Lost at sea: 80 years after the tragic Bay accident

Ahh, sailing under blue skies with the hint of a breeze – just enough to fill the sails and scoot over the Bay to a secluded cove for the weekend. Calm waters with no hint of wind driven, white capped waves. Oh, maybe a brief shower and 15 knot winds would be exciting for a short spell.
But talk to a waterman. The truth is the Chesapeake Bay is captivating but unpredictable. A clear summer day can turn into a raging storm in minutes and leave in its wake torn sails, frightened passengers, a lost dingy. On Feb. 3, 1939 nothing was farther from a picture perfect day for the Bay skipjacks and the watermen who sailed them.


After a week of 12-14 hour long, backbreaking days the Oyster Fleet was heading to Cambridge to sell their catch. Eighteen-year-old crewman George Wheatley Sr. woke early aboard the skipjack Annie Lee to a thick fog. He would spend the next hours dredging for oysters with the captain and crew. He never imagined it was the last time he would ever see them.
His son, Pastor George Wheatley Jr., has stories to tell. A great storyteller, he has a way of making the past come alive. You can feel what the life of a waterman is like with the joys of a good catch, the worry about a poor harvest, the apprehension of an unexpected storm, and the physical burden of bringing in a catch. He says, on that cold, foggy day in February, “My grandfather was lost and every one of the men on three skipjacks was lost except my dad.”


Born and raised in south Dorchester, George Jr. worked with his father on the water. “I started when I was 16 years old,” he says. “First thing he taught me was crab potting, and I crab potted during the summer for two years. The next thing he taught me was trot lining. When I was 10 years old and off for school for Christmas he took me with him and taught me how to hand tong the oysters. It was extremely hard work.” Two uncles were skipjack captains and he worked as a skipjack deck hand.
He explains the tension of being constantly alert when the dredges come rushing aboard, oysters are dumped, culled and the next dredge arrives. It’s hard, punishing work. He learned to read the wind, set the sails, and work the skipjacks over the oyster beds. He felt the different vibrations through the dredge’s steel cable over the various bottoms in a search for the oyster beds.


After George Jr.’s graduation in 1965 his parents were thrilled that he accomplished something they were not able to do – get a high school education. His dad told him, “My prayer is that you never have to work the water. But, if you have to, at least you know how.” He says, “I’m so thankful I didn’t have to do it. My hat’s off to the watermen because it’s an extremely hard lifestyle. Going crabbing you have to get up at 3:30 a.m. and usually you don’t get home until 5:30 p.m. Tonging, we got out at 5 or 5:30 a.m. but the weather is so cold.”


In the winter of 1939 George Sr. was working aboard the Anna Lee. There were five on the dredge boat including Captain Theodore Woodland, George Sr., Emerson Wingate, Glen Roberts and Sam Brown. The Agnes, another skipjack, captained by William Bradford, had a crew of four: Tim Roberts, Aaron Ammaos, Rodney Jones and Robert Elliot. All but George Sr. died on Feb. 3, 1939.
From his post George Sr. saw a storm on the horizon that looked like a black curtain of fog and water closing in on the fleet, which had been sailing on water as still “as glass” – all sails up. Suddenly the winds roared and hit the boats like a runaway freight train. Witnesses say they saw a tornado over the water that whipped them around like toys. No one could stand up, three boats from the party of over 20 work boats were hit broadside and before the crew could turn the boat into the wind they capsized. “Dad said when the skipjack turned over he remembers going to the bottom of the bay because his hip boots filled up with water and dragged him down. He kicked his feet out, left his boots on the bottom and rose 22 feet to the surface.”

George Sr. hung onto the rescue skiff’s stern in the freezing water and did not let go until he was rescued. He remembered nothing of the rescue until he came to in port, suffering from hypothermia.
Miraculously, although sails were shredded only three of the 20 boats capsized, one of which, the Nora Lawson, capsized in shallow water off Howell’s Point and the crew was rescued. George Sr. watched as Capt. Woodland sank to the bottom, rose to the top, and sank for a final time beneath the water. “The deckhands couldn’t swim and dad said they were the last ones to go. They were trying to climb on the skiff. You have to just hold on to it not climb. He saw them drown. He said it was so cold and the wind was so hard the tops were blowing off the waves.”


The skipjack Geneva May, captained by Bill Hubbard, saw the overturned skiff and people in the water and knew he could only make one pass by them. If the rope he was holding missed he could not get back. George Jr. said his dad told him it looked like the boat was moving at 100 mph. The rope had to reach the overturned skiff. “The only thing dad remembered is taking that rope, biting it with his teeth and holding on with both hands. He looked like a water skier. There are a lot of people who forgot this tragedy had even happened, but it was the worst oyster fleet accident in the state “
“My great grandfather and his whole crew were lost on the Agnes. I want people to understand how hard the job is and how much appreciated the watermen need to be. Even today with hydraulic haulers. The dredging fleet, the skipjacks, have all but disappeared. In 1964 I could walk from one side of Cambridge Creek to the other almost across the skipjacks.” No more. There is only a handful left.


A 10-minute monster of wind and rain sought and found victims to take but left George Wheatley Sr. to tell the harrowing tale of the most deadly storm in skipjack history. He returned to work the water until his death in 2009 at almost 90 years of age. It’s the lifeblood of these determined, tough, hard people who work the water.

Susan Bautz is a freelance writer for the Dorchester Banner.

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