To watch a fifty-year-old shrimp boat, tried and timeworn, untie before daybreak, bound for the sea, is to see well beyond this symbol of maritime culture. It is to bear witness to a lasting legacy of tradition—the unbroken passage of knowledge and practice from one generation to the next.
The Tarvin family has operated Tarvin Seafood from the south side of Shem Creek since 2011—first from Geechie Dock and now from the fish house at Wando Dock—a last vestige of the Old Village’s once sprawling working waterfront. Cindy and Taylor run the shoreside operations (from peeling and heading shrimp to wholesale deliveries and retail sales), while Vasa, their twenty-eight-year-old son, manages operations at sea, commanding the family’s shrimp boat, Miss Paula, a fifty-five-foot trawler nearly twice his age.
I arrive at the dock by five-thirty to meet Vasa and his shrimping crew. Under the glow of the full moon, I’m greeted by Emily Hahn, Miss Paula’s newest crew member and the first to arrive. Only two months on the job, Emily is new to shrimping but not to shrimp. Food has been the center of Emily’s professional life—first training at the New England Culinary Institute, then working in kitchens from Patagonia, Chile, to downtown Charleston, and then, in 2016, placing seventh out of sixteen on Bravo’s Top Chef.
Captain Vasa arrives a few minutes later, joined by Shawn White, the boat’s third and most seasoned member of the crew. Shawn has been shrimping his entire life—forty years, in fact, save for the seasons he spent in school. What began as a summer job at the age of fourteen became an identity, one he shares with his cousin and grandfather.
Vasa says nothing as he boards Miss Paula. He heads straight into the wheelhouse to crank the Cummins diesel engine that has powered the trawler’s every trip for the past fifty years. We untie just before six o’clock and head across the creek to take on 707 gallons of fuel. Vibrations shake the nets, knocking loose remnants of dried bycatch from yesterday’s haul. A flock of laughing gulls dives into the water behind us. Pelicans aren’t far behind, seizing the remaining scraps.
As the sun breaks free from the horizon, we leave Shem Creek. Another shrimp boat shows in the distance, its silhouette indicates the size of its rig. We pass an osprey’s nest perched atop one of the nearby daymarkers. The crew points out a pair of fledgling chicks flanked by an ever-watchful set of parents.
Miss Paula, originally christened Laura Ann, was built by hand in 1969 by one of North Carolina’s most legendary boatbuilding families.
The man who commissioned the boat, Waring Hills, now an eighty-year-old widower living on the backside of Sullivan’s Island, has been shrimping nearly all his life. “My body is completely worn out now, but I had a great time wearing it out.”
Waring discovered shrimping in the early 1950s. He quit school, went to sea, and found his dream. In 1954, when Waring was only sixteen, he and his brother paid eighty-three dollars for a forty-six-foot government surplus boat left over from WWII. The boats were common in those days, called MTLs (medium tug launches). This one was built of western cedar. Despite being too narrow in the beam for their own good, many were converted to work boats and fishing trawlers after the War.
Many people believe those early days of shrimping in Charleston were the best. “In my time,” Waring recounts, “I think it got up to as many as seventy boats in Shem Creek. We got forty to sixty cents a pound after we headed [the shrimp]. That wasn’t bad for that time. Fuel was fifteen cents a gallon.”
By 1969, it was time to upgrade the MTL.
For decades, the Varnams of Holden Beach, North Carolina, had cultivated an impressive reputation, building some of the most beautiful shrimp boats anywhere along the South Atlantic coast.
The Varnams used timber harvested from nearby forests to build Waring’s boat: old growth heart pine for the framing and air-dried cypress for the planking. Each board was cut by hand and every element of the design came from memory. Waring was impressed. “The old man that built this himself, he was a real artist. He didn’t write anything down. It was all in his head.”
When the hull was completed, six months after the keel was laid, she was towed to Charleston where Waring readied her for her life as a trawler. With help from his father and uncle, Waring designed and built the wheelhouse, bulkheads, bunks, and galley. For rigging, they salvaged what they could from a retired shrimp boat that was being converted into a houseboat. “For a pile of money, a hundred and fifty dollars or something like that, we stripped everything off of it.”
Laura Ann, named after Waring’s daughter, dragged for shrimp just offshore of Morris Island for over forty years. She was perfect, Waring remembers, “Big enough to do anything and small enough to go anywhere.”
But, by 2011, then well into his seventies, Waring decided it was time to retire. He tied Laura Ann to the end of his dock on Cove Creek where she stayed, waiting to be told it was time to go to sea again.
We clear the narrow channel and the nearby docks, passing through the jetties that frame the harbor entrance. We head north. Miss Paula’s outriggers are swung to either side of the boat, her wings now spread like a cormorant in the wind. Two trawl nets, each over one hundred feet long, hang in anticipation over the waters below.
Vasa directs Miss Paula into a place of familiarity, now in the open Atlantic, far enough from shore to see each of the barrier islands from Capers to Kiawah. The crew unfurls the trawl nets like a scroll onto a wet tabletop. Emily and Sean deploy the two pairs of otter doors—portside first, then starboard. The added resistance pulls the nets to the bottom and Miss Paula shakes with a violence she’s surely felt ten thousand times before.
