Saying goodbye

Chesapeake Bay skipjack Capt. Barry Sweitzer, photo by multimedia journalist and environment reporter Pamela Wood.
Capt. Barry Sweitzer

Earlier this year, I profiled Capt. Barry Sweitzer, the last working skipjack captain on the Western Shore of the Chesapeake Bay.

At the time, I blogged here about how important I felt the story was. How I had a keen sense of responsibility — that I was helping document a dying way of life. I knew it wouldn’t be many years before there wouldn’t be any watermen running skipjacks on the bay anymore.

It’s happening sooner than I thought.

Before skipjack season for oysters opened on Nov. 1, Capt. Barry and I traded e-mails. He invited me back aboard his skipjack, Hilda M. Willing, any time.

Almost as soon as the season opened, I started hearing the rumors that Capt. Barry was giving it up. I soon found out the rumors were true.

The first day of the season netted a pitiful haul of oysters. They were almost all dead. As I wrote in the first draft of my story: “Over and over again, each lick of the dredge brought up nothing but death.”

I was so sad to write the story of Capt. Barry giving up and putting the Hilda up for sale. I was heartbroken as we talked on the phone.

It’s funny, you know. Journalists pride ourselves on our tough exterior. We pride ourselves on not getting too involved in our stories.

But I felt like I understood Capt. Barry and the other skipjack captains.

Skipjacks, in a way, are like newspapers. Skipjacks are outmoded wooden sailboats that demand a high level of TLC, an insane devotion and an extreme work ethic. It’s a tough way of life, but it’s a  heritage that is so special, so charming. But it’s an anachronism.

Chesapeake Bay skipjack Hilda M. Willing, photo by multimedia journalist and environment reporter Pamela Wood.
The Hilda M. Willing has sailed from her former home on the Magothy River.

Same goes for newspapers. As everyone (myself included) is assaulted by information from their smart phones, iPads, e-mail and text alerts, blogs, RSS feeds, round-the-clock cable TV and nonstop news radio, who has time to sit back with a newspaper that leaves ink on your fingers?

Those of us who remain devoted to newspapers remain so because we believe in what newspapers are all about. We’re affordable — less than a buck a day, for most papers. We’re quiet. We take time to tell you the news, to explain what’s going on. We go beyond the soundbytes.

But reporting the news and printing newspapers and delivering them is expensive. And few people seem to care anymore.

Like the skipjacks, we’re dying out, too. We’re trying to change and stay alive just like the skipjack captains are. They’re diversified — many use more modern boats for bay crabbing or ocean scalloping during other seasons. Newspapers are going digital, and often making sure people pay for it.

We’re just trying to stay alive, trying to hang on to the essence of our craft.

And while Capt. Barry is getting out of the skipjack business, the Hilda M. Willing will still be plying the waters of the Chesapeake in search of oysters.

Capt. Barry sold the Hilda to a watermen who plans to run her out of Deal Island, where a few other skipjack captains are based and where the oysters are surviving better.

Capt. Barry won’t be off the water, either. His main job is as a marine police officer. And he’s talked about getting into crabbing. Maybe I’ll see him on the water again.

***

I wasn’t the only one who saw Capt. Barry’s departure from the oystering business as an important (albeit sad) milestone to mark. He was featured in The Washington Post and on WJZ by Alex DeMetrick.

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