Workboats are not normally things of beauty. They are built to be tough, capable, and versatile, to weather waves, tide, and wind. They reflect their use, their environment, and their purpose, and their battered white hulls are dingy with salt and a crust of bottom mud. Often they have cobbled-together parts- a car or tractor engine, scrap plywood floors, a gas tank fashioned from a metal casing washed up on shore. They are much used, and much appreciated, but as a breed designed for toil, workboat’s looks are not much fussed over.
There are exceptions, of course, to any rule, and Martha, a Hoopers Island draketail, is one of the most elegant workboats ever to slice through the chop on the Honga River. Built in 1934 in Wingate, Maryland by renowned boat builder Bronza Parks (whose sign over his workshop stated simply “Designer and Builder of Better Boats”), the Martha looks like a lithe debutante who’s been pressed into service in the water trade. Long and lean as a marsh egret and just as comfortable in the Chesapeake’s tidewaters, Martha was built to navigate and harvest the Bay’s great oyster and crab bounty. Great care was taken in her design and construction, which cost the princely sum of $250 during the Depression.
Martha, from the bow.
Martha was mainly intended for trotlining, a method of catching crabs using a long baited line in the water, with a roller on the side of the boat to pull the line up and over, and a dipnet to snatch the greedily feasting crabs from the line as the boat moves alongside. Trotlining was a fairly new technique for harvesting crabs, which only became a major part of the Chesapeake economy in the beginning of the 20th century as the oyster harvest declined. Sailboats were initially and rather inefficiently used to catch crabs, and even the next innovation, power skiffs with 2 cylinder engines, were awkward and not terribly well-suited for the purpose (watermen often had to drag buckets behind them to slow the vessel enough to work the line).
The long lines and rounded stern of draketails like Martha were a marked improvement- much better suited to the repetitive and slow task of trotlining, moving through the water with less eddies and a reduced fouling of the baited lines in the propeller. In the years before today’s modern crab pots were invented, her owner, Captain Willie Lewis, used the elegant Martha for threading the waters of the Honga River and beyond. Loaded with hundred of yards of line baited the day before and empty bushel baskets, he would head out from the protected harbor of Hoopersville long before dawn in search of Bay bottom teeming with the beautiful swimmers to be tempted to the water’s surface with salted eel or tripe.
Martha hauled for restoration, 1996.
The Martha came to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in 1983, and was restored to her original 1934 appearance during a restoration at the museum’s boatshop in the mid 1990’s. Her relaunch was an occasion for celebration, with members of the Lewis family and other watermen and boatbuilders from the Hoopers Island community in attendance. Memories of her captain, Willie Lewis, his family, and the crabbing glory days of the Eastern Shore during the early 20th century were revisited, with Tom Flowers, a Hoopers Island native officiating over the reminiscing:
“When Captain Willie finished crabbing in the morning (crabs drop off in the middle of the day), he would pull his baited trotline into the boat, usually onto the floor. As he returned to his dock he would bait the line with new pieces of eel or tripe. The old pieces of bait were thrown out and often a swarm of seagulls followed him home. Most of us who have trotlined usually developed calluses and cracks in the palms of our hands and fingers. When that salt would hit those open places, the pain, I can still recall.”
Martha’s working mornings of gilded sunrises breaking over the horizon on the wide open waters of the lower Chesapeake are over for good (as are her afternoons carrying a cargo of scrabbling crabs, salted eel and tripe). But her scrappy beauty, with its perfect harmony of function and form continue to poetically tell the story of watermen, crabbing and Chesapeake boatbuilding to all the visitors who explore the floating fleet at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. Martha today is one of the most evocative, arresting sirens from the Chesapeake that once was. It’s quite a legacy for a pretty girl from down on Hoopers Island.