Southern Miss is one of the last working boats docked in St Michaels, Maryland, come winter. Her very slip used to be a cold-weather berth for log canoes that left the harbor in the 19th century to tong for oysters. Now St Michaels is a refuge for recreational boaters, and in winter, very little activity takes place on the harbor at all. So, Southern Miss is a rare exception indeed— a raw-knuckle St Michaels workboat still braving the frozen Bay during Maryland’s oystering season.
Her gear is also pretty remarkable— oyster tongs— the simplest, oldest form of catching oysters. Tongs were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, but they’re not a common sight around the Bay into day’s era of power dredging and patent tongs. Often called “widow sticks,” tongs have been known to unbalance watermen in rough winter weather. Once overboard, the watermen’s bibs and boots would fill with water, dragging the oyster tonger down in the frigid Chesapeake.
They’re backbreaking to use, and require strength and skill to employ correctly— especially the longer ones, which are so long they can actually start to flexibly bow. The fact that the Southern Miss still carries them is a perfect example of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” pragmatism still favored by a few old timers.