Dock of the Bay

 Vol. 10, No. 6

February 7 - 13, 2002

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Mary Lee Berger sustains a tradition with her sailors’ valentines.
photo by David Berger
With Sailors’ Valentines: Beach Artist Sustains a Tradition

Long before GPS let us know exactly where we were, when returning from the sea was never taken for granted, the valentines sailors brought home from their travels were tangible reminders that kept the seafarers close to the hearts of their wives and sweethearts. These sailors’ valentines, beautifully wrought seashell art nestled in octagonal shadow boxes, are as prized today as in the 1800s — but much dearer, at least in one sense.

“The older ones sell for thousands,” says Chesapeake Beach resident Mary Lee Berger, who continues the tradition today.

The history of sailors’ valentines is steeped in romantic supposition. Legend has it that as a diversion from homesickness and boredom at sea, 19th-century sailors fashioned intricate artwork from shells they’d collected from exotic ports of call. Then the returning seamen presented their handiwork to loved ones.

Or so say some.

Others trace the craft to industrious artisans in Barbados, who developed a cottage industry selling to sailors. On this side is shell-work and jewelry historian John Fondas, who wrote the book Sailors’ Valentines.

Not only did 19th-century American and English ships stop off in Barbados, many sailors’ valentines contain crumpled bits of Barbados newspapers dated between 1830 and 1880. What’s more, Fondas argues, the 35 varieties of shells in the valentines are all indigenous to Barbados.

Whatever their origin, vintage sailors’ valentines share a number of traits. All are composed of seashells and, on occasion, other natural materials. The genuine colors of the shells are worked into elaborate symmetrical designs, geometric mosaics with a centerpiece that usually includes a heart or flowers and, sometimes, a photograph or an affectionate message of the valentine candy-heart sort: “Be Mine” or “Forget Me Not.”

The valentines are housed in octagonal boxes of Spanish cedar or mahogany and covered with glass. Ranging in size from about eight to 15 inches, many are hinged together in pairs that can be closed to protect the shell work and glass during travel.

“These are the most gorgeous things I’ve ever seen,” said Berger when she ran across pictures of sailors’ valentines while searching the Internet for shells for a different project. The craftswoman found a new calling in sustaining an old vocation.

It’s in character that Berger was drawn to this nautical art form. She and husband David are avid boaters. Piloting a mobjack, they triumphed as 1968 National Champions in the One-Design sailing class race. After their twin sons were grown, they lived for three years on their trawler Great Escape. Now their home is Windward Key in Chesapeake Beach, with the Bay beckoning beyond a wall of windows.

Berger began with a sailors’ valentine kit, “just to get an idea how to do it,” she says. Kits contain an octagonal shadow box, shells, glue and some basic instructions, but no pattern. Her later valentines are all original.

Berger usually conceives the design first, then chooses shells. All in all, she spends at least 20 hours on each valentine.

“My valentines are as close to the old ones as I can possibly get,” says Berger. Her valentines are housed in 71/2- or 10-inch walnut boxes that simulate the size and dark finish of the 19th-century originals, and they include hearts or flowers created from the natural beauty of the shells.

If you’d like to land a sailors’ valentine for yourself or your sweetie, you’ll find a select few of Berger’s creations at Bayhill Accents on Route 261 in Chesapeake Beach. Plan to spend more time and money netting a vintage sailors’ valentine; they are highly collectible and not plentiful.

To make your own sailors’ valentine, Berger recommends starting with a kit from Sanibel Seashells Industries:

— Kim Cammarata

Where the Birds Are: The Great Backyard Bird Count

Traveling Northward
Screech owls moan in the yellowing
Mulberry trees. Field mice scurry,
Preparing their holes for winter.
Midnight, we cross an old battlefield.
The moonlight shines cold on white bones.
— Tu Fu, 713-770 • translated from the Chinese by Kenneth Rexroth

If you have an appetite for the dark of night and old battlefields, carry binoculars along to search out owls. The Great Backyard Bird Count of 2002 wants to know what birds you spy February 15 through 18.

If, lingering by an open meadow or a castle-like boarding school, you spot a large, sleek white snowy owl, you’ll know that you have received a rare gift or stumbled into a Harry Potter story. Confirmation will be a high-pitched, drawn-out scream echoed back by another owl in a territorial dispute. Or an owlish brooo in answer to the name Hedwig.

The Bird Count seeks to locate all the snowy owls of North America, but even in tough years when lemmings are scarce in the Arctic tundra and many owls are forced south in search of food, Bay Country is not their destination. No snowy owls were sighted from Maine to Maryland in the February bird count in any of the last three years. Snowy owls are spotted occasionally in the wide farmlands of Frederick County or along the Delaware coast, but Battle Creek Cypress Swamp bird expert Andy Brown has heard of only two sightings in all the past year.

