“My friend, you never seen crabs making love?”
“Act real horny, they do. Males get way up on their tippy toes.”
“. . . Females rocking side to side, contented like.”
“It’s their way of talking.”
. . . Large males have a deep lapis lazuli coloration along their arms . . . . In full summer the walking and swimming legs of both sexes take on a lighter blue, which artists would probably call cerulean. Females . . . decorate their claws with a bright orange-red . . . .
Before these lines were written, most residents of the region would have said they knew a thing or two about Callinectes sapidus. That’s Latin and Greek for savory beautiful swimmer, also known as the blue crab.
Marylanders and Virginians, after all, have for centuries been feasting on them; snaring them with pot and line, by net and dredge, scrape and trap; taking them hard-shell and soft, during migration, hibernation, in the very act of mating. Occasionally they have shot one another over crabs.
“Isn’t that the silliest idea. . . . Willy wants to do a book about crabbing,” exclaimed Arthur Sherwood, founder of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, following an audience with would-be author William Warner.
But Warner’s Beautiful Swimmers was something different. In 30 years, the book has never been out of print. Nothing published since, including James Michener’s blockbuster Chesapeake, has surpassed it.
It was Warner’s first book, published when he was nearing 60. It was a biological, historical, and sociological gem: an elegantly wrought, scientifically accurate portrait of a culture that existed all around us. He paid equal tribute to crabber and crab.
“Perhaps the best nonfiction about the Bay,” said writer John Barth in 1986. But he cautioned that it was more suited to a small press; it had nothing to interest people who didn’t live here.
It became a national bestseller and won a Pulitzer Prize for literature.
The man who would immortalize the Chesapeake and its watermen grew up in New York City, raised by a stepgrandfather who, Warner recalls, regularly admonished: “Your father is a bum, your mother is running around with every gigolo in Europe, so I suppose the spring can rise no higher than its source.”
The admonisher was “the Colonel”—real name George Washington Kavanaugh. Every summer he took young Warner to the Jersey shore. There, Warner and his brother spent their days exploring Wreck Pond, a small bay, open to the tides at its mouth, fringed with marshes, fed by freshwater streams at its head—a miniature of that great estuary to the south, the Chesapeake.
Stalking muskrats and blue crabs, spying on mink, raccoons and shore birds, Warner opened a naturalist’s eye. Later came escapes to the Jersey Pine Barrens, the Maine woods, the tropical rain forests, Patagonia. Toward the end of a career that included the State Department, the Peace Corps, and the Smithsonian, he began sailing the Chesapeake, overnighting in small harbors and listening to the yarns of watermen.
They talked of “bar cats” and “dinky skifts,” “Jenkins Creekers” and “Hooper Island draketails.” And always of crabs: “All those stumps, that’s where the doublers are at . . . .” “Some is still workin’ the bald spots, I hear, throwing the bare pot. . . . you got to go way down the banks. Get the Jimmy, but not the sook.”
“One cannot sit around very long and listen passively to this kind of talk,” Warner wrote. “Inevitably, there comes the effort to find out what it all means.”
Today’s Chesapeake is not the same bay in which Warner conducted his inquiries of crabs and crabbing during the 1960s and ’70s. Pollution-induced low oxygen in its depths is now routine. “Anoxic” and “hypoxic” are how the scientists describe it. “Bad water,” the crabbers say. Increasingly it reins them in as surely as barbed wire constrained the free range of the wild West.
Crabs have declined to low levels. And the number of full-time watermen in Maryland and Virginia, put at 9,000 when Beautiful Swimmers was published, is estimated now at less than 2,500.
Yet much remains. In remoter parts of the estuary it is still possible to revisit William Warner’s storied haunts, even to relive a chapter from Beautiful Swimmers. Chapter nine, entitled Summer and Scraping, begins:
A strong southwest wind came up early . . . . Leaves rustled, shutters banged, and a large metal sign at the gas dock creaked and groaned in the dark. . . . Then it came. . . . a workboat unlike any other I had ever seen on the Bay. Bow on, it resembled a miniature version of . . . battleships . . . half as wide as they are long.
