Soul of the Bay

How devoted watermen have rescued some of the Chesapeake Bay’s most storied and historic buyboats.

In the summer of 2013, the Laura Mae, a 50-foot lobster boat from Virginia, sailed into New York Harbor. She carried on board 400 feet of heavy duty tow rope, five crew members, and the weight of nearly 100 years of Chesapeake Bay history and tradition. 

Her mission: Rescue one of the Bay’s storied buyboats, the Linda Carol, built in Mathews County in 1931, and left to rot neglected and forgotten in a Long Island marine salvage yard. The Linda Carol had no power and could barely float. The Laura Mae would have to tow her all the way back to Virginia, and it was unclear whether she would make it or not. The Linda Carol was a piece of living history, but she was on life support.

Buyboats are special to the Chesapeake Bay. Low-slung, long and sleek, with just a small pilot house near the stern, the outline of the Bay buyboat is an iconic silhouette. Built primarily in places like Deltaville, Mathews, Poquoson and Gloucester in the 1920s, these boats were the kings of the Chesapeake for nearly 50 years. Sometimes called deck boats or market boats, buyboats were named for their original role as mobile marketplaces. They would anchor in deeper water near oyster beds in the Chesapeake where smaller craft operated by individual watermen harvested bivalves from creeks and shallow riverbeds. Buyboats would purchase the catch of these boats for cash right there on the water, then transport large loads to commercial docks or packing houses.

But buyboats did so much more. Before the interstate highway was built around 1960, they were the 18-wheelers of their day—the best way to ship goods throughout the mid-Atlantic. They hauled freight, including grain, hogs, watermelons, fertilizer and lumber. They were used extensively for crab-dredging and other types of fishing. And they hauled oyster spat and empty shells out to the oyster grounds for replanting. Any job that needed doing, you might find buyboats doing it.

Buyboats evolved from the old sailing skipjacks of the late 19th- and early 20th century, and had the distinctive deadrise hull—the sharp “V” shape of a boat’s hull as it rises from the water—developed over time by Chesapeake watermen to cut through the chop of the bay while maintaining a flat work surface onboard. (The Bay workboats commonly called “deadrises” are a further evolution of the buyboat’s form, with an even more pronounced rise of the hull, and with the cabin moved forward. They are smaller, with less cargo space, and unlike buyboats can use a stern-mounted fishing rig.)

Buyboats were not only drivers of the Bay’s commerce, but also focal points of its culture and society. Captains of these boats had enormous prestige in their communities, and each town had buyboats to call its own.

In their heyday from the 1930s through the 1960s, thousands of these craft plied the Bay. Today, only about 30 of the boats remain in serviceable condition. Most, famous to the watermen and their communities for so long, have vanished. Starting in the ’70s, and with increasing frequency in later years, they were replaced by steel and then fiberglass boats that required less upkeep and could carry more. (Buyboats need constant salt water on their decks to keep the wood sealed—those that sit at anchor unused and exposed to sun and rain rot quickly.) As the wooden boats have all but vanished, so have the skills necessary to build and maintain them, and in turn this maintenance has become more expensive and time-consuming.

Talk to watermen today and they’ll tell you where you can find many of these boats: driven up into the marshes and left for dead after they have outlived their commercial usefulness.

But they’ll also tell you about buyboats that have been saved and restored. Some are in private hands, while some belong to museums. The Peggy of Newpoint has been restored by the Mathews Maritime Foundation; the F.D. Crockett, the only true log boat left in Virginia (its bottom formed from whole tree trunks instead of planks), is kept by the Deltaville Maritime Museum. And one Virginia buyboat, the Delvin K., is still buying oysters out of Tangier under captain Jerry Pruitt. For the watermen working to save them, those that remain are a living embodiment of the Bay’s unique history and culture.

