The Last Trawlers

0412_Feature_ShrimpPhotoMichael 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’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.”

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.

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