It was a “Jenkins Creeker,” a lowslung, beamy, surprisingly graceful craft evolved to pursue shedding soft crabs in the submerged grass meadows around Tangier Sound in mid-Chesapeake. When Beautiful Swimmers was being written, well over half the nation’s supply of soft crabs came from here.
And 35 years after Warner experienced it, the scene, of a predawn summer morning on Maryland’s Smith Island, is much the same. Only the creaking metal sign on the gas dock has fallen off.
Morris Goodman Marsh, the “tall and strongly built man” who met Warner at the Smith Island gas dock, is 66 now, going strong in his 51st year of “scraping”—dragging heavy iron dredges through the grass beds to capture softies and peelers (crabs that will shed when placed in circulating seawater back at Marsh’s crab shanty).
“I won’t change,” he had told Warner. The comment came regarding differences with the state over crab rules, but it could have summed up Marsh’s life.
Except for some extra pounds and gray in the sandy, thinning hair, Marsh looks much the same, with big arms and shoulders that make seemingly light work of heaving aboard the loaded dredges—or scrapes—hour after hour.
Little Doll, the old scrape boat in which he took Warner out, was named for Marsh’s young daughter, and it has gone to a private museum. He had Darlene (Little Doll’s grownup name) built in 1990 along the same lines and layout—baskets and compartments on her deck arranged to hold “busters,” “ranks,” “snots,” “buckrams,” “number ones and number twos,” and “doublers”—all life stages of the crab he will encounter in a day of scraping.
Against the trend toward low-maintenance boats, Darlene was built of wood: “Fiberglass don’t suit me. She’s one of the last wood ones.
“The Smithsonian came down and took her lines for their archives,” Marsh says. Well before sunrise, Marsh and his son, Allen, are scraping just off the eastern marshes of Smith Island, moving at a few miles an hour in water no more than knee deep.
Allen captains the Miss Lydia, named after his daughter. Morris Marsh told Warner he planned on college and a better life for Allen, who was five at the time. Warner noted, however, that the little boy was fascinated even then by pictures of fishermen pulling nets.
The sun rises over Crisfield on the mainland, warm pink, striated by pale clouds that give it a crinkly, Chinese-lantern look. It reflects on the late-summer marsh that is bursting with golden-brown seed. The water, churned by the scrapes, is a muddy bronze.
A thunderstorm is moving across the bay from the west, full of lightning. Against the fresh greens of the marsh and the dark western sky, the long slants of ascending sun set Miss Lydia and Darlene to glowing as they cross, bow to bow, bearing Morris and Allen bent over their gunwales, plucking crabs from the rolls of glistening, green grass they have heaved aboard. It’s hard work—also glorious art, the portrait of a culture, underwritten by the crab.
It’s a scene right out of Beautiful Swimmers—or almost anytime during the past century. Marsh’s late father-in-law, Ed Harrison, who lived next door to him, began scraping in the 1920s and didn’t hang it up for close to 70 years.
You think about retiring? I ask Marsh. “You ever know Cap’n Irving from Rock Hall?” he replies. “He said you retire when you can’t get your boots on in the morning.” I recall that Cap’n Irving Crouch fished into his nineties.
Even here on Smith Island, time and progress have asserted themselves. The morning sun glints now from the roofs of mainland condos that are replacing Crisfield’s traditional seafaring waterfront. There were 20 other scrapers around Morris Marsh in Beautiful Swimmers. Now there aren’t that many working on the whole island.
Changed, too are the underwater grasses. They are the lifeblood of soft crabbing, where maturing females seek sanctuary to shed their shells, and males, attracted by pheromones, couple with them on their final shed, the only time the females mate.
