The Low Whistle of the Wind

Photo courtesy of Flanigan Bros.

THE LOW WHISTLE OF THE WIND

How a Renaissance Waterman Saved the Maggie S. Myers, an Historic Oyster Schooner


I published this story under my byline Carol Child in Delmarva Quarterly, Spring 2009

Every star in the sky shone upon the Maggie S. Myers historic oyster schooner that night she sailed across the Delaware Bay from Bowers Beach, Delaware to Fairton, New Jersey. She navigated up the shipping lanes, her clipper bow gracefully folding the waves like fine lace back over the bay. She carried as cargo the 50-foot yellow pine pole that would become her new mast. Huge hulls of freighters and tankers of exotic registry loomed up beside her, dimly lit as by a single candle. They whispered past her in the blackness.

She reached the Jersey shoreline soon after sunup. Her captain, Frank “Thumper” Eicherly IV, guided her five-foot draft up the shallow, curving Cohansey River to Fairton and her rendezvous with the rail at Flanigan Brothers boatyard, home of second- and third-generation boat builders. That was in September 2004.

Today, with one mast and sails restored, the Maggie S. Myers is believed to be the oldest continuously working oyster schooner under sail in the United States. The 115-year-old Delaware Bay oyster schooner has never been out of commission. Her two masts were cut down when she was motorized, probably during World War II when the states of New Jersey and Delaware lifted power-dredging restrictions and most captains outfitted their schooners with motors and wheelhouses.

Eicherly and his wife, Jean Friend, both from Bowers Beach, have owned the Maggie Myers for 10 years, devotedly sinking most of Maggie’s earnings into her restoration. Indeed, nearly daily, weather and regulatory conditions permitting, Eicherly and his crew of up to six, sometimes all women, have worked the Maggie on the Delaware Bay out of North Bowers dredging conchs, oysters, horseshoe crabs, blue crabs. They catch toadfish for the Chinese market in New York City. They collect mussels. At the end of the day, which can be up to 15 hours long, they unload their catch onto trucks waiting at the Bowers dock.

The Maggie S. Myers was built as a two-masted Delaware Bay oyster-dredge schooner by Rice Brothers in Bridgeton, N.J., and commissioned in 1893. She is 50 feet long and 18 feet wide. The 24.62 ton schooner is the 22nd boat to get a New Jersey oyster license. She can carry her weight in oysters.

When she was built, below deck the Maggie had four berths and a wood stove for cooking. The Maggie and her crew would stay out all week, as did the other oyster schooners. It took too long without a motor to sail into dock every evening with the catch.

On Friday they’d sail the oysters, up to Philadelphia, often piled so high the captain had to close the windows of the wheelhouse so the oysters wouldn’t spill through. The crew then hurried home for the weekend to be with their families.

The Maggie is living history and Eicherly is enthralled by her past. He beams, almost dancing, as he recalls the 16-foot oar he stumbled upon years ago. Besides her masts and sails, Maggie probably had some very large oars in case the wind didn’t blow.

Five Years Without Underwear

“Maggie is thick-skinned, beefy,” he says. The ship’s hull is eight to 10 inches of thick wood, and on cold winter days, she cuts through the bay ice with ease.

U.S. Coast Guard records show that the Maggie was motorized before 1946. The forward mast was removed to make room for a fuel tank, and the centerboard trough, running bow to stern along the bottom center of the hull, was cut and capped off to accommodate the pair of motorized winches which operate the two dredges. The centerboard runs longitudinally along the hull to stabilize the boat and prevents it drifting with the wind. Eicherly finds that the Maggie’s mast and sails help stabilize her, as her original design intended.

She has had a series of motors. Her current engine is a 611 Detroit diesel, commonly used in World War II tanks and other military vehicles. Eicherly says it is a popular truck engine, reliable and economical. He had the engine retooled in Virginia as a marine engine, four-valve rather than the usual two for more power.

The Maggie S. Myers was listed on the National Historic Register in 1983 by Harry and Jeannette Killen. They bought her in 1960 from John DuBois of Mauricetown, N.J., and worked her out of Leipsic dredging crabs, oysters and clams. Killen family photos show the Maggie’s crew shoveling oysters into piles that climbed halfway up the wheelhouse. John DuBois was an oysterman and operated Mauricetown Shipyard in New Jersey. He died in 2001. The Maggie’s original name board is mounted on the wall of the DuBois Maritime Museum in Greenwich, N.J.

