Long Ago I Sailed the Bay
Running oysters by sail and the seat of my pants
by Alice Bradshaw
Many years ago, long before women’s pantsuits were in style, I was the main topic of conversation in Fairbank, a waterman's village at the tip end of Tilghman Island on the Chesapeake Bay.
It was the beginning of oyster dredging season in the 1920s, and the dredge boats were anchored in the harbor. My husband Bob didn’t dredge. He bought oysters from the dredge boat captains and then ran oysters (a waterman’s expression for freighting them) and sold them to packing houses. Bob sold his to T.M. Bramall in Cambridge, Maryland, a two- or three-hour sail away.
While eating dinner one evening during the first year we were married, Bob said that he would like me to run oysters with him.
“Run oysters! Are you crazy?” I gasped. “I would have to wear pants to do that, and no woman wears pants. Besides, I don’t have any.”
“I'll buy you some,” said Bob.
“Where?” I asked, knowing he’d never be able to find any. But I agreed to accompany him, saying, “If you really want me to go, I’ll drop my pride and show up in the gossip column.”
“Good for you!” said Bob, elated by now.
The next day I started looking through my old clothes from before we were married. Surprise! I found a pair of jodhpurs, my old riding pants from the days when I went riding. By now I was determined to go with Bob, so I put them on the washboard, scrubbed them, let them dry and gave them a good ironing. They still looked frumpy, but who would notice on the boat?
The next day, without telling Bob that I had found a solution, I was ready to walk out the door when he came home, mufflers to my ears, heavy coat and jodhpurs. He was so surprised when he saw me.
“You really did it,” he said.
“Let’s go before I change my mind,” I replied. He grinned; I grabbed his arm for moral support; and we bravely walked out the door and down the road.
Bob was still in a daze as we boarded his boat, the G. A. C. (which stands for George Albert Cummings, the previous owner). The wind was blowing a gale as he hoisted the sail. He had already loaded the boat with oysters, and we were on our way sailing into the Bay in no time. Bob, at the wheel, yelled at me for standing on the deck. “Get down in the cabin or the boom will knock you overboard.”
“I don’t like that smelly cabin,” I shrieked at him. Just then the boom swung across the boat. I ducked, but still I didn’t go down in the cabin. Bob yelled again, “If you fall overboard and I have to jump in after you, we will both drown.” That was the last straw; down I went into that smelly cabin, holding my nose.
We reached Cambridge, unloaded our oysters and sailed back home to load up again. The gossip had already started. Someone had seen me walking down the road in pants. But Bob and I didn’t care. We were happy, and I learned to ride the waves in spite of the smelly cabin, boom and all.
The gossip stopped almost as soon as it began. I was even commended for taking the leap into wearing jodhpurs on board the boat.
Alice Butler Bradshaw and her husband began writing memoirs of their life on Tilghman Island when he retired. He made her promise to complete the project if he died before her, but after his death in 1987, she lost the will to continue. Some years later, she stumbled on the manuscript, written in his hand, and was filled with desire to finish what they had started together, but she found herself weeping over the manuscript instead. She still wasn’t ready.
In the meantime, Bradshaw was writing poetry and articles for local magazines and won a writing contest for Maryland seniors. Her success eventually inspired her to revisit the memoirs, and this time she found she could move forward. A Promise of Love was published in 1996. With three published books to her credit, Bradshaw continues to write on a daily basis. On November 9, she turns 103.