Brice Stump documents island’s remaining skipjacks

Maryland’s skipjacks have been dredging oysters on the Chesapeake Bay for almost 130 years, yet there’s never been a book about them as seen through the lens of photographer Brice Stump.

His book, “Working Skipjacks of Deal Island,” shows for the first time a definitive look at the state’s official boat and the crews that work aboard them as they never been photographed before.

“I had no idea, when I started shooting the photos, that there has never been a comprehensive pictorial book showing crews and skipjacks at work. My book shows there’s a lot more to skipjacks than pretty sails and annual skipjack races,” he said.

Stump, an award-winning photographer and writer with a 36-year career at The Daily Times, has recently published his 350-page hard-back book showcasing 650 photos of the boats and crews at work. The book is also unique in that all of the photographs are in black and white.

“For decades skipjacks were photographed in black and white and it is a medium that is perfect for this close-up look at historic skipjacks,” Stump said.

Almost all of the pictures were taken January through March 2016, around Deal Island and on the Chesapeake Bay. Stump focused his lens on the five working skipjacks of Deal Island; Kathryn, City of Crisfield, Somerset, Fannie Daugherty and the Helen Virginia. Because three other skipjacks — Ada Fears of Talbot County, and the Curlew III and Lady Katie of Cambridge— worked out of the island during the 2015-2016 season, the are also included in the book as part of the island fleet.

Although promoted as the last commercial sailing fleet in the world, Deal Island skipjacks haven’t relied on sail power to dredge oysters for almost 18 years. The image of the iconic skipjack, with sails filled with a strong wind and cutting through foaming waves, has been featured on shirts, captured in paintings, used to decorate mugs, and even a U.S. postage stamp. Yet there was never a definitive book of photos.

Capt. Stan Daniels is just about to get his hands on the dredge when George Mister Jr., yells to Brad Mason, right, to help him, Jeff Faber, center, and Kevin Bullis Jr. save the slipping dredge. A cluttered deck, tight working quarters and a team that was “give out,” made for a dangerous scenario.

Pete Lescher, chief curator of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, noted that Stump brings an “… unexpected beauty to these strikingly well-composed images” and that his book is a “work of art.”

The images capture life aboard skipjacks that few outsiders have ever seen and even a never before photographed event — pulling in dredges by hand when winders, which routinely haul the heavy dredges aboard the City of Crisfield, broke, leaving three 18-year-old boys to muscle the 400-pound-plus dredges to the deck of the skipjack.

“It was an historic photo event,” Stump said. “You don’t schedule breakdowns on the bay. Even if you are on board a skipjack, when the winders have failed and the crew has to wrestle the dredges aboard the boat, the perspective isn’t the same as seen from another boat watching the action.

“It was certainly one of the luckiest moments of my photography career to be in another boat watching just as the winders broke on the City of Crisfield and the crew worked to get the dredges to the surface.”

It was a case of being at the right place, at the right time, with the right guy at wheel.

“Danny Ray Webster, manager of Island Seafood, took me out to shoot skipjacks dredging one morning and he spotted the problem on the City of Crisfield. It worked to position me for the best possible shots as the two boats were constantly moving and I was dealing with problems of shooting into the sun. No doubt about it, these photos would not have been possible had it not been for Webster’s superior boating skills, his experience as a seasoned waterman and knowing what was going to happen next as events unfolded. He really made it possible for me to shoot an event that has never been photographed before — pulling in dredges by hand.

The photographer didn’t intend to produce a book of photos, but wanted to update a project that he has been working on for almost 40 years.

When he decided to do a book, he knew there was a major obstacle to overcome. Stump is very susceptible to motion sickness. Spending days on the bay on rocking skipjacks was something he knew he couldn’t handle.

“There was no choice. I simply had to go out on these boats to get the photos. My plan was to try to take as many photos as I could before I was hanging over the rails, then laying on deck for the balance of the work day while turning greener,” he said, laughing.

Yet he never got sick and shot thousands of photos, despite watching the horizon sway back and forth and up and down through his viewfinder for hours at a time.

“In my entire career, I have never been engaged in a project where so many things routinely and constantly went ‘right.’ It was, from the beginning, as though this project was meant to be. I didn’t get sick, things that could have been problems evolved into photographic opportunities, the captains and crews were terrific to work with, and things went so well it was ‘uncanny,’ almost mystical. Yet I never worked harder on anything in my life. They were intense 16-hour-days for months,” he said.

The result is a body of groundbreaking work.

“I wanted to make sure every crew member, every captain, every person photographed in the book was identified. They are part of the story and deserve recognition. All of the photos are mine except two; a 1920s photo showing skipjacks being blown out of the water during the shooting of a ship battle movie in California and a photo that shows a skipjack mast that fell out of the Fannie Daugherty and totaled Capt. Delmas Benton’s new pickup.”

Water churns as the push boat works to turn the Kathryn. Curt Pittman all buts lies on his back to exert control over the powerful boat. The captain controls the speed and uses the rudder to turn the skipjack, but Pittman controls the sharper angle and direction of turn with the captain’s approval.

“As a self-published author,  and like other self-published authors, I am hoping to get my money back. Yet this is an extraordinary project, making it possible for the public to see for the first time, what a skipjack is really all about. There is no other book like this and the time to do it was now,” Stump said.

Books are available online for $49.95, plus tax, at myshorehistory.com and at Somerset Choice Antiques in Princess Anne, Lucky’s Convenience Store in Chance and Scott’s Cove Marina.

A portion of the sales benefit the Skipjack Heritage Foundation.

Stump has been invited to autograph and sell his books at the Emporium in Parsonsburg Oct., 22 between noon and 4 p.m. and hopes to meet and greet folks who have followed his newspaper career.

 

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