Life and Near Death on a Boat: An Oysterman Learns to Navigate the Hard Way

In reporting for "The High Low Tide," I've spent a good bit of time with Joe Maley, owner of the Ossabaw Oyster Company based in Sunbury, Georgia, a sleepy little spot in Liberty County. I wrote about him a bit before here.

His shellfish lease is mostly on the Bear River, which runs between marsh bluffs and Ossabaw Island. St. Catherine's Island can be seen to the south. To get to his lease, he leaves a dock in Sunbury and heads out the Medway River. Once in St. Catherine's Sound, he heads north, bending around the Medway Spit, a long bar that stretches from a marsh island well into the sound. 

I've been transcribing hours of interviews with Joe this week and I was very excited to re-hear a few anecdotes about how Joe, who's had many careers, mostly in construction, came to learn to work the water.

He did so in his 40s, and it nearly cost him his life a few times. 

"I'd never been an operator before. I knew to wear a life jacket for the most part, but that was about it. I started hanging out with Danny (Eller) shrimping and fishing, he operated the boat.

 

There's different types of boats and they all operate differently and I wasn't too comfortable with them.

One time I was pulling in the (shrimp) nets. We were rolling them over the gunnel and something in there, a stingray, got Danny in the finger and he about passed out. His finger was turning black, and it was up to me to get him back to the hill.

The water out by St. Catherine's (Island) is blue, but there's a lot of bars, and I had to drive us back. I tried driving, and he's yelling at me like, 'Over here, over there.' I'm just hitting them all. So he just ended up driving the boat back himself, one-handed. That's when I knew I needed to learn how to operate."

He started heading out by himself, trying out different boats, different motors, seeing which one fit. One time, with an Evinrude outboard motor: "When they're running good they sound horrible. Putt, putt, putt, putt, putt." Mostly, weather, or his inability to forecast correctly, put him in danger. 

I'm out in the water and the motor cuts off. It starts to rain, fog starts rolling in. I've got to go.

This is the Fall. It wasn't cold, thankfully, and it was daytime. Then all of a sudden it went dark. Cotton candy, can't see anything. By the time I realize I've got to get my ass back, it was dark and foggy. Only thing I knew to do was get up close to the shoreline and follow it.

Well, it was low tide, and I'm puttering along and I run aground every five minutes. I had to raise the motor by myself, get unstuck, paddle away. Put the motor back down, crank it again. I must've done that 20 or 30 times. I thought I was going to have a heart attack, it was that fucking bad. And I didn't have a clue where I was. I turned up a creek, thinking I was turning toward Sunbury. Finally, I saw a light thinking there would be a dock there. Thankfully there was enough water to get through there. Then I heard, 'There's a boat out there.' Somebody was on the dock. I started hollering at them. They were fixing to leave but they waited.

It was someone I knew and they said, 'What the hell were you doing?'

And I said, 'That's a very good question.'

 

That was only Joe's first brush with danger. It got worse. 

This time, there was a different boat, a yellow John Dory, a skiff sometimes called a Yankee Dory. The boat still sits upturned in Joe's yard: "A lot of folks are scared to get in it because of the low sides, but it's very seaworthy."

Seaworthy, sure, until it wasn't

It was a nice sunny day, calm. I had all my bags on the boat, getting ready to come back around. I started back and I noticed it was pretty choppy. So I stopped and secured everything in the back before I was going to tackle that. About that time, a Coast Guard chopper comes in and hovers above me.

There were gale force winds coming. Maybe they were trying to warn me or just looking at a stupid old….

I came around that corner and it was like Malibu surf crashing up against the back. It was cold that day and I was taking water over the sides. I knew something had to change or I would die. It doesn't have to be freezing to get hypothermia and die. 

I turned up the first creek I saw and assessed the situation. I had a radio but nobody could pick up. I didn't know what to do: go build a fire.

 

Wind was from the South to Southwest. It was five to six foot waves. I couldn't take the river back.

I decided to go into it, cross the sound, and it was a booger.  A lot of acts of contrition on the way over there. But I was able to get back through to Sunbury through the creeks. 

hat's why I have the boat I do now. It can take water.

Lessons learned. More followed.

There have been times when I should've gone out for an order — it would've been worth the money — but I decided long ago I'm not dying for a damn oyster.