoe crab on it. Operating under sail when conditions allow, Thumper said he uses about one-third the fuel as before. But because Thumper uses the engine under sail to expedite dredging, he blows through the sails. Traditionally that didn’t happen, he said. Oystering didn’t use engines while under sail; consequently, sails lasted a long time. The horseshoe crab mainsail finally blew out in April 2008. It lasted three years.
“Somebody found a real schooner sail,” said Thumper, “when they were visiting Daddy Bob Peterson—Captain Midnight, they called him. They bought it for fifty dollars. This happened fifteen to twenty years ago. Daddy Bob was in his nineties then. The sail rotted in a week in the rain. It weighed six to eight hundred pounds. It was a mainsail.”
Love at First Sight
The Maggie was not always a part of Thumper’s and Jean’s lives. One of the boats they owned before the Maggie was called—The Thumper, so named because the engine went thump-thump-thump-thump. Thumper got his name while still in the womb when he kicked an orange off his mother’s belly. Because the boat, The Thumper, was brown and not white, the Coast Guard thought they were running drugs. They always wanted to search the boat.
“And can you imagine?” said Jean. “The Coast Guard wanting to search? At four miles an hour, you think we’re running drugs? ”
When the anchor chain on The Thumper was too short, they would tie a length of rope to it to extend it.
Thumper and Jean went night fishing for salt water trout. A friend from Pennsylvania really wanted to go with them, so much that once he even rode his bike down to Bowers.
They were anchored out around a lighthouse, because it’s easier to bring up trout with lights.
Another, much smaller boat with her crew were fishing there, too.
“The anchor got caught. We couldn’t move,” said Jean. “We kept winding around and around the lighthouse. All of a sudden we found ourselves coming tight.
“Try as we might, we couldn’t get loose. So, Thumper hacked that rope. The thing shot back like a slingshot and flung us right on out of there at about thirty miles an hour, right past that other boat. You should have seen the look on their faces! We said to Thumper’s friend, ‘We do this all the time.’ He never came back.”
Then one day In 1998, Thumper heard Captain Willis Hand talking to his son, W.C. about the Maggie. Captain Willis owned her then—he had bought her from Harry Killen in 1985 when Harry had open heart surgery—and W.C. operated her out of Port Mahon only twenty-two days a year, crabbing. The Hands owned another boat and did not have enough work for the Maggie to pay her way. They were seeing her deteriorate.
Captain Willis and W.C. were planning to take out the Maggie’s motor and beach her.
“The instant we saw her, it was love at first sight,” said Jean.
“She looks so cool,” Thumper observed. “She’s low to the water and dredges by hand. She turns on a song, like a snow goose flying around in the air.”
“We made a deal,” said Captain Willis, and he sold the Maggie to Thumper and Jean for five thousand dollars.
Thumper and Jean bought the Maggie to use as a pleasure boat. “Well, that’s not true anymore,” Thumper said. Their dreams soon foundered when their boat, The Fragmites, sitting right next to the Maggie at dock, was crushed by ice.
“I could hear her cracking for a full five minutes until she was gone,” said Jean, “and I wasn’t anywhere near her. It took us three days rolling her in the creek to get her out. We had to send a winter diver down to hook up a rope so we could control her.”
The Maggie had to go to work.
She Looked Like a Fireboat
“She had holes the size of golf balls,” Thumper recalled. “Once we had thirteen pumps to keep afloat while working. She looked like a fireboat. It took a hundred trips [dredging] to get the down payment to take her to the rail. It took two weeks to repair her.”
“One day Jean called us,” said Donald Flanigan of Flanigan Brothers boat builders on the Cohansey River in Fairton, N.J. “’Do what Maggie needs to make her float,’ she told me. ‘Oh, boy …,’ I thought.”
Captain Willis had been taking the Maggie to Flanigan’s. Second and third generation shipwrights, the Flanigans maintain a tradition of fine craftsmanship on some of the oldest wooden boats in the country. Thumper works right alongside them on the Maggie, except when he takes an occasional break to play his guitar and sing them sea chanteys and original songs.
In fact, Thumper wrote the theme song, “The Shipwright’s Lament,” for the Flanigans’ Web site, www.flaniganbros.com. When you visit the site you can see beautiful photographs meticulously documenting every step of Maggie’s restoration.
