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Friday, June 29, 2012

On Deck with the Captain of the Skipjack Rosie Parks

On Deck with the Captain of the Skipjack Rosie Parks

by Dick Cooper
Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum's Skipjack Rosie Parks
Skipjack Rosie Parks, circa the late 1980s during the Museum's Traditional Boat Races.

It was a cold winter’s day on the decks of the skipjack Rosie Parks as she dredged for Chesapeake oysters. Suddenly, the long boom accidently jibed, sweeping Captain Orville Parks from the after-deck into the frigid water. His crew quickly pulled him back on the deck thinking they might get a respite from the raw weather. First Mate Theodore Cephas remembers saying, “Well, we’ll get to go home early today. But Captain Orville, he went down in the cabin, took them wet clothes off, put on a set of oil skins, nothing underneath them, and we drudged all day long.” 

Cephas, now 80, of Vienna in Dorchester County, the last living member of the Rosie Parks regular crew, says he worked side-by-side with the legendary Captain Orville from 1956 until 1974. Captain Orville’s niece, Mary Parks Harding, daughter of Bronza Parks, builder of the famous skipjack, says Cephas was “Uncle Orville’s right-hand-man. If the Rosie Parks moved, Theodore Cephas was on board.” Cephas says he was a young, out-of-work farmhand looking for a winter job when he met Captain Orville in Cambridge.

Theodore Cephas at the 2011 OysterFest.
Theodore Cephas at the 2011 OysterFEst, standing at the bow of the Rosie Parks.
“I was walking along the wharf one morning looking for a job,” Cephas recalls. “About 5 o’clock in the morning, Captain Orville come up and asked me if I want a job and I said yes. He said I got a drudge boat. I said I don’t know nothing about drudgin’. He said, come on, get in the car, and we went down to Wingate. Rosie Parks, she was up on the railway, I helped put her overboard. I was one of the first ones.”

Sitting on a couch in the living room of his home, Cephas, still lean and waterman strong, strokes his slight beard with a hand worn into hard leather by a life of physical labor as he thinks back on his days as a Chesapeake Bay oysterman. “That was hard work,” he says, adding, “cold too.” He says he kept up with the Rosie Parks after Captain Orville sold it to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in 1975, but he stopped checking in on her about six years ago when Rosie’s deterioration became too much to witness.

Captain Orville Parks, of the Skipjack Rosie Parks.
Captain Orville Parks.
“It was a shame they let her go down so,” he says. Cephas has heard about the rebuilding of Rosie Parks now in full swing at the Museum. Marc Barto, project manager overseeing the rebuilding of the 56-year-old skipjack, has begun the exacting job of replacing and repairing her deck beams. The centerboard trunk has been rebuilt and her cabin lifted off the deck. Barto hopes to save the original cabin as he constantly looks for ways to save as much of the boat as possible during the three-year restoration and educational project.

“I might drive up there and take a look at her,” Cephas says. (Cephas did come back to see Rosie at this year’s OysterFest). Looking back, Cephas says he remembers the Rosie as the queen of the oyster fleet.
“He kept a good rig,” he says of Captain Orville. “He was one of the best on the Bay. He was the Admiral, Governor Tawes made him that,” referring to the honorific “Admiral of the Chesapeake” bestowed on distinguished watermen over the years.

“He knew every trick,” Cephas says. “He’d catch oysters on a state road.” Unlike a lot of captains who tended to stay near their home ports, Orville Parks sailed all over Maryland’s half of the Bay hunting for oysters. “At the end of the day, when we wasn’t working, he’d be laying down there in his locker thinking about the next move,” Cephas says. Captain Orville would steer his boat from her home port on Cambridge Creek to Wingate, Annapolis, Deal Island, Tilghman Island, Fairlee Creek, and Solomons Island to find his prey.

“Anywhere there’d be oysters, he’d be there,” Cephas says. “He would be out on the Bay night and day and I never seen him lost.” He says the captain learned a hard lesson in the winter of 1957 when Rosie was ice-bound in Cambridge. “I drudged with him so many years, we never got froze up but that one time,” Cephas recalls.

“He says, ‘Boys, you’ll never catch me in here again.’ He was smart. When we’d get ready to freeze up he would leave and go to Solomons Island.” Cephas remembers the boom days of the late 1950s and early 1960s when oysters were plentiful.

“Oh my lord, one year, not sure what year it was back in the 60s and we was drudging over off Chesapeake Beach,” he says. “They didn’t have no limit. One time we had 350, 400 bushels a day. We would unload twice a day.”

Orville Parks’ crew was loyal to him because they knew they could make money working for him. They also knew that if they had a bad spell, the Captain would do right by them. “Lot of times we didn’t make much, but he would always give you something to take home.”

Cephas says that Captain Orville “liked the dollar. He liked money, and he had some too. Captain Orville didn’t fool with nothing that didn’t have money in it.” Even when he was racing against other skipjack captains for bragging rights, he always had his eye on the prize money, Cephas says. “If he didn’t win that race, he could be pretty hard to get along with.”

But Rosie won most of her races because Captain Orville “kept his boat in first-class shape, he had light sails on her and he would outsmart most of them,” Cephas says. In the later years of their friendship, Cephas recalls when Captain Orville wasn’t feeling well, he would take the helm. In 1974, Captain Orville had a heart attack and his doctor told him it was time to get off the water. Cephas remembers the call he received from his old captain. “He said, ‘I’m going to get rid of her.’ I said, ‘No you’re not.’ He said he was selling her to the Museum in St. Michaels.”

Captain Orville told Cephas he wanted him with him when he delivered Rosie Parks to her new home. “It was a sad day. When we left he cried just like somebody shot him.”

Orville Parks, captain of the Rosie Parks—the skipjack named for his mother—was ashore at the age of 78. He had worked the Chesapeake’s waters since he was a boy. He died less than a year after selling the Rosie Parks to the Museum in 1975. Cephas says he retired from oystering in 1979. Now, at the age of 80, he is retired from farming and only works one job as a caretaker on a Dorchester County farm, cutting grass and tending to chickens.

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