Racing for the Auld Pot on the Tred Avon
Ferry- and paddle-boat captains race for fun and charity
by Bill Dial
Summer vacationers sailed right through the many small towns bisected by Ocean Gateway, as U.S. Route 50 on the Eastern Shore is ironically titled. Zipping through the town of Easton, pausing only when the law requires, beachgoers likely missed the signs that say Scenic Oxford. Or assumed Scenic Oxford was just another little town with quaint architecture and the occasional facsimile English garden. Only scholars would know that little Oxford was the location of the oldest ferryboat race on the Atlantic Coast, this year celebrating its 324th running.
Farewell Robert Morris
Robert Morris, Junior, helped finance the American Revolution. Robert Morris Senior’s demise is a sad story but true: Accidentally killed by the wad from a signal cannon used to celebrate a ferryboat race.
The race tradition was 64 years old back in 1750, when Robert Morris died. That night for many years, the races were conducted at night saw a spectacular race between the ferry Tallbutt, a spelling of the times, and the packets Poste Haste and Phedex. Packets carried the mail, among other things.
The ferry won. There were rumors of unsportsmanlike conduct on the part of the ferry crew, the flying of sails not normally seen on vessels of the type, but the rumors could not be proven.
Bobby Morris owned the ferry and darned near everything else in Talbot County in those days. Bobby and his friends, who were the race committee, accepted the trophy aboard the committee boat, The London Merchant, which was owned by Bobby’s boss, Foster Cunliffe, an English mercantile poobah.
The revered trophy, of exquisitely crafted silver, looked like a cross between a champagne bucket and a thunder jug. It bore the signature of Paul Revere himself. Engraved with the name of the county, it was to the incognoscenti the Talbot Cup. To those in the know, it was the auld pot.
Bobby Morris was riding in the ship’s launch drinking Madera from the auld pot, quaffing as it were, when he got whacked with the wad.
Bobby fell, and over the side the pot went. People were so shook up about what Bobby’s blood was doing to the brightwork on the launch that they neglected to recover the trophy. It was last seen disappearing into the depths of the Tred Avon somewhere off what is now the ferry pier.
The Tradition Continues
After Bobby’s untimely demise, the ferryboat races were relegated to the ignominy of what we might call submarine races, viewed only at night from the small Lovers’ Lane behind what is now the Tred Avon Yacht Club, where couples through the years would say they were going to watch the ferryboat races.
Now the race has come back into the light of day.
On September 22, the Oxford-Bellevue ferry Talbot races the sternwheelers Dorothy-Megan and Choptank River Queen, both of Suicide Bridge Restaurant, in the Tred Avon off Oxford. As well as infinite bragging rights, the winner gets to hold the auld pot.
For yes, the auld pot was recovered.
Two hundred fifty-seven years after its loss, a prominent Oxonion was surveying the depths of the Tred Avon in his best Cousteau rig, in pursuit of edible mollusks, when before him, glinting in the sunlight passing through the waters, was the auld pot. It was bedecked with barnacles, festooned with flora and tarnished with time but otherwise in great shape.
Realizing he had an item of immense value, he went directly to a pawnshop to establish its true worth. The pawnbroker, an amateur historian, immediately recognized the auld pot. The citizen, known for his appreciation of any kind of race afloat, turned the trophy over to representatives of the Oysterville Yacht Club, a charitable organization seeking to reestablish the tradition of ferryboat racing.
Rumor has it that the winner of the 2007 race will vie for another prize: the contract to haul folks not wishing to deal with the Ocean Gateway across the Bay.
Locals have observed representatives of the Maryland Department of Transportation, attired in the ostentatious style of the average tourist, skulking around Oxford asking questions about speed and capacity of the Oxford Ferry: nine cars or 80 people or some combination of the two at about 10 knots.
The money is on the ferry, known for its speed and agility. You can forget those sternwheelers, anyway: They won’t give up their day jobs of hauling tourists and peddling crab cakes (very good crab cakes, by the way ) and potables. Come to think of it, that might be a nice way to cross the Bay.
Join the Fun But Watch Out for the Wad
September 22 is not a day to bypass Scenic Oxford. It’ll be a great day for picnicking on shore, where you can watch the race from dozens of good vantage points. If you choose not to pack your own victuals, food and libation is available in Oxford at the market or in several restaurants.
Better yet, go to www.ferryboatraces.com and sign on as a Crew Member, entitled to ride one of the three boats during the race, or a Race Committee member, to watch the race from the Tred Avon Yacht Club. Your ticket price of $100 will get you a wonderful crab cake dinner, and $70 will be tax deductible, because the ferryboat race benefits three charities: the Oysterville Yacht Club (actually the Cam Neely Foundation for Cancer Care); the Oxford Volunteer Fire Company; and the Richardson Maritime Museum.
Before the race, the auld pot can be reverenced at Oxford Greens antique shoppe in Oxford, where it’s displayed prominently.
The day of the race, an original watercolor by New England artist R. E. Kennedy a whimsical painting depicting the three boats competing in the race will be auctioned.
Bill Dial retired navy captain, certified emergency manager and consultant in emergency preparedness is an essayist and humorist who lives in Oxford with his wife, two labs and a psychotic cat.