Other than the crabbers themselves and a few biologists, Warner was perhaps the first to appreciate the role the underwater grasses play in the Chesapeake ecosystem. The remarkable productivity of the bay, he wrote, was here “palpably and beautifully presented in each gleaming fresh-green roll of grass.” ➝
Like the bay’s spreading oxygen deficits, the disappearance of tens of thousands of acres of grasses since the 1970s has been one of the clearest indicators of decline in the estuary.
And even where it remains abundant, like here around Smith Island, the grass now is widgeon grass, a different species from the eelgrass Warner mentioned over and over. Widgeon grass still supports crabs, but it is less stable, what you’d expect in the more marginal water quality of today’s bay.
Nor does it persist into the winter as eelgrass did, providing critical waterfowl food. When he was a boy, Marsh says, “we used to stand on top of the old Island Belle [ ferry] and see solid eelgrass going way, way off the island. Now there’s almost none.”
The coming storm is a doozy, heavy lightning and sheets of rain driven almost horizontal by the wind. A Pulitzer Prize–winning chronicler would have remained aboard Marsh’s open boat, but I’m no Willy Warner. I hop from Darlene into my skiff anchored nearby and head in. Marsh and son will crab through it all. I’ll see them back at the shanty toward the end of a 13-hour day.
He arrived that afternoon with 400 keepable crabs, an excellent day, Marsh says, but only in the context of this “worst year in my 51 years of scraping.” Warner 30 years ago wrote that 500 crabs was about the worst day’s catch, and a thousand or more was not uncommon.
“May come a time soon when you won’t see a scraper,” Marsh says. While Allen didn’t attend college, he did train as a welder, and around the bay welders are in more demand than college graduates.
He still exchanges Christmas cards with William Warner. In Beautiful Swimmers the author “told it like it is.” That simple statement is about as high praise as a watermen can give a writer.
“I enjoyed him, really, and he mostly asked sensible questions,” Marsh recalls. Warner spent several days aboard to produce his account of a single day’s scraping. “A lot says they want to go with you, but come 4 am they’re not there. But he was always there, waiting to go.”
Over on Deal Island, just up Tangier Sound from Smith Island, Grant Corbin recalls Warner. “He came down here in 1970, ’71. At the time he was the only one ever wanted to go out with me.
“He was a wheel up there at the Smithsonian, but he’d listen to the crabbers. That’s why he did so good, I think. He started out knowing nothing about a crab, so he listened to everything you’d say and wrote it down the way it was.”
A crab potter who catches both hard crabs and peelers, Corbin, now 58, was the subject of two chapters, including one, “Out Main Bay,” where Warner mused about the storm clouds that even then were gathering on the bay’s future: “coliform bacteria indices . . . siltation-caused reduced photosynthetic capabilities, oxygen deprivation, nutrient loading . . . . I doubted many watermen understood the full threat of their quiet and insidious workings. Perhaps it was easier to put it the way they do. You look hard at the water and sometimes it seems like it’s getting a little old and tired, a little messy. Simple as that, if anyone cares to notice.”
Corbin’s fishing at least twice as many pots to make a living as he was when he took Warner out. As we talk, Ernie, a local, comes by Corbin’s crab house: “Got half a bushel today?”
“Nah . . . well, I do, Ernie, but I don’t want to sell ’em to you, so many dead. We got bad water, everything from 30 to 50 feet on down in the sound is dead in the pots. I’ve seen it in the main bay before, but I’ve never seen it like that here in the sound.”
Corbin later says nearby Holland Straits, a hallowed crabbing ground described in Beautiful Swimmers, “is full of beautiful grass, but there’s hardly a crab in it. We don’t know why. Holland Straits used to handle us all—Hooper Islanders, Deal Islanders, Smith Islanders, Dorchester—you could always make a day’s work there, but no more.”
“Another few years and I think I’m done,” Corbin says. “The developers are trying to make Deal Island like Martha’s Vineyard. Watermen won’t be able to pay their taxes.”
