TIGER LILLY's FRIEND - Captain Leroy "TURK" Thomas
13 October 2010 | St. Michaels, MD
cool and wet
I noticed this fellow early one crisp October morning as I sipped a cup of Earl Grey, and contemplated my day from the cockpit of S/V Tiger Lilly. It was a delightful Chesapeake dawn; the soft pumpkin hued orb in the east was just beginning to cast a glow on Maryland's Eastern Shore, the morning stars were still bright and clear overhead, and rivulets of dew resolutely worked their way across the camber of the cabin top. The blush of first light was gently awaking the sleepy harbor of St. Michaels. Resident mallards were making their first round of the anchorage as they quacked and paddled from boat to boat looking for a handout. Overhead, a flock of big Canadian geese noisily winged their way north to a Wye River cornfield and breakfast. A large sailing yacht worked her way off the dock over at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, but as she made her turn towards the outer harbor the skipper had to heave-to and wait as the local waterman I had been observing worked his trot-line for blue crabs - right down the center of the fairway...
His vessel was a classic Chesapeake Bay jaunty-bowed workboat. The squint of her windshield communicated a sense of weatherlyness, her scarred sides bore testimony to many years of pullin' crab pots and dreggin' for oysters, and the raked dual exhaust stacks announced with a throaty rumble that this old diesel had all the gumption it needed. Although the vessel was a typical bay workboat, the waterman working her was unusual in that he was an elderly black man, when most of the Eastern Shore's watermen were white and middle aged. Even from a distance, his powerful frame and broad smile projected a sense of purpose and character as he simultaneously worked his rudder stick, engine throttle, and dip net with the practiced skill of a competent man happy in his work. As the trot-line rode up and over the idler sheave just aft of the cockpit steering station, dangling blue crabs were effortlessly flipped into a waiting sorting bin with a graceful sweep of his dip net - and another one of Michener's "beautiful swimmers" was on the way to market. It was a skillfully choreographed operation, deceptive in its simplicity. The trot-line laid on the bottom for some 300 yards, and was marked with a pick-up buoy on each end. He overhauled the line and collected the tenacious crustaceans, disengaged out at the far buoy, and sorted his catch as he ran free back to the start; each iteration of this process took about half an hour.
Although the day had dawned clear and bright, by nine-o-clock a front cloaked the Eastern Shore with dense cloud cover, and it began to drizzle a cool autumn rain. When Lilly emerged from the warm cabin below, ready for her morning row around the harbor, I pointed out the man I had been studying with my mug of tea and remarked "I'll bet that fellow is some character." She agreed, and told me that she noticed him yesterday morning, inquired at the Crab Claw, and they told her that his name was Turk. Hmmm. I told Lilly that based on my experience on the waterfront, "He did not get that handle over at the AME Baptist Sunday School..." Lilly allowed as to how she was going to row right over and meet her first Chesapeake Bay waterman, and "see what Captain Turk was all about." Lilly has yet to meet the person she cannot befriend, and her mission in life is to usually do just that - but let's let Lilly tell the story of Captain Turk herself...
As I pulled on the dink's oars, the grip of the cool wooden handles and the tang of the brisk morning air brought me alive; the exercise felt soooo good. Our dink rows like a dream, and with the light rain encouraging me on, she just skipped across the harbor to Turk's workboat, the Doris N. At first, I just sat back and watched this vigorous man work, and then I took out my camera and started snapping some pictures. The wind was slack and the water calm, and I edged in pretty close as we waved to one another. Yesterday I had seen this interesting looking man working his boat in the harbor, and I stopped by the Crab Claw Restaurant and asked Terry, the chief cook and dock master, about the black gentleman who crabbed every morning in St. Michaels Harbor. Terry told me that his name was Turk, he was a regular character around St. Michaels, and that he had been working these waters for as long as anybody could remember. As the Doris N. passed by, I waved and shouted out, "Hey Turk! Could I come on board with you and learn how you catch crabs?" He smiled and said in a kindly way, "Come on!" and I slid my dinghy alongside. I handed up my bow painter to him, and he said, "I'll take that, you just get on in." As I scrambled up the side, he quipped, "This here is a first, no one has ever asked to come aboard my boat." As I watched him figure-eight my painter to a cleat on his stern, I could see that here was a man who knew a lot about boats. His powerful calloused hands worked automatically, and he never took his eye off the trot-line. I thought of how Tom had been teaching me the knots I needed to sail Tiger Lilly, and Turk's skill and speed at making up my painter was one more reminder that I had a long way to go.