In 1946 John DuBois sold the Maggie to Seacoast Oyster Co. of New Haven, Conn., and bought her back in 1950 when the company dissolved. James E. Munson, manager of Seacoast, negotiated the transactions. He kept a diary. His son, Bob Munson, of Port Norris, N.J., 13 in 1946, saw the Maggie and recalls that the mast had been stubbed already, further evidence that she was motorized prior to that year.

Munson’s diary notes that one of the interesting mechanical changes Seacoast made was to install a coal-powered, steam-generating boiler on deck used expressly to boil starfish. They had a apparatus that looked like big mops — steel with cotton mesh — that snagged starfish when dragged along the bay’s bottom. Starfish are a main crop in the Delaware Bay and they eat oysters. The starfish were boiled and tossed overboard. Today, the few starfish Eicherly and crew dredge up amid the other catch are thrown overboard, or dried to become tourist trinkets and Christmas ornaments.

When Harry Killen underwent open heart surgery in 1985, he and his wife sold the Maggie to Willis Hand. They hated to see her go. Hand’s son, W.C., worked her out of Port Mahon, Del., crab dredging; but with only 22 days of work a year, Maggie wasn’t paying her way. The Hands owned another boat. They were watching the Maggie deteriorate.

Then one day in 1998, Eicherly heard Captain Willis Hand talking to W.C. about the Maggie. They  planned to salvage the motor and beach her.

“The instant we saw her, it was love at first sight,” says Jean Friend.

“She looks so cool,” Eicherly observes, with childlike awe. “She’s low to the water and dredges by hand. She turns on a song, like a snow goose flying around in the air.” Fat Maggie, he calls her. Indeed, when she comes straight at you across the water, she looks like an overfed goose.

Hand sold the couple the Maggie for $5,000.

They bought her to use as a pleasure boat, but their dreams soon foundered when their working boat, The Phragmites, berthed next to the Maggie at dock, was crushed by ice.

The Maggie had to go to work.

“She had holes the size of golf balls,” Eicherly recalls. “Once we had thirteen pumps to keep afloat. She looked like a fireboat. It took a hundred trips to get the down payment to take her to the rail.”

They commissioned Donald Flanigan of Flanigan Brothers boatyard. “One day Jean called us,” says Flanigan. “‘Do what Maggie needs to make her float,’ she said. ‘Oh, boy…,’ I thought.”

It took three months to repair her that first year, 2001. “That was the beginning of the Maggie Myers Restoration Project,” Eicherly says with a half laugh. The couple’s out-of-pocket expenditures went up to $60,000 annually.

Friend says in her raspy voice, “The Maggie’s at the boatyard so much that when I go to there, the guys greet me with, ‘We hear you’ve gone five years without underwear!’”

The Flanigans’ Web site, www.flaniganbros.com, meticulously documents each step of Maggie’s restoration, in stunning photographs and simple text, including her new bowsprit installed in the autumn of 2007.

Bard, Waterman, Conservationist

At the boatyard, when he is not running a chainsaw or up in his bosun’s chair installing stays and riggings to the mast, the slightly-built Eicherly, wearing his knit cap and looking like an early-day, bearded Pete Seeger, picks up his guitar and serenades the workers with a sea chantey or a song he has written about them. Eicherly – he and Friend are Delmarva Friends of Folk members, occasionally performing at their venues – wrote and performs the Flanigan’s Web site theme song (http://www.flaniganbros.com).

Maggie at the Rail – Photo Courtesy Flanigan Bros.

Thirty years ago Eicherly read Donald H. Rolfs’ Under Sail: The Dredgeboats of Delaware Bay. That book made him want to eat, sleep and feel what oystermen felt. But there were earlier influences; namely, Moby Dick – he saw himself as a young Ishmael – and Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer that he read growing up on the Susquehanna River in Columbia, Pa. “They called us river rats,” he says. “I thought, ‘I’m gonna build a sailboat and sail away.’” Eicherly’s lifelong dream has fueled his and Friend’s will to survive in a chosen way of life nearly as timeless as that of the venerable horseshoe crab and led the earth conscious pair to adapt and employ innovative means to secure a livelihood and maintain their lifestyle.

A few years ago Eicherly made history when he introduced his innovative mesh bait bag design that utilizes only a quarter to an eighth of a horseshoe crab, which watermen traditionally have used for conch bait, thereby cutting his needs by more than 75 percent and leading to its use by watermen up and down the Atlantic coast. Eicherly represents watermen and conservation in a number of regulatory and preservation organizations and in particular at the annual Green Eggs & Sand award-winning workshops where, says Gary Kreamer, coordinator, at the Delaware Aquatic Resources Education Center in Smyrna, “he overturned preconceived ideas among educators that fishermen are the bad guys through demonstrating what he does and the conservation ethic behind it.”