Some of the unforgettable characters given voice by Warner are gone, like Lester Lee, who trotlined for crabs around Kent Island from almost the beginning of the 20th century. Through Lee, Warner would introduce “chicken necker” to the public vocabulary. The term referred to newcomers who knew just enough about crabbing to be dangerous, so green they’d keep baiting up with chicken necks when real crabbers had long since switched to salted eel or bull lip, whatever was catching best.
“Them no good chicken neckers come in here and lay their lines right over us,” fumed old Lester. “They so dumb you explain it to them—you say, ‘Honey, boy, look what you’re doing to me’—and they come right back and do it again.”
William Warner still lives in the home he bought 44 years ago in DC’s Foxhall Road section with Kathleen, his wife of 55 years. They met on the Long Island Railroad en route to a weekend in Quogue—“look for the young man in the last car with a fishing pole,” a friend told her.
Warner might easily have claimed more celebrity following the success of Beautiful Swimmers. He did serve for a time as a trustee of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and a federal judge in Virginia accepted the book as expert testimony in a trial over crabbing rights.
But Warner felt that with Beautiful Swimmers he’d done what he wanted with the Chesapeake. He moved on to larger waters, immersing himself for close to six years in another book, Distant Water—The Fate of the North Atlantic Fisherman.
Many readers, including me, thought that book fully equal to Beautiful Swimmers. But it went out of print after selling about 35,000 copies. It was fine writing and reporting, a riveting story told from the decks of the global fishing fleet that by the early 1980s threatened to overharvest even the most distant oceans. Warner gained almost unheard-of access to the fleets of several nations, capturing the human face and the ruthless efficiency of what fishing was becoming.
He hit a low point, Kathleen recalls, after publication of Distant Water and rediscovered himself through conversations with a priest of her Catholic parish. The “nominally Episcopalian” Warner converted. Soon after, his pastor at Georgetown’s Holy Trinity Church asked if he would undertake a “small history” for the church’s bicentennial. It would occupy Warner full-time for the next eight years, growing into At Peace With All Their Neighbors, an account of the largely undocumented role of Catholics in shaping the nation’s capital.
In 1999, at age 79, he published his last book, Into the Porcupine Cave and Other Odysseys, a collection of nature essays and partial memoir. These days Warner does not get out much, he says, though he manages an annual trip to Maine to be with family. He still greets a visitor warmly, with questions about how things are going down on the Chesapeake. But at the age of 87 he finds it hard to reflect on his books. He says he now is “writing mostly checks.”
We’ll have to be content with what he’s already told us. In Beautiful Swimmers, better than anyone before or since, he captured the essential nature and culture of the Chesapeake, the artifice of the crabber, and the art of the crab that is at once the waterman’s prey and object of his devotion.
Morris Marsh, one of the Smith Islanders immortalized by Warner, is still going strong more than three decades later. The two men still correspond.
Warner described the mass of crabs that filled the watermen’s crates as “a rich and fragmented palette of olive greens, reds, varying shades of blue and marble white.”
Warner saw the crab not only as a culinary treat but as a creature of wondrous artistry and the center of a rich bay culture.
With crabs in decline, there are fewer full-time watermen in places like Smith Island, where marsh grasses rim the water’s edge.
Allen Marsh was five when Warner spent time with his father. Even then, the young boy was fascinated by the crabbing life.
Marsh has crabbed through all kinds of weather, including violent storms, for more than half a century.
Watermen like Corbin who use crab pots say they have to fish twice as many pots to make a living as they did when Warner explored the bay.
Warner, now 87 and living in DC’s Foxhall Road area, won the Pulitzer Prize for Beautiful Swimmers. The book has never been out of print.
Grant Corbin, the subject of two chapters of the book, says Warner listened to and wrote down everything the crabbers said.
Tom Horton has written six books on the Chesapeake Bay. His seventh is due out this summer.