Bill Mullis, owner of Newport News-based wholesaler B&C Seafood, grew up in a family of watermen. Like many in the area, buyboats were an integral part of his life. For years, Mullis owned the Norman T, which he used to dredge crabs and fish for flounder, but eventually sold to make way for more modern commercial fishing vessels in his fleet of seven. Now, he is working to restore the Linda Carol.

Mullis claimed the Linda Carol from where she had been left to rot in New York after years of hard service with a New England-based fishing company. She was in such bad shape the junkyard owner agreed to give her to Mullis for free—if only he could patch her up and tow her back to Virginia.

Built by Lennie Smith—of the well-known boat-building family that constructed boats for area watermen for years—on Pepper Creek in Mathews in 1928, the Linda Carol was originally named Croaker. She became a legend to Chesapeake watermen while owned by Maurice Snow, a popular waterman in Gloucester in the 1950s, who died in 2010.

“Maurice Snow was an icon,” says Mullis. “He was the Chesapeake Bay.” Snow’s home dock was popular as a place for other boats to tie up and gather for business. Snow himself was known especially for the white gloves he wore while working on the water, which he would stick out of his half-opened pilot window to indicate to passing boats the success of the day’s catch—each finger held up meant a bushel of crabs on board. Snow sold the boat in 1994 to a Connecticut oyster company, which eventually resold it to another oyster and clam company based in Long Island.

Mullis was alerted to the location of the Linda Carol by David Cantera, a commercial real estate developer in Delaware. Cantera and Mullis were strangers until they were brought together by Cantera’s own gleaming restored buyboat, the Muriel Eileen. Cantera had purchased the Muriel Eileen (originally built in Gloucester County in 1926 for one of the largest seafood packing companies in the region) in 1991, and completely restored the boat. John Melvin Ward Jr., a waterman from Deltaville whose family had once owned the Muriel Eileen, refers to her as “the Cadillac” of restored buyboats. It is a point of pride for Cantera that he has used only traditional materials like those that would have been included in the construction of the Muriel Eileen—no modern synthetics—like salvaged longleaf yellow pine from turn-of-the-century industrial buildings around Philadelphia.

Cantera makes regular pilgrimages on the Muriel Eileen down the Bay to Virginia: “You go to Virginia, it’s like a homecoming. It’s emotional .…   this boat will stop people in their tracks. It’s more than about just boats, it’s a connection to people.”

It was one of these trips that brought Cantera and Mullis together. In 2012, Cantera was visiting friends on Wilson Creek, off the Ware River in Gloucester. Mullis lived next door. “I came home from work one Friday afternoon,” remembers 58-year-old Mullis, “and I look across the creek, and I thought, ‘Jesus Christ! It’s the Muriel Eileen!’”

Mullis knew the boat well; he had tied up next to it and had known the owner Floyd Ward (John Ward’s uncle) for years in the ’70s and ’80s when it had been a working boat.

Mullis immediately hopped in a small skiff, crossed the creek, walked up to Cantera and introduced himself. “I said, ‘I don’t know who you are, but I know your boat.’”

Of course, talk between the two men focused on buyboats—which were still in use and which could be saved? Did Mullis want to find one and restore it? He did—but not just any boat. Having grown up working on, and with, many of the legendary buyboats, Mullis was interested in owning only a specific few: the Norman T, his old boat, now owned by the Living Classrooms Foundation in Washington, D.C., and renamed the Half Shell; the Lavinia H., then just an abandoned and rotting husk on the shore of an unnamed Delaware beach; and the Linda Carol.

A year prior, at Downrigging Weekend, a festival for wooden boats in Chestertown, Maryland, Cantera had met John Gladsky, the owner of Gladsky Marine salvage yard in Glenwood Landing, New York, on the northern shore of Long Island. Gladsky was looking to sell an old buyboat that had been sent to his yard for scrap—the Linda Carol. “I know where she is, and I know who owns her,” Cantera told Mullis. The pair decided to travel north and see the condition of the boat.

