Captain Kermit Travers honored with ALTA Award

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Dorchester Banner/Paul Clipper Captain Kermit Travers stands at the Snappers Dock in Cambridge with the Lady Katie, the skipjack he captained

BALTIMORE — Maryland Traditions, the Folklife Program of the Maryland State Arts Council, last week announced the ALTA (Achievement in Living Traditions and Arts) Award recipients for 2015.

The ALTA recognizes outstanding stewards of living traditions in Maryland. Three recipients will be feted at a Dec. 5, awards ceremony and concert at the Montgomery College Cultural Arts Center on the Montgomery College Takoma Park – Silver Spring campus.

ALTA awards are given annually to an individual or group, a place and a tradition that embody and help to safeguard Maryland’s living cultural heritage. The 2015 ALTA Award recipients are Captain Kermit “Robert Lee” Travers (Person), St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church (Place), and Marbles Game of the Greater Cumberland Region (Tradition).

“Maryland is home to a wide range of cultural and artistic traditions that are passed from generation to generation,” said First Lady Yumi Hogan. “The ALTA Awards celebrate our state’s rich cultural diversity and the people who ensure our unique traditions are preserved, documented and shared throughout our communities.”

Fifty-five years ago, Dorchester County’s Captain Kermit “Robert Lee” Travers was already an experienced deckhand on the oyster-dredging vessel, the Lady Katie. Working his way up to his own boat, Captain Travers, now 78, is reputedly the only surviving African-American skipjack captain active within the Chesapeake Bay Region. Historically, only a handful of African-American men ever achieved that status and even less owned an iconic flagship of Maryland’s oyster harvesting skipjack fleet, the Ida May.

In the poor, segregated backwater neighborhoods of Dorchester County, Captain Kermit grew up along Blackwater Road aside the water marshes and creek edges of the Honga, Blackwater and Choptank rivers. In 1952, he stepped on his uncle’s 32-feet tonging boat, Leona Marie, to learn and work.

Later, during his tenure on the Lady Katie, Captain Travers apprenticed as a “captain in training” with Captain Eugene Wheatley and Captain George Powley. He also filled in as a deck hand in a variety of tasks required on skipjacks.

“Captain Wheatley told me, ‘I’m going to try you out, see how you do. If you hold your own you can work on my boat. If you don’t, I’m going to have to get somebody else,” Captain Travers told The Banner. “Well, we were working, and he asked me, ‘Can you handle the gear?’ I said, ‘Yes sir.’ Well, there were two fellas on the other side, and I caught more oysters than both of them put together. And Captain Wheatley told me, ‘Where the devil you been all this time?’

“You learn from the good captains,” Mr. Travers told us. “You pay attention and you learn. If you don’t pay attention to what you see them doing, you can’t learn. I took it on myself to try to learn everything I could, because I didn’t know from one day to the other whether Captain Eugene was going to take sick on me.

“We would sit down at night after he made me a first mate, and he would talk to me, and tell me about being a captain and how rough it was and everything. I told him, ‘It’s not rough!’ and he said, ‘Yeah? I’m sitting here biting my fingernails.’ He said, ‘I don’t know where the wind’s going to be tomorrow, and I don’t know where I’m going because wherever the wind is I’ve got to find a place I can work.

“I learned a lot of things from him. I learned how to take markers on the shore. When you hit a take of oysters, you look and take a marker on the shoreline. You don’t need no buoys that way. That’s how I learned.”

In the winter of 1969, it was on the H. M. Krentz where he piloted as a fully qualified skipjack Captain and became responsible for his crew, the oyster catch that paid the crew, and maintained the upkeep of the ship.

“Working on the water is a real experience,” says Captain Travers. “You just don’t take the water for granted. You have to know what you’re doing at all times. You better not be careless, because if you are, in a split second you’re gone. Being a captain, you’ve got to watch everything — everything!”

With his quiet dignity and unassuming demeanor, Captain Kermit Travers is fully cognizant of the waning tradition of the African American mariners on the Chesapeake. This is especially true of black men who against many odds became captains of the last wind-powered oyster harvesting vessels in existence today.

“I don’t mind the work. I couldn’t make money on land. When I was 13 I had to stop school and go to work,” he told us about his humble beginnings. “Nothing like this has ever happened to me. I came up hard. I’m a swamp boy. I’ve always stayed by my mother and my sister, I guess that’s why God’s given me this break. Because if it weren’t for God, I wouldn’t be here today. I’d likely be drowned, burnt up, blowed up, and everything else.”

He is quiet and humble, in person, but he can still tell stories about his life on the water.

“I could sit here all day, all night … I could sit here for a whole week and tell you things. You could go to sleep and wake up, and I could still be telling you,” he says with a grin. “Because man, my life has been good, it’s been a living hell, it’s been everything. Why, two years ago, that boat that turned over in the boat race? (Skipjack Races, 2014) Who do you think was in there? My wife and I were on that boat. You have to think fast. The first thing I tell her is don’t go to sleep, stay awake, because she has sleep apnea. I said, ‘This boat’s going over, because this man don’t know how to captain it. I told him, ‘you come close to the bridge, and the wind will come across under that bridge and hit you before you know it. You’ve got a full sail on, and you’ve got the jib on there …’ So I told my wife, ‘Make sure you stay awake. This man’s gonna turn this boat over.’ Sure enough, he did.”

Among his contemporaries, the respected Captain Kermit holds a seat of honor among every skipjack captain. For this reason, he is sought after for his wisdom and knowledge gained from decades as a mariner and cultural practitioner of African-American folkways.

“All the men who worked with me, worked around me, I don’t know of one of them living today,” Captain Travers tells us. “I told my doctor last year, ‘I’m 77 now doctor, do you think I’ll see another 77 years?’ He said, ‘You’ll live til tomorrow … ’ I told him that’s good, I just want to take one day at a time.”

His retirement appears to be a restless one. “I don’t want to have to go back and do it again,” says Mr. Travers, “But there’s cold nights where I can’t sleep. I’m still pushing, I’m still going. I like being active. God’s been with me all the way.”

The ALTA Award, created in 2007, honors the work of Dr. Alta Schrock (1911-2001). Dr. Schrock, a native of Garrett County, taught biology at Frostburg State University. She was the force behind The Spruce Forest Artisan Village, Penn Alps, The Journal of the Alleghenies and the Springs Festival, to name a few of her achievements in cultural conservation.

To reserve tickets to the ALTA Awards Ceremony at the Cultural Arts Center, call the box office at (240) 567-5775. The event is free of charge.

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