As soon as I boarded his boat, I began snapping pictures and asking questions. Captain Turk asked me if I was a reporter, and I told him, "No, I am just a curious woman sailing the Chesapeake for the first time, and I want to learn about crabbing." I told him that I thought that "Turk" was probably a nickname, and asked him what was his real name. He seemed caught off guard by my comment, he looked at me and reflected for a moment, and then quietly said, "That is the only name that anyone has ever called me around these waters." Then he shyly told me that his real name was Leroy, Leroy Thomas, and I told him that I would like to call him Leroy - if that was okay. He smiled and said that he would like that. When Turk found out that I wasn't one of those" rich city women," we just seemed to hit it off, and I had a new friend. As he worked, we talked about hard work, his boat, and his family.
I felt very secure in Leroy's presence, he treated me as an equal, and we enjoyed the morning together as we talked and he crabbed. Over the course of an hour or so, here is what I learned about Captain Leroy Thomas: He is 76 years old, and has been working on the water since he was a young boy. He married his wife Miss Doris when he was 19, and they have been together for all of these past 57 years. In the old days, Doris would come out and work with him, but now her health does not allow it. They have five sons, and they have put every one of them through college by his work as a waterman - what an accomplishment! He and Miss Doris still live in the same "tight" five-room home after all of these years, and he is so proud that one of his sons has a home with twelve rooms.
Turk seemed happy that I was interested in his profession, and was eager to tell me about his work. When he was younger he crabbed in the summer, and oystered in the winter - but now he leaves that oysterin to the younger men. He said, "Crabbing used to be a lot better, but there just ain't as many crabs anymore. In the good-old-days five or six would be on each lip, but today yur lucky to see one every other - and often they are too small to take..." The trot-line was baited with pieces of bull lip, each on its own short stringer at intervals of about four to five feet; each evening Turk overhauls his trot-line and replaces lost or worn baits in preparation for his next day's work. He starts very early in the morning, well before the sun comes up, and he works every day - at a station in life when many younger men in softer professions are retired... Turk accounted for his active lifestyle quite succinctly, "I just don't want to sit around and do nothing." The Doris N. is a neat and well organized vessel - and Captain Leroy is proud that he owns his own boat free and clear. Like working men all over America, he drinks his coffee from a small, chipped, Thermos, and each day Miss Doris packs his lunch in a stained Styrofoam cooler.
Everything about the workboat Doris N. and the rugged man who works her, gave off a sense of being well-used, well-kept, and balanced. Leroy "Turk" Thomas seems to be in harmony with himself, his environment, and the world. I told Turk that he looked kind of familiar to me, and he asked me if we had been to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum - and then I remembered that he was featured in one of the museum's watermen exhibits that I had just seen. He was a young man of about 30 then, and quite handsome. As we were about half way down the trot-line, Turk turned to me and said, "Lilly, you have just made my day" and my reply to him was, "Leroy, YOU have made MY day!" Oh my gosh! This man's heart was so very kind, and he had a genuine humbleness about him that I wish I could bottle. When I was getting off his boat, I gave Leroy a big hug and told him that I loved him, and that God loved him too. Then he gave me back a great big bear hug, telling me that he loved me. He left me with a beautiful smile that I know will last in my heart for a very long time. Wow, the friends we make cruising...
You can see more pictures of Lilly's visit with Leroy by simply navigating through our PHOTO GALLERY thusly: Ports of Call / USA / Chesapeake Bay / Captain Turk