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Between the Covers

by Larry S. Chowning
Bigger than its title, Buyboats is an interesting, detailed history of the Chesapeake Bay waterman.
Reviewed By Dick Wilson

Buyboat. Whence comes this odd name? Chesapeake Bay Buyboats is a compendious book that answers this question at the same time it gives you much more than a story about a certain kind of boat. Buyboats were and are just about any kind of boat that ever floated on the Bay’s waters, from single-log canoes to two-, four- and seven-loggers, skipjacks, bateaus, bugeyes, deckboats, freight boats, packet boats, mast boats, bell boats, chunk boats and runners. All of these, and more, fell under the generic heading of buyboats.

Back in colonial times there was little demand for boats that would collect the catch for delivery to seafood markets, for the simple reason that most settlements and plantations were in close proximity to the water and could buy directly from the fishermen. As the population grew, people moved farther and farther inland. They still wanted their seafood, so Bay retail centers expanded to meet their needs. Thus grew the demand for buyboats, which could deliver the catch to market cities where the seafood would be transported (in a state of freshness, one hopes) to the more remote markets.

One thing that buyboats didn’t do, usually, was catch the fish, and not catching fish was what distinguished these boats from the vast fleet of fishing boats that plied these waters. As a rule, buyboats weren’t rigged to handle cumbersome nets and other fishing gear. What buyboats did do was buy from the catching boats and deliver the catch to markets in such thriving Bay cities as Baltimore, Crisfield and Norfolk.

Then they would usually pick up some freight for delivery elsewhere. Buyboats carried, in addition to seafood, just about everything, including produce, coal, fertilizer, lumber, cordwood, cans, canned goods and livestock. A buyboat even carried an elephant to Tangier Island once. (Whether the elephant had a roundtrip ticket or stayed on Tangier is not reported.)

More Than Promised
The book purports to be about buyboats, but in reality it’s history, from colonial times right up to the present, capturing a broad swath of the commercial boating life on the Chesapeake Bay. Along the way, author Larry Chowning gives a feel for the way the watermen saw their lives and their environment. It’s a history he’s grown up with on the Rappahannock River, where the journalist-author still lives in the town of Urbanna, Virginia. As well as a reporter for Southside Sentinel in Urbanna and field editor of National Fisherman, he is the author of four more books: Barcat Skipper: Tales of a Tangier Island Waterman; Chesapeake Legacy; Harvesting the Chesapeake; and Soldiers at the Doorstep: Civil War Lore.

Chowning also preserves a treasure trove of odd fact, historical anecdotes and trivia. Here’s one: In 1931, “for the first and only time in history, codfish appeared in the Bay in great numbers,” providing a weeklong windfall for the watermen. The big cod run has never been repeated.

Through interviews with watermen and their families, Chowing reveals the rich fabric of life on and around this big body of water. Part of the valuable history preserved in the book is old-time terminology. For example, the boat builder’s vocabulary gives us jargon such as a boat that was “logged and planked,” or its hull “was old and hogged.” A “two-, four-, or seven-logger” was a boat whose hull was built with that number of trees. A “chunk boat” was a variation of a log boat.

Most of the author’s sources are Virginians, but more than a few are Marylanders, mostly from the Eastern Shore. Life was much the same in either state. Buyboats portrays the Bay as the playing field on which the players, the watermen, played out their game of life on the water with boats as the playing pieces.

Boats have owners, of course, and the people who built buyboats for use on the Bay were only one part of a larger community of people —boatbuilders, oystermen, fishermen, clammers and crabbers — who made their livings on the water. If I have any quibble with this book it’s that the title doesn’t describe the contents. There is much discussion of buyboats, of course, but the focus of the book is on a much larger picture, of people and history.

Sad Tales and True Stories
Until the 1950s, most boats employed on the Bay were hand-built. Old boatbuilding families are described, which should provide interesting genealogical information for anyone named White, Wright, Smith, Rice, Price or Johnson, among others.

Despite a flourishing trade on the Bay, boat builders didn’t necessarily prosper. One forlorn soul who had a reputation for building good, solid boats had a long list of buyers, but he found himself sinking deeper and deeper in debt. He was a man with a strong work ethic, and he had plenty of orders from buyers, but he could never manage to save money. He sought advice from a young family member who had graduated from college. The graduate, after hearing his woes, offered this solution: “You have to take in more money than you pay out.” The boat builder seems to have grasped and applied this gem of wisdom, because he continued to build boats and stayed out of the poorhouse (proving, perhaps, that it pays to talk to college graduates).

In the early days up into the mid-20th century, buyboats operated under sail. One might think that the advent of steam engines would have given owners incentive to switch from sail to power. But such was not the case. Steam engines were heavy, so most boat owners decided not to make the switch. Buyboats (indeed, most boats on the Bay) needed to be shallow-drafted to navigate shallow Bay shorelines and make contact with the catch boats from whom they purchased the oysters, crabs and fish. Larger, heavier boats would run aground when they ventured into the Bay’s inshore waters.

It’s all gone now as people-pressure continues to stress the Bay and its inhabitants. In better days, beginning around 1800, oysters were the mainstay, and buyboats continued buying oysters right up into the 1960s, but the industry was already in decline. At the height of the oyster season in the earlier days, the richer grounds would hold upwards of 100 buyboats, and oyster boats would number in the 500s. The buyboat captains used a bidding system that employed flags to indicate the prices they were willing to pay. An American flag flying from a forward mast meant that the captain would pay absolutely top dollar.

The Chesapeake could be dangerous; many watermen lost their lives in storms. A buyboat named Louise Travers sank in 1938, and two of her crewmen froze to death in the lifeboat after they abandoned ship. The book contains many other accounts of the Bay’s dangers. Yes, life on the boats and around the Bay was hard, but it was a full life, and the reader of this book will get a strong sense of what we’ve lost in this modern age of jets, jet-skis and automated everythings.

Bigger than its title, Buyboats is an interesting, detailed history of the Chesapeake Bay waterman.

Tidewater Publisher, Centreville: 2003. Hardback: $34.95.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.