The Flanigans have replaced ribs, planks, ceiling, fuel tanks, inner and outer stems over the past few years and in 2007 her bowsprit and a real boom. The other was bent—“I called it a corkscrew,” said Donald. And Thumper has a bosun’s chair. Oh, and her new mast in 2004—that had a bad spot on it and had to be replaced before it fell on somebody. Her bill can run fifty to sixty thousand dollars per trip to the rail.
“The Maggie’s at the boatyard so much,” said Jean, “that when I go to there, the guys say ‘You’ve gone five years without underwear!’”
In Flanigan’s boatyard lie wooden beams and boards gathered from old buildings, saved for the Maggie. You can’t find wood as strong as that today, Thumper and Donald point out. Some of Maggie’s hull boards come from wood from old buildings torn down.
Maggie’s ribs and planks are made from local white oak. The boards are bent to the hull shape and then nailed on, Thumper explained. They are nailed on so that each board fits together with the other to form a whole and a strong hull that doesn’t come apart and doesn’t leak. Yet when you need to pull a piece or a section off for repair, the manner in which they are nailed on allows you to remove that section easily without disturbing the rest of the boat.
The new bowsprit has nets attached to little rails that run along its sides from the sprit to the outer stay to catch the sails when they’re dropped – and the crew members. “A bowsprit has another name,” said Thumper, “The Widow Maker.” Of course, the first thing the crew did when the Maggie was launched into the Cohansey was climb out onto her new bowsprit.
So Much for Pleasure Boating …
Thumper and the Maggie work all year to support her upkeep and restoration—conching, crabbing, dredging the few oysters allowed, toadfishing.
“Schooners chew their oakum,” said Thumper.
Out on the bay the watermen stay close by radio. At home, Jean stays in radio contact.
“We get waves coming over, sometimes six to eight feet,” said Thumper. “We try to circumvent those kinds of waves, slow down, don’t go out in bad weather, but sometimes you get caught.”
In February 2005, The Travis, owned by Roy Hand, Willis Hand’s nephew, got a hole while out in the bay. Thumper with the Maggie and another captain and boat went to the rescue. They hooked up ropes to her and towed her in. “She was going down fast,” Jean said. “By the time they got her near the Murderkill they opened the hatch and water was all the way up to the top. They put a big patch on her and the next day Thumper and the Maggie towed her over to Flanigan’s. They left at five in the morning.”
Jean worked as a waterman for eight years alongside Thumper: “It was different then; it was hard work; we fished; we had a smaller boat,” she said. When the Thumper boat filled with water during a storm and sank in the Indian River Inlet, Thumper needed to go to work, so he worked on Roland Macklin’s boat. Roland was a fisherman. He owned the Fragmites. “He was a good friend of Thumper’s,” Jean said. “They were the very best of friends.” When Roland Macklin died, Jean and Thumper took his ashes and scattered them on the bay.
“Oh, it was something,” she said. “We kept trying to scatter his ashes and the wind was blowing and they kept blowing back at us. They were blowing into my hair. I said, ‘He’s closer to me now than he ever was in life.’”
Once the Maggie took a couple out to the lighthouse to be married. And she has hosted July Fourth parties out on the bay to watch the fireworks. Thumper and Jean dress Maggie up, laying an Oriental rug across her deck and spreading a work table with a lace cloth and tons of homemade vegetarian food—prepared by Jean and brought by the guests. Thumper and friends—some are Friends of Folk members—play the guitar and perform sea chanteys and Thumper’s original songs. And you haven’t heard “Jacob’s Ladder” until you’ve heard Jean belt it out.
She’s Come a Long Way, Baby
The Maggie has come a long way since Harry Killen, who died in 1998, bought her in 1960 soon after the Killens moved to Leipsic from their home next to the Port Mahon lighthouse and shucking house owned by Willis Hand’s dad. The Killens worked her dredging crabs, oysters and clams. Family photos show the Maggie’s crew shoveling oysters into piles halfway up the wheelhouse. The Killens listed the Maggie on the National Historic Register in 1983. “Harry bought the Maggie from Johnny DuBois,” said Jeannette Killen, Harry’s widow.