“The greatest sadness over the last several years,” says Glenn Gauvry, founder of Ecological Research and Development Group (ERDG), “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.”

Dr. Carl N. Shuster Jr., who is recognized as the world’s foremost expert on horseshoe crabs, calls Eicherly “one of the shining lights in the whole story in the Delaware Bay.”

Eicherly and Friend served on the Atlantic Fisheries Commission Horseshoe Crab Advisory Panel. They have assisted the U.S. Geological Survey tagging and indexing horseshoe crabs out on the bay. USGS biostatistician Dave Smith, who headed the survey, says, “Thumper is a uniquely conservation-minded waterman. He possesses traditional ecological knowledge that stems from adapting his life to the rhythms of Delaware Bay.”

They have taught at Delaware Department of Environmental Resources and Control (DNREC) Green Eggs & Sand workshops. They hosted University of Delaware students on the bay for a day as part of their geography class, Environmental Videography, taught by adjunct assistant professor Michael Oates. They also helped members of the Sierra Club learn about horseshoe crab conservation and shorebird preservation.

Recently the Maggie towed a benthic (underwater) sled affixed with a camera along the bottom of the bay to observe the patterns of horseshoe crabs. Neil Shuster, Carl Shuster’s son, designed the benthic sled. Emmy-winning (PBS horseshoe crab documentary “Dollars in the Sand”) independent video documentarian Michael Oates, “302 Stories,” produced the video.

Ever the innovator, Eicherly glows as he relates that this past summer he discovered that he can use mussels for conch bait eliminating the need for horseshoe crabs altogether.

Securing a Legacy

Friend worked on the water with Eicherly for eight years until they bought the Maggie. “It was different then; it was hard work; we fished; we had a smaller boat,” she says. Now she keeps in touch by radio the same as Eicherly does out on the Bay with fellow watermen.

“The Maggie supports many mouths,” says Friend. That is Maggie’s main mission, she asserts. “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.” All last winter Friend, a New Hampshire native, a kind of Mother Hubbard whose cupboard never runs bare, operated a weekly soup kitchen in Bowers Beach, renting the space, buying and preparing the food herself. “Anything anybody needs, they know they can turn to us,” says Friend. “We’ve given them bed covers, food, anything.”

She produced an annual Bowers horseshoe crab festival, wrote and published a monthly Bowers newsletter and much more – up until this year. Caught in the ever-tightening net of fishing regulations, the couple have had to curtail their efforts. Consequently, Maggie forewent her rendezvous with the rail the fall of 2008, despite her immanent need for a new wheelhouse and centerboard.

“We must get all Maggie’s restoration done in the next five years or not at all,” says Eicherly, “while Donald Flanigan is still working, and while oyster schooners and watermen are still working.

“It’s like putting the schooner through college,” he reflects.

Their concern is for the Maggie’s legacy. “We want the Maggie to be used even more to educate, especially children” say Eicherly and Friend. “We want her to become an educational living museum. We want to pass her down as a living archive in Delaware. All we need is five years.”

Frank “Thumper” Eicherly IV is a waterman and conservationist. He spends much of the Maggie’s earnings on her restoration.

And so, as the mornings roll in, one upon another, Friend gets up and makes the coffee for Eicherly who gets up and sails away on the Maggie, dredging under sail when conditions allow, thereby cutting his fuel use to a third. Eicherly sews his own sails out of Gore-Tex. “It’s lightweight and doesn’t rot because it’s resistant to UV damage,” Eicherly says. Gore-Tex is a waterproof-breathable material made from a plastic laminate that is sealed onto fabric – better than the old cotton sails that mildewed and rotted and weighed 600 to 800 pounds.

“How quiet…”

He tells his story of sailing home for the first time the evening of December 16, 2004 across the Delaware Bay on an 1893 wooden oyster schooner under sail.

It was sunset when he and the crew got to the Ship John Shoal lighthouse. They circled the lighthouse and raised the Maggie’s sail. He idled the engine. Going against the tide and with a light breeze they made one and a half knots. They looked over the stern and saw little bubbles as they moved.

Then they were going three and a half knots, too fast to dredge for oysters. They had discovered an oil leak on the way over, so Eicherly turned off the engine, and again they were sailing at one and a half knots, just the right speed. He went below deck to capture the oil and put it back in the drum and save it.

From below, he recounts, “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 chain 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.”

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