Nothing in the forecast for Feb. 3, 1939 hinted at trouble. The Baltimore Sun promised a ho-hum winter day: “Rain today, and probably tomorrow. Colder tonight.” Oystermen in the Chesapeake Bay didn’t see any red flags during their workday. A pair of then-young watermen, Art Daniels and Jimmy Murphy, were aboard the Robert L. Tawes out of Deal Island, Md.
Years later, they remembered toiling atop an oyster bar called Under the Cliffs through a “light drizzle” while getting pushed along by a “nice breeze.” They called it a day in mid-afternoon. Under the Cliffs is on the western-shore side of the Bay, near the town of Solomons. Sailing back to Deal on the Eastern Shore, the Tawes had 100 freshly dredged bushels on deck. Another 150 bushels were down in the hold—the previous day’s harvest hadn’t sold yet.
Many watermen have said through the years that one of the joys in their work is the way that Mother Nature delivers so many surprises. The quotes you’ll come across in books and newspaper articles are some variation of this: “Every day I see something out there I’ve never seen before.” Those words are usually spoken with a sense of wonder and gratitude, but the surprise Mother Nature delivered on that February day delivered something closer to terror.
The sky above the western shore cliffs went “black as tar” in the blink of an eye. The crew on the Tawes raced to lower the jib, but ran out of time with the mainsail. It was still halfway up when the storm hit. No one had time to measure the speed of the wind. Later, Daniels would guesstimate it at 65 miles per hour.
“Bringing the boat up into the wind was like hitting a wall,” Daniels would say. Murphy always remembered it as the “hardest blow I’ve ever seen come across the water,”.
The crew threw two anchors, trying to stabilize the Tawes and keep her upright. Those anchors might have helped, but in the years that followed Daniels would sound quite sure about what saved him and his shipmates. Those unsold 150 bushels in the hold served as ballast. Six or so other boats were working Under the Cliffs that day. Each crew probably had its own tale—superior seamanship there, miraculous good fortune here, or maybe a little of both. They all stayed afloat.
But as things turned out, those boats on the open Bay had survived only the “easy bit” of the “hardest blow.”
A Run Up the Choptank Turns Deadly
No one had radios. The Bay boats had no way to give warning to other vessels in the path of the storm. The “hardest blow” got harder still, picking up steam as it swept into the Choptank River. Nearly a dozen boats out of Cambridge, Md. were working various Choptank oyster bars that day—Benoni Bar, Howell Point, Chloris, and Castle Haven among them.
These boats, too, were on their way home. If the storm had come through an hour later they would have all been back home, tied up safely. The conditions were different on the Choptank. Everyone was sailing through a fog so thick that no one could see the sky turn “black as tar” off on the horizon the way those Bay boats had. When the storm hit, one witness said, it was as if “a curtain dropped over the sun.”
The writer Christopher White pored through old newspaper articles and interviewed survivors to piece together what happened next. His dramatic account of the storm appears in the book Skipjack: The Story of America’s Last Sailing Oystermen.
Here is White: “When it was 100 yards away, it looked like black smoke over the water. No whitecaps. The wind was faster than the waves.”
Here is Willie Parks, crewman on the Joy Parks: “That storm bore down on us like a rushing freight train.”
Here is Will Jones of the J.T. Leonard: “Skunk. That’s what we call ‘em. A squall that sneaks up on you.”
The storm blew the topsail off of the Leonard. The crew couldn’t get the mainsail down. The storm had control of the boat.
Jones: “We couldn’t do a thing but hang on and hope. Couldn’t get the dredges in. They were jumping up and down behind us like porpoises.”
Another boat, the Agnes, never had a chance, capsizing near Howell Point. Five men died. The Annie Lee capsized, too. Five men went overboard. Four died. The crew of the bugeye Nora Lawson got lucky—when she capsized, the men aboard found themself in shallow water. Everyone survived.
The Miraculous Rescue of George Wheatley
The story of how George Wheatley’s survival is hard to believe. The lone survivor from the Annie Lee, he was working on the motor in the yawl trailing that boat when the storm hit.
As Wheatley would recall: “The Annie Lee went down quick. And the yawl went down with her. There is a skiff at the back of the yawl and I got in it.”
