The Last Trawlers - Features - Atlanta Magazine
 
 
 

The Last Trawlers

For generations, shrimp boats have plied the waters along Georgia’s coast. But as foreign seafood floods the market and gas prices soar, will this way of life be lost?

Photograph by Jamey Guy

Michael Boone can find the sea with his eyes closed. He peers into the black of 3 a.m. from the helm of the Little Man, hands on the pegs at ten and two, guiding the seventy-five-foot fiberglass trawler slowly down the narrow Darien River toward the Atlantic. The only light is a half moon and an electronic depth finder that throws the young captain’s reflection onto the pilothouse window. Michael barely looks at the instrument. He knows by heart every rock, every coil and curve of the grassy shore, every jut in the shallows and hunk of debris that lurks just beneath the calm, dark surface. He has run these eleven winding miles, in blinding rain and fog, since he was twelve and had to stand on a milk crate his daddy bolted to the floor so he could see over the wheel.

Michael Boone, captain of the Little Man; photograph by Jamey Guy

Michael’s feel for these waters reaches beyond his own experience. He inherited this path from his father, who learned it from his father, who learned it from his. Four generations of Boones, one of several families puttering out from Darien, a small town sixty miles down the coast from Savannah, to scour the ocean floor for shrimp. And other than a few tweaks in navigational technology and creature comforts like an air-conditioned cabin, the shorted-out TV in the back, and the clunky flip-phone that does little more than take calls and tell time in his pocket, Michael operates pretty much in a clearer snapshot of how his grandpa, Sinkey Boone, fished, the way so many men have shrimped off Georgia for more than sixty years. There aren’t as many of those men as there used to be. The Little Man slips past several boats, tow arms up, paint-chipped hulls barnacled, bobbing idly at dock along the river. More than 200 boats once trolled here. Now there are maybe half that. Buildings are shuttered, piers in disrepair. Darien is quiet. Some families, like the Skippers, have sold off their fleets and their docks. Others cling to the helm only because they have nowhere else to go. Michael started skipping school at age eleven to join his father on the boat. Today, at twenty-three, he is easily one of the youngest boat captains—perhaps the youngest—in these parts, an exception to a new Darien generation that has been steered away, if not discouraged by the old guard, from the sea, Michael’s two older brothers included. These waters, after all, are troubled. The price of gas is too high, the price of shrimp too low. The market has been flooded by competition from shrimp farmers, foreign and domestic. Wild Georgia shrimp are scarce at the neighborhood restaurant and grocery store. Worse, nobody seems to know enough about the homegrown variety to ask. And meanwhile the nets’ harvest is not as bountiful as it once was.

Michael Boone stares ahead, piloting the Little Man out of Doughboy Sound and into the ocean, choppy waters slapping against the hull. He gently opens the throttle, revving the ancient engine in the belly of the boat to life. Course charted, speed leveled at just over eight knots, Michael leans back in his captain’s chair. He holds the giant wooden wheel with an outstretched foot and rests his hands behind his head. Outside, the unseen sun traces the horizon with a thin white line as night lifts over a boundless sea.

In the distance, he counts one, two, three starlike specks scattered on the water—lights from the decks of other shrimping boats, working through the night. Michael can envision a much different scene from not so long ago, lights almost innumerable, a skyline at sea. “There used to be twenty, thirty, forty boats out there,” he says flatly. “Twenty years ago, this was a city.”

>> GALLERY: View photos of the shrimping industry in action

Back on the mainland, the city of Darien—population 1,900, seat of McIntosh County—is little more than a few streetlights whizzing by on a nighttime drive down I-95. But its position along a natural tributary, at the mouth of the Altamaha River, made it a boomtown in the 1800s and early 1900s. The river rafted large loads of longleaf pine and cypress from the Georgia interior into Darien to be milled and shipped around the world. In the 1940s, one of those log bundles floated a man named Tessie Boone from Tattnall County, two counties inland, to town.

By that time, more than a century of unfettered cutting had decimated Georgia’s timber industry. But Darien had already begun reinventing itself as a fishing town. The proliferation of gas-run trawlers empowered small fishermen to venture farther off the coast and reel in a commercial-sized catch, while refrigeration enabled them to ship it all over the country. The big ticket was wild brown and white shrimp that bred and fed on the bottoms just a few miles offshore. Tessie was hired as a crewman on local shrimp boats, and in 1946 he built his own, Altamaha I, cutting many of the planks by hand. All four of Tessie’s sons came aboard at a young age, and by the late 1950s, when the Boone boys were old enough to operate their own vessels, the patriarch started Boone’s Seafood, one of dozens of family-owned wholesale shrimp companies that popped up along the Georgia coast.

Unlike the family farms of the Midwest, where every hand was needed in the field or the farmhouse, shrimping tended to be a smaller enterprise, with just two or three men per boat—a captain, who decided when and where to fish, and one or two strikers to tend the nets—and a handful of men and women off-loading and processing the hauls back at the dock. As a result, shrimpers’ sons generally weren’t conscripted into service. But they went out anyway, kids ten and eleven ditching school to hop into the departing trawlers, eventually dropping out to work on the water. “If you don’t get into it young, you don’t get into it,” says Greg Boone, Michael’s dad and one of Tessie’s eight shrimping grandsons. “When the kids start insisting on going out and they don’t get sick, you know they’re going to get into it.”

When Greg was getting into it in the 1970s and early 1980s, big shrimp were fetching $6, sometimes even $7 per pound, and Georgia shrimpers were pulling in up to 6 million pounds each year. Gas cost fifty cents to a dollar per gallon, and after expenses shrimpers were easily netting $50,000 to $60,000 (about $130,000 to $160,000 today) fishing four months out of the year. Greg says he once cleared $18,000 in one day, the equivalent of around $40,000 in today’s dollars. “And we didn’t even get up until the sun was off the water,” he says.

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  1. paige posted on 04/02/2012 02:39 PM
    Best story yet on the life of a shrimper.
  2. E posted on 04/10/2012 11:14 PM
    This is one of the best articles I've seen in Atlanta Magazine, the sort of writing I would love to see more like. The only thing I can recall that comes close is March 2011's The Old Lady of Ossabaw. Although it was more than just the coastal content that attracted me to those pieces, I would certainly love to see more about the Golden Isles, particularly Saint Simons and perhaps Jekyll.
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