The gear reaches the bottom. Everything above the surface of the water now seems tranquil and calm. This is not the case below. Out of sight, the nets, now gaping wide, tugged open by the wooden doors on either side, are pulled through the coolest layer of water, consuming everything the bouncing tickler chain can discourage from the ocean floor.
I ask permission to enter the wheelhouse. Captain Vasa’s face is lit by the glow of his depth-finder and radar. Early morning chatter floods channel sixty-one on the VHF. Vasa steers with eyes fixed on the brightening sea ahead. Just twenty-eight, Vasa carries himself with a sort of steadiness reserved typically for those with the benefit of age. He wears a pink Sewee Outpost hat and a pair of Royal brand shrimp boots. Pink bushel baskets are stacked towards the transom of the boat, and pink onion bags waiting to be packed full of shrimp are tied to the rigging. Pink is prevalent aboard Miss Paula, a sign, Cindy Tarvin later reveals, of Vasa’s personality. After all, pink gear is less likely to be stolen—a stronger symbol of resistance than the Jolly Roger that flies from the mast above.
Vasa discovered shrimping when he was only eleven years old. A close family friend, Paula Urbano, introduced Cindy Tarvin to Captain Wayne Magwood, a third-generation shrimper, at a benefit event one evening on Goat Island. Cindy asked Wayne how old someone had to be to work on his boat. “Any age,” Wayne responded. “I’ll pay them what they’re worth.” Vasa promptly went to work on Winds of Fortune, the sixty-eight-foot shrimp trawler Wayne still captains to this day. Cindy recalls driving Vasa to the Shem Creek docks at four o’clock every morning that summer, picking him up twelve hours later.
For the next nine years, Vasa worked for Wayne Magwood, absorbing three generations worth of knowledge and discovering his calling.
In 2011 Wayne suggested to Cindy and Taylor that Vasa was ready to captain a boat of his own. In fact, Wayne knew just the one. They purchased Laura Ann from Waring Hills and rechristened her Miss Paula, in honor of Paula Urbano.
It is late enough in the morning to see beachgoers dotting the edges of Sullivan’s Island only three miles away. Captain Vasa calls for the nets to be brought up. We’ve been dragging for two hours at two-and-a-half knots and each pull of the try had revealed a promising haul below. A spinner shark leaps into the air, lasting for only a moment in the corner of my eye.
Winches strain against the sound of a groaning generator. The winding cable, from years of heat and pressure, has eroded narrow channels into the steel hardware. Using a crowbar, Shawn does his best to encourage an even distribution of tension along the metal spool as the trawls are reeled in. Each net soon emerges from the wet world below, like a purse drawn shut, bursting with riches. The outriggers pull the catch high into the air and over the bright white deck. A single line cinches the bottom of each net closed, keeping its contents packed tightly together. But, with a forceful pull of the release, Shawn empties each bindle of potential energy into a wave of life.
The deck is piled high with the contents of each trawl. Blue crabs, silver eel, jelly balls, Atlantic croaker, flounder, whiting, squid, spot, bull minnow, and shrimp, of course, both brown and white. Emily and Shawn sit on turned-up buckets and sort the catch. The bigger white shrimp go in one basket—these fetch the highest price at the dock. The smaller shrimp, brownies or pick-outs, go in another.
They put the final cull into an ice bath and ready the trawl nets to be dropped again. The crew brushes the mass of bycatch left on the deck back into the waters from which it came. A hungry procession of fish and birds stand at the ready. Gulls, terns, and pelicans dive first from above, then a gam of blacktip sharks thrash from below. I’m reminded of my childhood—of swarming children attacking fist-fulls of candy thrown onto sidewalks from Fourth of July floats. A pod of dolphins waits patiently in the background.
We drag one more time. The crew rests between hauls, napping, eating, and bantering. Shrimping seems to be a series of sprints.
Two hours later, the second haul comes in, flooding the deck again. Emily and Shawn repeat their process just as before. Cull, bag, ice.
The anticipated thunderclouds grow vertically above the inner harbor, and we head for the docks. I stand in the wheelhouse of Miss Paula and ask Vasa about the fate of the industry and his place in it. He laments, “Everything’s being lost: boats, sewing, netbuilding, boatbuilding.” Vasa mends and repairs his own gear, just as he was taught to do by those who came before him. He acknowledges the inconsistencies of the trade but suggests such risk can be hedged with skill. “It’s got its ups and downs. I’m just good at it.”
Vasa says he’ll shrimp for the rest of his life. That is, perhaps, until the day comes, many years from now, when a young shrimper, introduced to the craft by chance, goes out looking for a boat of her own and discovers a captain who’s tired and old, his body worn from years of use, who shares his stories of the shrimp he’s caught and the seas he’s sailed, who tells her of a boat she may like, a boat that has never let him down, a boat that is old but strong, a boat she very well may rechristen as she sees fit, a boat she can captain and call her own. — C.B.