The skiff soon capsized. Wheatley and his four shipmates were all wearing hip waders, which promptly filled with water and dragged them toward the bottom. All five managed to get those waders off. They bobbed back up to the surface. Soon, everyone was holding onto that little overturned skiff. Somebody managed to grab hold of an anchor line and steady that little boat, but then lost hold of the line.
The men knew they wouldn’t survive in the water for long. This was February, and hypothermia would kill them in short order. One by one they tried to get out of the icy water by climbing atop that skiff, but every climb ended in that skiff flipping over. Four men went under. Only Wheatley remained. Somehow, at the tender age of 19, he had seen the situation more clearly than his shipmates. Whenever one of them tried to climb atop that skiff, he opted to let go of the skiff. Only after each flip of that boat was complete would he dog paddle back up to it and grab hold again.
Miraculously, Capt. Bill Hubbard of the Geneva May spotted Wheatley. Hubbard didn’t really have complete control of his boat—that wind was still blowing.
Writer Christopher White: “The skipjack was bearing down on Wheatley at full speed with the wind behind her. She was flying.”
Hubbard had one chance to throw a line, and Wheatley had one chance to catch it. They got it done. But catching the line meant nothing if Wheatley couldn’t hold on once that line from the flying skipjack pulled taught. He put the knotted end in his teeth. He looped the rope around his arms. He didn’t have time to do anything else.
Writer Christopher White: “As the line became taut he held the line with both fists on either side of his mouth. This man was not letting go. The boat rushed by. The abrupt yank on the line, as it took hold, nearly broke his neck … Wheatley planed atop the river like a body surfer.”
Aboard the Geneva May, crew members spliced their end of the line onto the dredge cable and started winding Wheatley in.
White again: “With a smack, his body slammed into the side of the boat, and the crew reeled him up … like a load of oysters.”
Wheatley was shivering violently when he came aboard. His skin was purple. He passed out almost immediately. His rescuers covered him in blankets.
In the Aftermath
The storm that ravaged the Choptank that day marched across the Delmarva Peninsula, but killed no one else. It blew out a huge window in the lobby of the Hotel Sussex in Seaford, Del. It tore the roof off a chicken hatchery in nearby Middleford. Tree limbs and other debris littered roadways all over southern Delaware.
That day’s weather was insane not just in Chesapeake, but across half the country. Floods killed at least five people in the Ohio Valley. Three tornadoes touched down in South Carolina. Offshore winds drove ships aground off of New England. Blizzards shut down highways in Indiana, Missouri, and elsewhere.
The oystermen who returned home from the Choptank all felt the same way:
Sangston Todd: “I never expected to set foot [on land] again.”
Ivy McNamara: “All of us are lucky to be here. I didn’t think a single boat would come back.”
Countless boats joined in the search for the dead in the days that followed. Seven bodies turned up. Two were never found. Here are the names of the five men from the Agnes who lost their lives: Capt. William Bradford, Aaron Ennals, Rodney Jones, Robert Elliott, and Herbert Robinson. At age 77, Bradford was probably the oldest captain working in the Chesapeake region at that point. The four men who lost their lives from the Annie Lee: Capt. Theodore Wooden, Emerson Wingate, Clem Roberts, and Samuel Brown.
As for the miracle man, George Wheatley, he made a full recovery, then returned to oystering the next season. Here is what he told White many years later:
“I was only nineteen then. I thought I was invincible. Nothing bad could happen to me. Then I nearly died. By all accounts I should’ve died. But I didn’t give up the fight. I was a waterman all my life. It’s what I am. I figured if I capsized again I’d fight all the harder. This life is worth fighting for.”
In addition to putting in many more years on the water, Wheatley would work jobs as an oyster broker and as a custodian at a public school. He passed away in 2009 at the age of 88.
–written and posted by Jim Duffy for Whimbrel Creations/Secrets of the Eastern Shore in February 2023. All rights reserved.
NOTE: Christopher White’s book, Skipjack: The Story of America’s Last Sailing Oystermen, is an excellent read. It was published in 2011. Local bookstores might have it in stock. They’ll certainly be able to order it for you. Here is more info on it.