Master and commander: the far side of the creek
Editor’s note: This is part one of a three-part series from CJ columnist Nelson on his unique perspective of what it was like in the early 1970s when, as a teenager, he joined a cooperative shrimping operation in North Carolina internal waters.
Dick Oliver was an unusually short man. Not an inch over five feet. This, combined with his 200 pound plus frame, made him appear to be as wide as he was tall. Perched on top of this short, spherical torso was a full head of hair, disproportionately small relative to his lemon drop stature. He was quite the sight with a faded ball cap, a short cigar stubble, usually no shirt, shorts that extended down to his knees, and canvas slip-on shoes. But Dick Oliver was the captain of our good little ship.
How I came to crew on Captain Oliver’s vessel started with farming tobacco, or rather not farming tobacco. The most significant sale I ever made was when I talked my dad into just raising corn and soybeans and turning away from growing the evil smoking weed. That freed up the remainder of the summer when the crops were finished. The time had to be filled with something, and that something was shrimping.
Our 140 acres bordered Adams Creek in the far eastern corner of Craven County, North Carolina. My dad had an extensive shrimping resume, having captained shrimp boats himself. He had trawled for shrimp in the waters of northern Pamlico Sound to the tropics of Key West, but he was forced to live a more terrestrial life due to health reasons.
Captain O acquired his captain identity through his other title: boat owner. The shrimping deal was that Captain O would supply the boat, my dad would supply the gear, and me? I was to provide 15-year-old surfing conditioned muscles. The two of them were 50-50, and, if you do the math, that made my labor cheap! A disappointing commission for my great un-tobacco sale, but fishing in Eastern North Carolina has a long and exciting history of involuntary conscription.
The boat was a wooden 30-foot Harkers Island-type with about a 10-foot beam (width). It was open, with no cabin, standard flare for the type, and a square stern. It was powered by a converted GM automobile 327 cubic inch engine. The fuel tank was adapted from an old water heater.
The motor didn’t have a transmission and used instead a notched triangle of plywood connected to the clutch lever for neutral and forward. No reverse. A stiff metal wire to the carburetor, with a large rubber washer, regulated the throttle. A tapered vertical staff served as the tiller. The Interior was sky blue; the exterior was white topsides, red boot-stripe, and a blue bottom. As fine as it was, the boat didn’t have a name, and even though it served us well, to my knowledge, Captain O never gave it one.
On a typical shrimping morning, Dad would be up, and as I sleepwalked into the kitchen, he would push some scrambled eggs and bacon under my nose. Even though I could have legitimately still been considered asleep, I would quickly scarf them down. The next thing I knew, we would be standing at the landing in the pitch-black encapsulated in night sounds.
The lights of Captain O’s 1957 Olds 88 would bounce up and down as they oscillated over the bumpy dirt road, eventually illuminating us and the live oaks as it finally gasped to a stop. A ’57 Olds is essentially a Sherman tank with slightly more rounded edges. Captain O had to sit on two Sears and Roebuck catalogs to see across the massive acreage of the paint flaking hood.
The boat was on a mooring about 200 feet offshore. Captain O, Dad, two full five-gallon metal gas cans, and I loaded into the eight-foot shore boat for the boarding adventure. With all the people and stuff, there wasn’t enough room in the boat to row, and there were only about three inches of freeboard between our much-preferred state of floating versus a less desirable sinking comedy event, so we gingerly poled and kayak paddled out and over to the boat side.
If we had sunk at the deepest spot, it was only chest deep to dad and I. Captain O, on the other hand, would have probably bobbed around like a giant crab pot float, and I would have been tasked with locating and retrieving him in the pitch black! Can’t sail without the captain! Fortunately, we never sank or capsized.
Coming alongside and standing up in the unsteady pram, I heaved the first gas can into the boat bottom, then the second, then climbed in myself. Leaning over, I steadied the dinghy while Captain O and dad also clambered in. We did the gas transfer, made ready and cast it off. The sound of the large GM engine roaring to life broke the still morning quiet and announced the start of another shrimping trip.
Nelson Paul is a real estate agent, former NC Coastal regulator, inventor, husband, father of four, and a grandfather of seven.