Friday, December 4, 2009

The Sad Tale of the York Spit

York Spit, 2003

People who live in coastal regions tend to be sentimental about boats. Old watermen, for example, can recall the personalities of every boat they’ve ever owned.

The York Spit was built in the late 1930s for a local oyster processing company and used to guard its oyster beds against poachers. To give you an idea of the seriousness of this job, York Spit was originally fitted with a machine gun on her forward deck.

There were once several of these boats patrolling the lower Chesapeake Bay, each named for the river whose oyster beds she guarded. Only the York Spit survives.

When I first came upon her, York Spit was tied at a pier not too far from where we live. Her years as an oyster bed sentry long over, she was fitted out for pleasure cruising. Whenever I’d motor past her in my little runabout, I’d admire York Spit’s practical design, her elegant lines and her sturdy wooden construction. I never actually saw anyone take York Spit out. But every year or so they'd spruce her up with a fresh paint job and a new canopy.

Then she disappeared, having once again taught me that I should have taken a picture of her when I thought of it, not when I got around to it.

You see, I’d always wanted to do a photo essay about the York Spit. She’s not only an elegant and rare old boat, but also a tangible connection to a form of maritime commerce that's quickly disappearing.

You can imagine my joy, therefore, when a year or so later I came across York Spit one day while driving through an old section of Norfolk, Virginia. She was at a pier on the Lafayette River. I had my camera with me and quickly took a few pictures from a nearby bridge.

I tried to find whoever was taking care of her so that I could ask for permission to photograph her up close. But it’s a densely packed neighborhood where she was. Knocking on doors just got me yelled at by a lot of people, none of whom knew anything about York Spit. So I had to content myself with seeing only what I could see of her from the bridge.

Then the York Spit disappeared from the Lafayette River.

Fast forward to November of 2o08. I was prowling the waterfront in Norfolk and found this rotting old hulk up on blocks behind the oyster processing company that had owned York Spit. A little closer examination revealed that I had once again found York Spit. I took a few quick pictures of her sad condition and moved along. (Actually, a security guard came out and moved me along.)

York Spit, 2008

Fast forward again to this past September. I was attending an art show opening where, at one point, I could have sworn I heard some people standing behind me say the words “York spit.”

I don’t usually accost people I don’t know. But this was too much. I interrupted their conversation and asked if it was the York Spit they were talking about. It was, and they explained that they were part of a small band of enthusiasts who were hoping to rebuild York Spit.

It seems that the elder member of the family that owns the oyster company wanted to preserve York Spit, but was too old and ill to undertake the project. The younger members of the family just wanted the boat gone. As a compromise, they’d allowed the people I met at the gallery to haul York Spit away to a location where it would be out of their way and, to appease their great uncle, theoretically accessible for repair.

None of the people I met has the kind of money needed for this project. But at least for now York Spit is sitting on blocks and under a protective tarp behind the house of a local photographer friend of mine. Using the rotting boat timbers as a starting point, she has created a fascinating series of abstract, York Spit-inspired photographic images.


  1. Wow! What an interesting history for this wonderful boat. Love the photos and the story.

  2. You make that part of Virgina sound small. Perhaps all of these chance meetings were fate.

    Great story.