Hungry snowy owls have made appearances in southern Maine, New Hampshire, upstate New York and elsewhere already this winter, but you could be the first to spot one locally. Your report and any other snowy owl sightings made during the four count days will be plotted almost immediately on maps at the web site

Nine other North American owls will also be highlighted on-line with species summaries, images, calls and conservation status. The short-eared owl, whose range includes our area, is on the Audubon Society’s Watch List because of declining population. The barn owl is on the state Watch List. Of just 15 owls reported in all of Maryland in last year’s Backyard Bird Count, none were short-eared or snowy either. The count was two barn owls; two Eastern screech owls; five barred owls and six great horned owls.

The owls you’re most likely to sight locally are three. The eastern screech owl is the size of a fat robin and often responds to an imitation of its call, which is a horse-like descending whinny. The great horned owl, crow-sized, roosts in thick pine woods and hoots hoo hoodoo hoooo hoo. The barred owl, also crow-sized, is a common resident bird who calls who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you.

Brown says that owls like to feed in the same area each day. You can find an owl’s roost by the ‘white-wash’ of droppings on its tree.

Other birds were counted in abundance in Maryland last year. Nationwide, 53,343 on-line checklists counted 4,555,411 birds in 442 species. In Maryland 117 species were counted, with Lothian, at 61, posting the largest variety. The Canada goose was most plentiful at 14,800; 2,642 American robins were counted; 1,171 tundra swans; 1,466 Carolina chickadees; 514 red-bellied woodpeckers; 264 eastern bluebirds; 55 bald eagles; three osprey and one northern shoveler.

For a full count for the past three years, both in Maryland and throughout North America, check out the website. While you’re there, find out how to join in this year. The instructions are easy to follow and you’ll find bird checklists and tips for tricky identifications (i.e., black-capped versus Carolina chickadee).

On February 15 to18, spend at least 15 minutes each day counting birds: out your window, on your daily walk, on your boat or at your office. Each day, report only the largest group of each kind of bird seen to avoid counting the same bird over and over.

Last year I counted while I ate my breakfast or walked about the neighborhood. Among my count were 11 cedar waxwings, 12 rusty blackbirds, 12 American robins and 23 black vultures. Birds I spotted in smaller numbers included northern cardinals, song sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, house finches, house sparrows and one red-bellied woodpecker. No owls.

To find out more about those elusive owls, check out the Owl Prowl at Flag Ponds (Friday, February 8, at 7pm: 410/535-5327). To lure the owls, their calls will be played. They often respond and sometimes come close enough to spotlight. Any bird questions are welcomed.

The Great Backyard Bird Count is sponsored by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society:

— Sonia Linebaugh

If Spirit Sails, Can the Big Race Be Far Behind?

Yes, it’s gone, but not for long. The sleek Volvo Ocean 60 drydocked on Annapolis City Dock central since Thanksgiving has sailed away. Metaphorically speaking. Yes, the boat-billboard now heralds the Volvo Ocean Race 2001-2002 in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. But she didn’t get there under her own power. Spirit — for that is her name — will be rigged and fitted later this month in Baltimore, whence to return to Annapolis under sail.

Back in Annapolis, she’ll dock at the Severn Sailing Association for final customizing.

From Annapolis, she sails to Miami to meet the Volvo — formerly Whitbread — racing fleet at the end of its Leg 5 dash from Rio de Janeiro.

In April, Spirit will follow the racers into Chesapeake Bay, where the fleet will race to Baltimore and then, on April 26, parade under sail to Annapolis.

Before then, the fleet must endure the perilous Southern Ocean, from Auckland, New Zealand — where eight boats departed on January 27 — to Rio De Janeiro. The eight crews — one among them women only — daily brave ferocious, freezing waters, dodging icebergs as they vie for first place while passing Cape Horn onto the tropics.

The race started in September 2001 from Southampton, United Kingdom, with stopovers in Capetown, South Africa, Sydney, Australia, and Auckland, New Zealand, with the boats having covered over 16,000 nautical miles thus far.

Spirit was designed by Farr & Associates of Annapolis, which also designed six of the eight boats still competing.

Which is one of the reasons all eyes in the Annapolis’ sailing community are on this world-wide race. Another is the favorite-daughter status of the leading boat. Illsbruck is skippered by John Kostecki, who was helmsman on Chessie Racing in the 1997-1998 Whitbread. Navigator Juan Villa is also a former Chessie crewman.

Follow the race at

— Debbie Hough

Squirrels Demand Equal Time

If birds live in your back yard, squirrels probably do, too. Especially if you’ve got tall trees. Most especially if you’re feeding the birds, squirrels will be there demanding their share.

