by Tom Horton
We were off the eastern side of Smith Island, in water so shallow I had to trim up the motor on my little flat-bottom skiff to stay clear of the grassy bottom. A dark, bruised sky hung over the westward marshes and a warm, pink sun rose behind us, lighting the island's soft crab fleet, their low hulls glowing white against the rich greens and golds of spartina grasses. These boats—sometimes called Jenkins Creekers or bar cats, but most commonly known as scrape boats—are as much Chesapeake classics as the more famous oyster skipjacks. And they're even less likely to still be around a decade from now.
In his classic 1976 Chesapeake portrait, Beautiful Swimmers, William Warner described the scrape boat as "a workboat unlike any other I had ever seen on the Bay." Seeming half as wide as it was long, he said, it looked like a "a miniature battleship." There's a reason for that, of course. It's a classic case of form following function; the boat evolved for one purpose, to ply the Bay's grassy shallows for shedding blue crabs.
Said to "float on a heavy dew," scrape boats run from 26 to 30 feet long and 9 to 10 feet wide. The hull is a shallow-V deadrise that quickly flattens toward the stern, enabling the boat to pull its twin scrapes—rectangular steel frames, each with a trailing mesh bag—in knee-deep waters. The broad beam might sound ungainly, but the hull tapers toward the stern—betraying its sailboat origins. And it has a graceful sheer, flowing from a bow height of a few feet to little more than a foot above the water amidships.
And you want a low freeboard when you spend the whole day hoisting aboard scrapes, which weigh 50 pounds apiece, not including the load of sea grass and crabs that come in too. Low sides or not, there's a higher than average inci-dence of back problems among scrape boat crabbers. They spend long days bending in precisely the position back doctors say puts undue pressure on the lower back as they sort through rolls of grasses to pluck out the peelers and softies. And that alone may be why crab potting is now the far more common way of catching soft crabs.
Some people think that's good, assuming that dragging a scrape across the Bay's beleaguered grass flats must be destructive. But the smooth bar of the scrape, unlike a toothed dredge, doesn't uproot grasses. In fact, where scraping is traditional, the grass beds seem relatively resilient. I've often thought if Maryland and Virginia had stuck with scraping as the major legal way to soft-crab, overfishing might not have become a problem. Pots can be deployed everywhere and by the thousands, whereas scraping is limited to grass beds and to ground covered at three miles per hour; and even the sturdiest waterman can only pull two of them by hand. But peeler pots seem here to stay, and other soft crabbers have taken to using a single, large scrape operated from larger workboats by hydraulic power.
The bottom line is that these lovely, superbly functional expressions of Chesapeake crabbing culture now number only in the dozens, if you count working, wooden models. There are some fiberglass scrape boat hulls in service, and a Carolina skiff or two has been adapted for the task. They are functional, but have little art to them.
It is probably a sign of how fast scrape boats are going that the Smithsonian Institution recently took the lines off Darlene, a scraper worked by Morris Marsh of Smith Island, for its archives. You can see photos of scrape boats, and learn more about the 140-year old history of scraping, from Paula Johnson's fine book, The Workboats of Smith Island. Mr. Marsh, still going strong in his late 60s, is the scraper who took Warner out nearly 40 years ago when he was researching Beautiful Swimmers.
Indeed, scraping seems to win over those who master it. Marsh's father-in-law, Ed Harrison, scraped for almost 70 years, nearly wearing through the cross-planked bottom of his boat—from the inside—with decades of walking the planks, tending his scrapes. And an islander who scrapes with Marsh today, David Laird, says he is 71—one year younger than Scotty Boy, the scrape boat he took over from his dad in 1958. "I wouldn't even know how to crab in another boat," Laird says.
Soft crabs may well be caught—or farmed—a century from now on the Chesapeake; but no one will devise a way to take them so intimately and beautifully from the shallowest marsh edges and tiniest crevices in the shore as the scrapers do.
Island Jewel, a 17-foot scale model of a scrape boat at the Smith Island Center.
To see more scrape boat photos, visit photographer Dave Harp's website,