Sunday, August 10, 2014
“You from the newspaper?”
“Yes sir. Are you Captain Magwood?”
“Yeah. C'mon, we're just about to leave.”
I followed him across two boat decks to a third. There he disappeared toward the stern and a moment later I heard the engines start. A young boy with blond hair was hosing down the deck. Capt. Magwood came out of the darkness and into the faint light.
“You hear anything from Johnny, Calvin?”
“No sir,” answered Calvin.
“I bet he's not going to show. Third day of the season and already not showing. You can't find a decent crew these days,” he said looking at me.
“Everybody wants to be a captain, but nobody wants to work. Beats the damndest thing I've ever seen. Scotty better hurry up and get his tail onboard. It's nearly four already.”
Nearly four, I thought, and he's mad about being late. These guys must have some nightlife.
I saw the outline of a bearded figure coming towards us.
“Morning, son. You ready?”
“Yeah, where's Johnny?”
“To hell with Johnny, loose the lines,” answered the captain. “Six boats are already out ahead of us.”
“This is my boy Scotty,” said Capt. Magwood. He introduced me and then they vanished towards the bow.
“You mean you got up and came down here just to take some pictures?” asked Calvin.
“Yeah, and to write it up.”
“You must be crazy. How'd you end up on this boat?”
“The yellow pages and a little luck, I guess.”
“Lucky me. ... Look out for the old man. He's hell.”
Scotty and Calvin pushed us free and we slipped into the channel.
I was trying to stand under one of the green running lights to jot notes on what had happened since I arrived at Capt. Magwood's dock.
Calvin sat down on the port gunnel and Scotty went up to join his father. There was a row of lights ahead of us from the boats that got out earlier.
The spotlight atop the cabin began scanning the water in front of the bow, pausing at the reflectors attached to the buoys. I gave up trying to write on lines I couldn't see and walked to the wheelhouse.
“So many damn boats going out, if you don't get there early, they'll have the bottom so stirred up all you get is trash. Everybody and his brother has a boat out now. Means nobody makes good. No, it didn't used to be like that. Opening day, me and Scotty counted 78 boats around us. Damn ridiculous. That's why we gotta hurry out – to try and beat the masses.”
While he was talking, Captain Magwood hadn't taken his eyes off the water ahead. Scotty kept the spotlight moving.
“You been fishing here long?” I asked.
The only light in the cabin was from the sweeping radar overhead. I could see he was smiling. “Well,” he said, “I started shrimping these waters when I was 14. I'm 51 now. I probably been fishin' twice as long as you been living. How old are you?” he asked.
“That so. This boat here's 22. My brother and I finished building her in ‘56. You know where that Western Sizzler is over on Shem Creek? We built her right there. When it gets light, you look her over real close. Mahogany. All mahogany.”
We were nearing Morris Island after about 45 minutes. That's where we would be dragging today. Things were getting a little more visible. I could almost make out the lines on my paper and the nets and the rigging were beginning to take shape. The moon was still high, but the grapefruit pink on the horizon meant the sun couldn't be far underwater. I hadn't seen a sunrise since last semester's finals. I got my camera ready.
By 5 a.m., Scotty and Calvin had the nets set to be thrown. The wind had picked up and I was glad to have a flannel on over my shirt. Captain Magwood cut back the throttle and came to the stern.
Calvin was on one net, Scotty on the other. The captain stood in between, watching and giving orders.
It was light enough for me to climb the perch for a better view, but there was still not enough light for pictures.
On the captain's signal, the nets were rolled over the sides. The large wooden “doors” and chains quickly carried the nets below the dark water.
“What now?,” I asked.
“They'll be draggin' for three hours now. You only throw ‘em three or four times a day and let ‘em drag three hours each time. Got eggs and grits and bacon. What do you say?”
“Sure,” I answered, even though the waves and my stomach told me it wasn't really the greatest idea. I downed three eggs then uttered in silent prayer to the winds.
“Pull the try-net, Scotty.”
The nets had been out for an hour and a half. I watched Scotty pull in a small net that I hadn't seen go out with the others. It swung over the stern deck and Calvin yanked the slip cord. The bottom fell out, leaving a small pile of marine life. I began taking pictures while Scotty and Calvin sorted the shrimp, squid, flounder and “upset” crabs from the “trash.” The count showed 85 shrimp caught, not a good test run.
“What are you doing,” I asked.
Scotty, he was looking through binoculars and motioning to another boat.
“She's one of ours. They got 128 in their try-nets. We don't use the radio cause we don't want everybody to know how we're doing and where the shrimp are. No sense inviting all the boats closer.”
“How many shrimpers do you have out?”
I went through the kitchenette, past Calvin playing solitaire, to where Capt. Magwood was standing at the large mahogany wheel. “See that shrimper over there?” he said. “It's snagged on that sunken boat I was telling you about. That's what happens if you try and get too close to those underwater jetties. I bet he's already torn the hell out of his rig. He'll have to snap ‘em loose now. Damn rookie doesn't know the waters. We're about to pull the big nets in now. Got that fancy camera ready?”
“Oh yeah, I'm set to shoot. What kind of shrimp are these, brown or white?”
“Most of ‘em will be brown. In a couple months when the northeasters blow, we'll start getting the whites. It's 8:15. Let's yank ‘em Scotty.”
There were two large cable drums to draw in the nets. Scotty took his place by one, Capt. Magwood by the other. They started the winding motors and began threading the cable evenly onto the spools. When the nets of green, yellow and red fibers were drawn close enough to the side, Calvin secured lines around them.
He guided them onto the deck, where he jerked the cord and let the catch fall. The nets were then immediately thrown overboard again. Calvin and Scotty began sorting the mess. The crabs were up in arms and kept backing away until soon there was a small army in the rear corners ready to attack. One by one, the horde as subdued, males being thrown in the basket and females swept toward the scupper.
Four times that day, at three-hour intervals, I watched them picking the good and shucking the bad. During the free time in between, I sat on the cabin roof watching the gulls and porpoises and listening to the rigging lines chiming against the aluminum outrigging.
On our way in that evening, we were again part of a stream of other shrimpers. A ship with French markings was moving up the Cooper River as we neared the Mount Pleasant dock. “Isn't she beautiful,” said Capt. Magwood, looking at the ship through the glasses. “Fine lines for such a large ship. Can you see the Del Monte logo on the side? Here, look through these.” He handed me the binoculars. “A fine bow,” he said, “ploughing through the water with a bone in her mouth.”
I knew I had read that someplace before. Was it Melville or Hemingway? Sounds more like Melville. I was thinking of peg-legged Ahab when Capt. Magwood asked if I wanted a mess of shrimp.
“I'd love some.”
“We'll be going out for a couple of days soon. You wanna go?”
“You bet. I'll bring you some of these pictures and we'll talk about it.”
“Did you get one of me and my boy Scotty?”
(The author of this piece's name was not included in the original publication of this article.)