It’s 2:30 in the morning at the remote airport parking lot in South Philly. “Is this your truck?” the valet asks.
I’m looking at a 2020 GMC 2500 Denali, loaded. “Yeah,” I tell the guy.
“Man, what do you do?”
“I’m a writer.”
He shakes his head in disbelief.
Fifteen minutes later I’m on the road to Chance, Md., but still no word from Stoney Whitelock, owner of the Minnie V., a 45-foot skipjack used in the Maryland oyster fishery. It’s the Tuesday before Thanksgiving (2019), and the only shot we have at a trip, so I’m hoping it works out.
It’s still dark in Chance as the engines of the little oyster fleet come to life and boats start to slide out of the Scott’s Cove Marina. The Minnie V. lies at the end of the wharf, easily spotted by her 60-foot mast, her sails furled.
By luck, Whitelock and his crew are there, preparing for a day of dredging oysters in Tangier Sound.
“We’ve got legends aboard,” says 72-year-old Whitelock, as he introduces the crew, including 73-year-old Tom Daniels and 77-year-old Dick Webster.
“I’ll be 78 tomorrow,” says Webster, who holds the license and captains the boat.
“And we got these young guys,” says Whitelock, introducing James Corbin, Shawn Fridley and Jay Abbot, all in their 30s and 40s.
The Minnie V. has no engine, only sails — Maryland’s skipjacks have traditionally fished under sail. But since the late 1960s they have been allowed to use pushboats. Under current rules, the skipjacks can fish on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. They can use power on any two of those days, and sail the other two. Today is a power day, and Whitelock climbs over the stern into the pushboat to start the 4-cylinder Cummins.
“She’s about 20 years old,” Whitelock says of the Cummins. “But she ain’t got many hours on her.” The Minnie V., on the other hand, has a lot of hours on her. “She was built in 1906,” says Whitelock. “I bought her four years ago from the city of Baltimore. They were just using her for tourists and taking good care of her.”
As the sun rises, the boat emerges into the bay and Webster at the helm heads for Tangier Sound, where a dozen other boats are already at work.
“It’s the only place we got left,” says Whitelock. “But they’re going to open that up next week,” he says, pointing north. “There’s two rocks up there.” According to Whitelock, one of the rocks ought to be good for the skipjacks, but the other is in water so shallow it will only be good for the tongers — boats that drop hydraulic tongs from booms into the oyster beds and come up with a half bushel of shell and oysters at a time.