“I found a junkyard on the water with stuff piled up 30 feet high so you couldn’t even see the water, and a little path just wide enough to get through,” says Mullis. “Not a damn soul answered back when I cried, ‘Anybody here?’ I wandered through all this steel and barges stacked on top of each other, and finally I broke through to the water.” And there was the Linda Carol.

“I thought, ‘My God, she’s gone. What a shame.’” Mullis could see clear through both her sides where the wood had rotted. He called Cantera and told him, “I’m here, and I’m looking at her.”

Cantera had arranged to meet Mullis in New York, but he was late in arriving. When he got there, Mullis summed up his diagnosis: “David, we’re too late. She’s gone.”

They retreated to a local diner for lunch, where Cantera convinced Mullis to go back and inspect the boat, and to focus on the positives—was there anything about her that was still sound? Well, her bottom wasn’t leaking much, and the stern and horn timber seemed to have survived. The pair spent the afternoon sitting atop the deck of the decaying boat, planning.

Mullis decided to save the Linda Carol. Gladsky had kept the boat not because he knew its history (he didn’t), but because he sensed it was special. “I guess I have a nostalgic soft spot for historic things,” he says. He agreed to give Mullis the boat for free, as long as Mullis would arrange to repair and tow the Linda Carol away. “I wanted to find someone who would love her,” says Gladsky. “They deserved it … and the boat deserves to be preserved.” The project would not be easy. Mullis would need manpower, expertise and, as Cantera reminded him, “You need to go find some vitamin M—money.”

Mullis was ready to spend the money, but he needed expertise for the specialized work. The total cost of the restoration would land around $200,000, which Mullis calls remarkably cost-effective—these restorations often run well over $1 million.  

Mullis enlisted the help of Dave Rollins, a 65-year-old master boat-builder in Gloucester who had once owned the East Hampton, another historic buyboat. A model builder for more than 20 years at NASA, Rollins was one of the few craftsmen left who could undertake the work needed to restore the Linda Carol. “If Rollins wouldn’t have committed to this, I don’t know if we would have saved this boat,” says Mullis.

Cantera offered to make the trip to Long Island, and patch and tow the Linda Carol back to Virginia if Mullis would provide one of his boats for the journey. Two weeks later, in the spring of 2013, Cantera traveled to Gladsky’s with his 12-year-old son Benji and two boating friends, Lloyd Schmeusser and Pat Foley, who had volunteered to help, and spent two weeks plugging holes with foam and plywood, ensuring the Linda Carol would float so that she could be towed back to Virginia.    

The next week, Cantera, aboard the Laura Mae, returned with John Ward and Jimmy John Hunley, a tugboat captain from Mathews who knew the waters of New York Harbor (they also took along Hunley and Cantera’s sons). The crew towed the Linda Carol through Hell Gate, the narrow portion of the East River between Queens and Manhattan, then out into New York Harbor and down the Atlantic coast, the steel and glass skyline of Manhattan receding behind them in the distance. They moored the boat at the dock of Mullis’ house in Gloucester. The Linda Carol was home again.

While the Linda Carol sat at his dock, Mullis installed pumps to remove water and keep her afloat. Then, in the summer of 2014, nearly a year after the Linda Carol’s safe arrival, Mullis went on vacation with his wife. Upon his return 10 days later, he found the Linda Carol sunk.

Mullis called Rollins: “I need your help,” he said. During a momentary power outage, the pumps keeping the Linda Carol afloat had failed. Now, timing their work with the outgoing tide, Mullis, Rollins and a crew of other watermen they had enlisted raised her from the creekbed that day and towed her to York Haven Marina in Poquoson. There, spurred on by the surprise sinking, Mullis decided that the restoration work needed to begin in earnest.

Soon after, Mullis and Rollins, working with Rollins’ son Nick, and watermen Sid Insley and Lewis Forrest, began rebuilding the Linda Carol.