John DuBois died in 2001. He was an oysterman and operated Mauricetown Shipyard in New Jersey. He served as a restoration advisor of the A.J. Meerwald, owned by Bayshore Discovery Project in Bivalve. Before his death, he donated many historical artifacts to the DuBois Maritime Museum in Greenwich, N.J. The Maggie’s original name board is mounted on the wall there.
Records indicate that John DuBois bought the Maggie from Burt & Bateman of Port Norris, N.J. She could have been motorized as early as the 1930s. The dates of these two events are unclear.
A diary kept by James E. Munson, manager of the Seacoast Oyster Co. of New Haven, Conn., states that John DuBois sold the Maggie to Seacoast for three thousand dollars in October 1946. The Munson and U.S. Coast Guard records indicate that the Maggie was already motorized. Munson’s son, Bob, 13 at the time, recalled that the mast had been stubbed when he first saw the Maggie. Seacoast sold her back to John DuBois for two thousand dollars when the company dissolved in 1950. James Munson negotiated the transactions.
Bob Munson and his wife, Jean, of Newport, N.J., have saved the diary and graciously shared some of its pages for this story. Bob and Jean served with Thumper and Jean on the Horseshoe Crab Panel.
“I saw John DuBois,” said Donald Flanigan. “I was five or six. He came into the boatyard when I was there when we were working on the Maggie’s stem post and shaft log. It was in the nineteen-forties during the war when watermen were starting to motorize their boats. It left a stub mast. The forward mast was removed to make room for a fuel tank. The stem was cut off for the winch.”
One of the interesting mechanical changes Seacoast made was to install a coal-powered, steam-generating boiler on deck used to boil starfish. Starfish eat oysters. They had a big apparatus that looked like big mops—steel with cotton mesh—that they towed across the bottom of the bay to catch the starfish. Then the starfish were put into the boiler, boiled and tossed overboard.
The Maggie S. Myers is thought to have been named for the wife or a niece of Michael Myers, who with his son, Joseph, owned a small boatyard in Fairton back in the last half of the 19th century.
Horseshoe Crab Network
Thumper’s and Jean’s will to survive in a way of life nearly as timeless as the venerable horseshoe crab has led the pair to adapt and employ innovative means to secure a livelihood and maintain their lifestyle.
“For oyster licensing, the pieces of the pie got smaller when the state started the apprentice program and allowed apprentices to be licensed,” Thumper said. “We’re down to sixty bushels from six hundred bushels somewhere between five and ten years ago.”
Plus, regulations don’t allow dredging where the mature oysters are. “The oysters are suffocated with ‘dumb’ shells—seed oysters, stock that they use for spat. They don’t hire New Jersey or Delaware inspectors; they come from Virginia.”
Decreased oystering combined with the 2008 horseshoe crab dredging ban leave Thumper and Jean no need for their twenty-thousand dollar walk-in cooler; so they have donated it for Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research to stash their supplies, and for use to The Marine Education, Research & Rehabilitation Institute, Inc. (MERR), and the SPCA.
Yet, Thumper’s experience on the water and the knowledge he has gained of the history of oyster schooners since reading a book thirty years ago that made him “want to eat, sleep and feel what oystermen felt” and his and Jean’s consciousness of the earth and humanity have earned them the respect of watermen, environmental preservationists and educators.
Before Maggie got her sail, two female University of Delaware students went out on the bay for a day as part of a research project for their geography class, Environmental Videography, studying the relationship of the watermen to their environment, taught by Michael Oates, award-winning independent documentary filmmaker, “302 Stories,” and adjunct assistant professor. The girls got up at 3:30 in the morning and drove from Newark down to Bowers in the dark. When they arrived, below deck the crew were welding some equipment before they could start dredging. The girls watched sparks fly, lighting the faces of the crew. Later, out on the bay, through the wheelhouse windows they watched the sun come up as they began their thirteen-hour day.
Thumper, himself, made history when he took a day off from fishing and stood up in the first Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission workshop a few years ago and introduced his innovative mesh bait bag design that utilized only a quarter to an eighth of a horseshoe crab, thereby cutting his needs by more than seventy-five percent and leading to its use by watermen up and down the Atlantic coast.
“The greatest sadness over the last several years,” said Glenn Gauvry, founder of Ecological Research and Development Group (ERDG), www.horseshoecrab.org, “has been the contention between the watermen and the environment. The watermen have been so easily marginalized or villainized in the media or public hearings. Organizations never take the time to recognize these people as people. I am impressed with Frank’s concern for the natural world and his humanity in general. I am honored to call him my friend.”
