Today– part 7 of my special series “`The Shrimp Capital of the World’ — Charles Farrell’s Photographs of Southport, N.C., 1938”
This is Benjamin Howard Day, Capt. Leslie Day’s father, with his hand on the wheel of the shrimp trawler Empress in the fall of 1938. You can’t see them in Charles Farrell’s photograph, but his son and the mate are wrestling the trawl aboard on the other side of the boat. The three men made up the crew of the Empress while she was shrimping in Southport.
A small shrimp boat such as the Empress typically carried only a two-man crew, a captain and a mate. However, it wasn’t unusual for an older fisherman such as Benjamin Day to go out shrimping with a younger pair of fishermen.
Even if a bit frail, an older man might help with the piloting, mend nets, cook, tie off the trawl and do odd jobs.
I expect that, after a lifetime on the water, many of those older guys found shrimping and a long sojourn living on a boat a bit more inviting than staying home.
Benjamin Howard Day was born on Cedar Island, in the most remote, easternmost part of Carteret County that people call “Down East.” That was in 1882. As his nephew Ben told me a few years ago, he “was a waterman all his life.”
He first went to sea at the age of 12. As a young man, he ran sharpies up into the Pamlico Sound and he hauled watermelons and other truck produce to Baltimore.
He was a devout Christian, a Primitive Baptist, and he played the fiddle at community dances on Cedar Island.
He had a rising sun tattoo on his arm. His nephew mentioned it because, a few years after this photograph was taken, he hid the tattoo under long sleeves after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
In 1913 he and his wife and children loaded a 21-ft. skiff with all their possessions and left Cedar Island. They sailed down Core Sound and made a new home on the far side of Morehead City, in the neighborhood that people called the Promise Land.
My great-great aunt Rosa Langdale lived in the Promise Land. Many years ago, I wrote about my memories of visiting her there when I was a child in an essay called “In the Promise Land.”
In the Promise Land, their new neighbors were also largely fishing people, and they too had been uprooted.
Most had left Shackleford Banks, an island 5 or 6 miles to the southeast, after a pair of hurricanes laid it waste in the late 1890s.
In the Promise Land, Mr. Day continued to live a waterman’s life. He did commercial fishing. He was one of Morehead City’s first charter boat captains. He was also a jackleg boat builder and carpenter who took on building jobs when the fish weren’t running.
During the First World War, he built patrol boats for the U.S. Coast Guard at the Bell-Wallace boatyard in Morehead City.
In or about 1930, he also helped K. G. Adams, a local master boat builder, build the boat in this photograph, the Empress.
Built like most Down East skiffs with plenty of dead-rise, the Empress was 48 ft. long, 10-12 ft. abeam and carried either a straight 8 Chrysler or a Palmer engine.
Mr. Day and his three sons kept the Empress busy. In the summer time, they ran her as a charter boat. They shrimped in the fall, though they also made time that time of year to haul seine for striped mullet for a few weeks.
In the winter they sometimes set nets for grey trout and other fish as far north as Cape Hatteras.
When times were hard during the Great Depression, and he had no building jobs and the wholesale price of fish fell to pennies, Mr. Day sometimes stayed home and peddled fish and oysters in Morehead City’s streets.
By the day that Charles Farrell took his photograph in Southport, Mr. Day had been making his living on the water for almost half a century. How I would have loved to sit and talk with him about what he had seen and done and learned at sea.
Next time– part 8– “A Boat built out of Scallops”