On a clear, bright day in late january, the team huddles inside the pilot house, thumbing through catalogs of marine mechanical parts, discussing how to lay out the navigation settings in front of the steering wheel, and telling stories.

It’s cold outside, but the sky holds the promise of summer, when the Linda Carol will once again skim along the Bay. For now, she is up on stilts, her red and white hull resting above the concrete of the marina. The team used modern materials to recreate the boat to look as she would during her prime. Taking meticulous measurements of the dilapidated pilot house, they built an exact replica out of new pine. They replaced the engine not once, but twice (the first “didn’t suit” says Mullis). They removed the old wood from the sides of the hull all the way down to the boat’s bottom and rebuilt her from there up, then added a new deck.

Modern additions like the fiberglass and epoxy sealing were designed to help reduce future maintenance. The steering wheel, however, is original, refurbished and reinstalled—the top spoke worn down slimmer than the others from years of the pressure of a hand on the tiller. The precision woodwork is not limited to this fixture; all of the new pieces in the hull, deck and pilot house had to be shaped by hand. Says Rollins, “To me it’s artwork. People have no idea how much time and how complex it is to build something like this.”

Not all buyboats have been restored as meticulously, or with the addition of modern materials. Some buyboats are patched with lower quality wood to act as stopgaps against wear and tear. John England is a boat builder and the captain of the F.D. Crockett at the Deltaville Maritime Museum, and knows firsthand the upkeep required by wood without modern treatments—he has had to replace the Crockett’s pilot house twice. But no matter the material or method, he points out, there is the sense in the community that if a boat is saved, it’s a good thing, and the rescue of the Linda Carol is widely appreciated as a worthwhile and impressive undertaking.

Out of the water, Linda Carol’s lines are as clean as ever, her hull now fresh and bright. Every week, people stop by to see the work. The team climbs a narrow metal staircase of the type used in construction sites placed alongside the hull up to the deck each day, where, under the direction of Rollins, the work has now progessed to the installation of cabinetry and wiring in the cabin.

At lunch, the team often walks across the street to Owen’s Marina Restaurant. On the wall are old black and white pictures of buyboats. “I remember you could look out and there’d be buyboats across the whole creek,” says Mullis. Now, over chicken sandwiches and sweet tea, each of the crew at the table can tell you where the boats in the photos have ended up—scrapped, or resting at the bottom of the river, or half-sunk in the mud of a marsh. As always, when telling stories about buyboats, or the crab dredging industry, or the watermen he has known, Mullis is energetic, eager to share stories and tell jokes (often at the expense of one of the crew, or himself), but just as eager to praise the work and knowledge of everyone eating here.

“When this boat is finished, it will be one of the prettiest things there ever was on the Chesapeake Bay—just like it once was,” says Mullis, the excitement clear in his voice. “This project is bigger than just us—it involves a lot of people. They might not be working on her, and they’re not putting the money into her, but they’re going to enjoy the benefits.”

Mullis and Rollins expect to have the Linda Carol completely restored by May, ready for a grand public debut at this year’s Harborfest in Norfolk in early June. After that, the Linda Carol will serve as a pleasure boat for Mullis, who says he hopes Rollins and others will use it as well.

Communities on the Chesapeake are proud of their Bay buyboats, and can name them by their captains, and former captains, and when they changed hands and by whom and where they were built. The record of each boat’s lineage is like a family tree, traced down through the years. To the watermen who first crewed them, buyboats like the Linda Carol were built as tools—the ultimate tools, perhaps, but tools nonetheless, useful to work the water and provide a living for families back home—and like other tools, they were often discarded when they were no longer practical. Now, the buyboats are appreciated for their artistry, their beauty, and their place in the history and culture of the Chesapeake.

“Everybody in this area is connected to these boats in some kind of way,” says Rollins. “This work calls out to be done.”,

This article originally appeared in our June 2016 issue.

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