As part of the annual spring workshops of the award-winning curriculum of Green Eggs & Sand, “a unique collaboration of horseshoe crabs and shorebirds, scientists and educators, resource managers and stakeholders,” Thumper and Jean graciously invite teachers from all over the world to their Bowers Beach dock and the Maggie for a day where Thumper demonstrates his bait bag, teaching teachers to teach children in middle and high school what he does and the conservation ethic behind it.
“Thumper’s participation in the workshops over the years has meant a great deal to the success of Green Eggs & Sand,” said Gary Kreamer, coordinator, at the Delaware Aquatic Resources Education Center in Smyrna. A couple of teachers, so inspired by Thumper’s and Jean’s work and the Maggie’s story have sent donations to the cause, accompanied with heartfelt letters.
For a couple of years before she got her sails, Maggie helped the U.S. Geological Survey dredge and tag horseshoe crabs and fit them with radio transmitters.
Onboard, the crew hoisted and dumped the loaded dredge, spewing horseshoe crabs along with starfish, blue crabs and assorted other creatures upside-down, slowly clawing the air, and right-side-up in heaps and little piles all across the deck. One might wonder what they’re thinking. We stood around them and stared. Then the crew quickly sorted the other creatures and tossed them overboard. We picked up the horseshoe crabs—the big females. the smaller males and the juveniles—measured them, indexed them, and affixed radio tags to their carapaces so that their movements could be tracked. The older ones had various sea creatures living on their carapaces; those of the young were clean. As each was indexed we set it back on the deck and it quickly and amazingly found the edge of the boat and slipped back into the bay. They are such gentle, unassuming creatures, predating most species on earth. Horseshoe crabs draw people together, and an encounter among them can prove a life changing experience. It’s hard not to stop and think what life would be like if we all were so unassuming, gentle, adaptable and somehow brave. In Japan the horseshoe crab is revered, for its carapace resembles the shield of the Samurai warrior.
USGS biostatistician Dave Smith, who headed the survey, said, “Thumper is a uniquely conservation-minded waterman. He possesses traditional ecological knowledge that stems from adapting his life to the rhythms of Delaware Bay.“
Indexing and tagging found the horseshoe crab population to be stable and healthy.
“The horseshoe crab fishery is not in danger,” said Thumper, who believes, like some, that neither the horseshoe crab nor the red knot is endangered along the Delaware Bay; that something is going on with the red knots, perhaps, in one of their habitats. For example in South America they were shot for game and an oil spill occurred off the coast.
“It is a miracle that the red knot continues to exist,” said Dr. Carl Shuster, respected as the foremost expert on horseshoe crabs, of the bird that flies annually from Patagonia to the Arctic to breed. “It is an arduous flight. The timing must be hit just right. Horseshoe crabs are generalists. Red knots are specialists. Species that go extinct are the specialists.” Horseshoe crab eggs decreased markedly in 1992. By 2005 they were increasing.” Dr. Shuster calls Thumper “one of the shining lights in the whole story in the Delaware Bay. He is an independent thinker. He recognized that you didn’t need a whole crab to catch whelks. Bait bags have been around for a long time, but not for the use that Thumper came up with. You take advantage of what Mother Nature throws at you.”
Michael Oates together with Thumper, Carl Shuster and son Neil Shuster made a benthic sled, which Neil designed affixed with a video camera. They lowered it into the water from the Maggie and observed the horseshoe crabs’ behavior on the bottom of the bay. They discovered that the crabs move with the tide: “When the tide comes in the crabs move with it; when it goes out, at low tide they burrow in the sand,” said Mike. He foresees that in fewer than five years we’ll be overrun with horseshoe crabs.
The Low Whistle of the Wind
What is it like on the Delaware Bay on a one-hundred-fifteen-year-old wooden oyster schooner under sail for the first time? Over soup and bread that December night Thumper told us the story of sailing home:
“When we got to the Ship John Shoal lighthouse it was sunset and I figured we could do a little sailing in that area. We circled the lighthouse and we raised her sail. I idled the engine. Going against the tide and with a light breeze we made one and a half miles an hour. You could look over the stern of the boat and see little bubbles as we moved.
