A Captain On The Chesapeake Bay, 'Lost' Without A Skipjack Kermit Travers, 78, one of the last African-American skipjack captains, reflects on his nearly 60 years harvesting oysters on the Chesapeake Bay.
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A Captain On The Chesapeake Bay, 'Lost' Without A Skipjack

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A Captain On The Chesapeake Bay, 'Lost' Without A Skipjack

A Captain On The Chesapeake Bay, 'Lost' Without A Skipjack

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

I don't know, maybe some of you have oyster stuffing ready for your Christmas dinner today. If you do, there's a chance those oysters will have come from the Chesapeake Bay. For centuries, Chesapeake oysters were harvested on skipjacks. These are tall, sleek, single-masted sailboats. But the skipjacks are mostly gone now. They've been replaced by more efficient, less majestic ways of fishing. However, one skipjack captain refuses to fade away.

KERMIT TRAVERS: If this boat right here could talk right now, this boat would tell you all about me.

GREENE: That is the voice of 78-year-old Kermit Travers. He's one of the first and last African-American skipjack captains. He's been sailing the Chesapeake for most of his life. He spoke to us from his home port of Cambridge, Md., about his seven decades on the water.

TRAVERS: I started selling oysters when I was a little boy, 8 years old. The family was poor. We had eight sisters, and I was the only boy. My father had a heart condition. He couldn't work. My mother had to carry on the family by herself. So when I got up to the 10th grade, she said I want you to stop school because you've got to be the man of the family now. I said, OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TRAVERS: First time I saw a skipjack, I was 10 years old. I was impressed. In 1958, the captain was looking for a crew. He just bought this new boat, asked me - he said, have you ever worked on a skipjack? I said, no, sir. He said, you willing to learn? I said, yes, sir. We leave on a Sunday or a Monday morning. We didn't set foot on land no more until that Friday. So we had (unintelligible) on the boat, do everything on the boat. One man worked for about a week. And he said, I'm not coming back. He said it's too damn hard for me. Some of them didn't stay that long.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TRAVERS: I think it was in the early '80s, I really didn't want to be a captain at the time. The cook was telling me, said hurry up and drink your coffee 'cause you've got to take the wheel. He said captain got to sit down 'cause he has cramps in his legs. So I told him, I said let somebody else take it. He said, no, we're going to make a captain out of you. I said, no you're not (laughter). We had black and white crew, and all of us, we stuck together. We worked together, just like brothers. Very few black captains. I think there was about four other than myself.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TRAVERS: 1980, got my back busted out. It was slippery on deck and my feet slipped and busted the lower part of my back. I stayed off the water about four or five years. And then after I had my operation, I went back on the water, crazy, 'cause I love the water.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEAGULLS CAWING)

TRAVERS: I don't regret none of it. I don't regret none of it because if I couldn't see a skipjack around, I think I'd be lost.

GREENE: That is 78-year-old Kermit Travers, one of the last African-American skipjack captains on the Chesapeake Bay. And by the way, he spent nearly 60 years on the water without a life jacket and he couldn't swim.

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