WHERE HAVE ALL THE COWBOYS GONE?
At Sea With Captain Magwood
The glory days of the American frontier are long gone. The concept of the cowboy – the rugged individualist relying on wit and brawn to survive in untamed territories – has been immortalized on the silver screen and in the pages of Western novels. Of course, ranches and rodeos, 10-gallon Stetsons and snakeskin boots are still around today, but those iconic cowboys of yore have become increasingly difficult to find. Men and women alike long for that ideal, those John Waynes and Clint Eastwoods who once showed us that life can still be an adventure. Those cowboys are still around; it’s just a matter of looking in the right place.
First, imagine the endless stretch of unsettled plain that was once America’s Wild West, then picture in your mind the great expanse of our oceans. Think about that cowboy sitting atop his faithful horse, a rope on the horn of his saddle, contemplating the cattle he must herd. Then think of the captain at the helm of his boat, nets suspended from the boom, contemplating the aquatic creatures that he too must herd. It’s not such a leap to refer to those rugged individuals riding the swells of unpredictable seas as cowboys.
Captain Wayne Magwood is a fourth-generation shrimper, just like his father, Junior, and his father before him. The Magwood family, part of the history of Shem Creek, helped shape the maritime character of Charleston. When choosing a name for her son, Magwood’s mother, Alva, honored her own idol – John Wayne – giving the boy not one, but two legacies to live up to. At the helm of his boat, “Winds of Fortune,” Captain Wayne is not just a Magwood; he’s a cowboy as well.
It is a rare day during the shrimping season that “Winds of Fortune” is not out on the water. Magwood and Sons has loyal customers, both individuals and restaurants, that Captain Wayne never wants to disappoint. This year, with the season starting late because of last year’s severe cold, the demand for fresh, local shrimp is high but not high enough to sustain the several hundred shrimpers still operating in South Carolina’s coastal waters. Thirty years ago, there were more than 1,200 shrimp boats at work; today there are fewer than 400. Captain Wayne is grateful for the loyalty of his customers, a loyalty more than a century in the making. He knows he has a distinct advantage in the industry.
Yet even Magwood shares a potentially devastating disadvantage with his fellow shrimpers – competition from imported farmed shrimp. The anger in his voice is barely restrained when he speaks of the factory-like production of shrimp in Thailand and China, and he makes no effort to hide the resigned sadness in his eyes. Captain Wayne understands that independent shrimpers can’t compete with the mass quantities and lower prices offered by the foreign shrimp farmers. In this economy, the survival of the consumer and the survival of the local shrimper do not always align.
EATTHIS! Charleston spent a day aboard “Winds of Fortune” to get a glimpse into the world of the local shrimper. In true maverick fashion, Captain Wayne steered us through some early morning, nausea-inducing ocean swells with one sneakered foot on the wheel. His crew moved about the boat with an ease that was simultaneously inspiring and humiliating. Bill Conrad, a former lobsterman from Lynn, Mass., crews part-time for Captain Wayne, as a volunteer, simply for the opportunity to be on the ocean. Vasa Tarvin came to the United States from Russia when he was 4. On a school field trip to Magwood and Sons, he heard the siren call of the sea. When he turned 15, five years ago, he went to work for Captain Wayne. To be certain, they are an eclectic crew, these maritime cowboys.
The day of a shrimper generally ranges from eight to 14 hours, sometimes more, and it has its own unique rhythm. In the cloak of pre-dawn darkness, “Winds of Fortune” departs the dock. While the captain searches for that shrimping sweet spot, influenced by instinct and the previous day’s experience, the crew is idle, lost in thoughts or in the beauty of a Carolina sunrise. After a while, they drop small test nets to gauge the potential of a spot. Once a location is determined to be worthwhile, the booms are lowered and the big nets hit the ocean. While the captain trawls, the crew again rests.
If this seems to be an idyllic sort of employment, don’t be fooled. There is much to be done once the nets are emptied onto the deck. The crew, wearing rubber instead of snakeskin boots, separates the shrimp from a herd of other sea life – jellyfish, sharks, stingrays, horseshoe crabs and more. Squatting on small stools under an unforgiving sun, the work is tedious. On a fruitful shrimping run, the process is repeated several times.
At first glance, the job of a shrimper appears a straightforward, relatively safe occupation. Watching Vasa scurry across a cable along the boom some 20 feet over the waves and equidistant from the boat might well alter that perception. The shrimp itself may be innocuous enough, but the other content of the nets pose the potential for great pain, with their stinging appendages and serrated teeth. The nets are heavy and simply lowering and lifting them present dangers of their own.
Recently, a shrimper operating north of Charleston lost his arm to his winch. The quick thinking of the man’s young son saved his life. Captain Wayne doesn’t know that man, but he’s filling a boot with donations from customers at Magwood and Sons storefront. In his eyes, that boy is a hero. As with the cowboys of yore, all shrimpers are brothers and they have a code of honor by which they live.
With the shrimp on ice, the decks cleaned and the nets wrangled back into place, it’s time to head back in. The boat is accompanied by a small pod of dolphin. Their presence is in itself a sort of ocean magic and the sound of their breaths as they break the water’s surface is a peaceful punctuation to the long day. On the shrimp boat, it is again time for rest and reflection. At the helm, Captain Wayne expresses his disappointment at the day’s low yield. He remembers an abundance of the past, when the days’ catches were not the yo-yo of sparse and plenty that he has experienced lately.
At the Magwood and Sons dock, Captain Wayne’s daughter, Tressy Mellichamp, was waiting. She had prepared a family recipe, pickled shrimp, for the EAT THIS! crew to sample. While everyone enjoyed the chilled and tangy treat, Tressy and her father spoke of the decrease in Magwood’s restaurant accounts. She is not directly involved in her father’s business, but she, too, understands the impact that farmed shrimp has had on the independent shrimper. The author of “East Cooper: A Maritime Heritage,” a chronicle of the maritime industries, families and vessels that define Lowcountry culture, she, like her father, knows how the face of South Carolina’s shrimping industry has changed.
The cowboys of the Wild West are gone, their habitat of plains and wide-open spaces long since swallowed up by industry and agribusiness. These oceanic cowboys remain, still riding the unpredictable swells along South Carolina’s coast. They are part of the cultural and culinary heritage of Charleston and the Lowcountry. But for how long? Will they, too, eventually be swallowed up by the overseas shrimp farming industries? The only hope for these independent shrimpers is that the public demand for local shrimp increases – even if that means digging a little deeper into already stressed pocketbooks.
And if you happen to be introduced to one of these local shrimpers, be sure to shake his hand. He’s probably the only real cowboy you’ll ever meet.
by Antonia M. Krenza and Laney Roberts