“We were going three point five knots, too fast to dredge for oysters. We discovered an oil leak on the way over. So I turned off the engine. Then we were going one and a half knots, just the right speed. And I could capture the oil and put it back in the drum and save it.
“You could hear the sounds of the crew above, working; you could hear the sounds of the other fishing boats out on the water; and you could hear the net dredging, running along the bottom, the riggings as the boat tipped and moved and the low whistle of the wind as the breeze caught the sail. Imagine if all the boats out on the bay had sails, how different it would sound; how quiet it would be.
“We were concerned about getting home before the tide ran out, so we dropped the sail and put the engine in gear.
“We couldn’t get to our dock because the utility wires running across the creek are strung too low. The wires, at extreme low tide, hit the mast right on the metal band that goes around the mast.”
After Jean and Thumper made a series of phone calls, the utility companies came and raised the wires.
The Gift of Candlelight on the Snow
A few nights after the Maggie came home with her new mast and sail, many of our gathering were back in Bowers, this time to attend the Candlelight Christmas Carol Service at the historic Saxton United Methodist Church, which Jean and her friend Lonnie Field had recently restored, where Thumper, who teaches Sunday school, played his guitar, accompanying the organist, and sang two hymns. All Creation sang for joy, making offerings and gifts, and as we sang the song of the angels—“Angels We Have Heard on High”—the angels must have heard, for it seemed they had come in. A member of the congregation read an abridged O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.” Outside it began to snow. We sang. “Silent Night,” and in the candlelight, through the gothic church windows I watched the virginal white flakes journey slowly, peacefully, soundlessly towards earth—some alone, some in gatherings. Following the service, women of the church served hot apple cider and homemade cookies.
Then we went back to the house. Jean served vegetarian lasagna and oyster stew made with oysters Thumper had just dredged. It snowed throughout the evening and driving home was difficult, but we made it.
Your Huddled Masses …
“Maggie supports a lot of mouths,” said Jean. “That’s Maggie’s main activity.
“You’re only as good as your crew. When they are wet, you give them dry clothes; when they are hungry, you feed them; when they are thirsty, you give them something to drink.” Thumper and Jean not only feed, they teach how to eat—wholesome living foods; whole grains, lots of fresh fruits and veggies.
They have a crew of two to three usually, sometimes all female.
All the winter of 2008 Jean ran a weekly soup kitchen in Bowers, with the help of volunteers, purchasing, preparing and serving the food in the local church hall she had rented. “Anything anybody needs, they know they can turn to us. We’ve given them bed covers, food, anything.”
Until this year Jean and Thumper organized and held a June horseshoe crab festival in Bowers. For a few years Jean wrote and published a quarterly newspaper called High Tide at Bowers Beach. Currently, she organizes and raises funds for the Bowers Beach historical museum.
Floating Slowly, Slowly Toward Us
Soon the Maggie will get a figurehead, an angel with spread wings reaching up and over, sculpted by David Schultz, a Bowers Beach woodworker, from one-hundred-year-old yellow pine from an old factory.
“He’s got to do something about the wheelhouse,” said Donald Flanigan. “It might fall off. It’s just held together with putty and paint.” And she needs a new centerboard.
“We must get all Maggie’s restoration done in the next five to ten years or not at all,” said Thumper, “while Donald Flanigan is still working, and while oyster schooners and watermen are still working.
“It’s like putting the schooner through college,” he reflected.
“Next time we take Maggie to the rail,” said Jean, “we’re working towards getting an insurance policy. Enough of this fishing stuff.” They want the insurance policy so they can do tours and conduct education.
“We want the Maggie to be used even more to educate, especially children” said Thumper and Jean. “We want her to become an educational living museum. We want to pass her down as a living archive in Delaware.”
For now, “We’re still kickin’—feeding families,” Jean said.
“Maggie is a worker; she can do it,” said Thumper. “It’s all about the schooner. The Maggie Myers Restoration Project—a non-profit organization,” he laughed. “You do it for a sense of gratitude, each plank, wooden plug, the integrity of the boat. It’s a labor of love.”
The life of the waterman exists only a few miles from the city, but worlds away.
# # #
I published this story under my byline, Carol Child, in James Milton Hanna’s anthology, Stories of Delaware Bay, Past and Present. Published by Cherokee Books, Dover, Del., 2008.