While you’re counting birds, take a census of squirrels. Each day February 15 to 18, report only the largest group of squirrels so you won’t be counting the same hungry one over and over.

Send your squirrel tally to Bay Weekly at As well as number of squirrels, include your name, address, counting location and postal zip code.

For WRYR, An Electronic ‘Barn-Raising’

In Anne Arundel County, Presidents’ Day this year just might be called Radio Free Maryland Day.

On that holiday weekend, from Saturday, February 15, through Monday, February 18, some 150 engineers, lawyers, musicians and radio experts from far and wide will gather at the West River Methodist Camp for workshops and on-air testing at the area’s new radio station, WRYR.

WRYR, which will occupy 97.5 on the FM dial, is the brainchild of South Arundel Citizens for Responsible Development, known as SACReD. The non-profit, environmental advocacy group plans to widen its scope April 1, the target date for the start of entertainment and public service programming.

SACReD will be receiving substantial help in the coming weeks from both local backers and a coalition of ‘pirate’ radio aficionados, who have fought the government and corporate broadcasters for years to win licenses for low-frequency broadcasting.

Among those scheduled to be on hand for the Churchton “barn raising” is Pete Tridish, who confounded the Federal Communications Commission in the mid-1990s by keeping WPPR on the air in Philadelphia.

Tridish (his adopted name), along with colleagues Milly Watt and Bertha Venus, defied government orders to close until, as Tridish put it, “The FCC sort of broke in and took the whole thing off the air. No one went to jail or got fined, but it was a big trauma.”

Since then, Tridish, 32, has become almost respectable, founding the Prometheus Radio Project to assist community radio start-ups and succeeding in breaking down some of the federal barriers that prevented community groups from getting on the air.

WRYR is among the very first stations in the country, and the first on the East Coast, to win a license since FCC rules were ordered relaxed by Congress. About 3,600 applications are pending, Tridish said.

“WRYR isn’t going to send reporters all over the world and give you coverage of Middle East issues. But in my experience, if there are local people who are willing to put their hearts in radio, even if they don’t sound like some sexy robot disc jockey, they will connect with people because they are their neighbors,” he said.

In the workshops, radio hopefuls will learn about radio issues, from news and programming to transmitters and towers to dealing with governmental red tape. Participants will be arriving from all over the East Coast. Locals are invited to take part, to get trained or to just observe.

A temporary transmitter for the station was raised at Lowes Wharf Marina in Sherwood on the Eastern Shore. WRYR studios are housed in the business center above Domino’s Pizza in Churchton. The radio signal will reach southern Anne Arundel County, Calvert County and part of the Eastern Shore.

SACReD organizers have attracted dozens of volunteers to produce their planned 12 hours of varied programming each day. Beyond the airing of public policy issues, WRYR will present general interest shows ranging from gardening to bluegrass.

“We’ve been through a lot of ups and downs getting this thing going,” said Mike Shay, the SACReD organizer who has been the force behind the project. “We think we are on the leading edge of something, and now we’re trying to help other people so it can happen for them, too.”

Terry Nyman, who will be writing for WRYR, described the station as a massive undertaking. “It’s huge for SACReD. We’ve put a lot on the line. But now we’ve got the license, and we’re learning as we go. It’s pretty cool,” she said.

— Bill Lambrecht

Way Downstream ...

Along Anne Arundel County’s South River — where PCBs have been discovered recently — don’t be surprised if more baby boys are born. A study at Michigan State University last week found that men with higher levels of polychlorinated biphenyls — PCBs, industrial chemicals banned in the 1970s — are slightly more likely to have male offspring …

In Delaware, quick action in the dead of night by a barge worker who wound up soaked in oil prevented an even bigger spill than the 500 gallons that sprayed from a broken pipe and fouled the Nanticoke River at a DuPont Co. plant near Seaford last weekend …

In Canada, amateur anthropologist Bill Jamieson might have just the lawn ornament you’ve been seeking: a 158-year-old, 40-foot-long skeleton of a humpback whale, that was once on display in a Niagra Falls museum. He’s auctioning it on ebay and hopes to get $350,000 …

Our Creature Feature comes from Hong Kong, where two fish breeders are hoping that Bruce the Giant Goldfish makes it into the Guinness Book of World Records. Just how big is this goldfish? He’s 37.2 centimeters, which translates to about 15 inches for old-fashioned measurers.

Louis and Jackie Chan (his real name) attributed the size of their mighty goldfish to selective breeding, good diet and lots of exercise. “Every fish breeder dreams of owning the biggest fish,” Louis told Reuters. Next, the brothers plan to market a black-and-white hybrid, one of about 20 they have bred in recent years.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly