When I tell friends that I am the proud owner of an Oyster Hoister I get two questions: “What the heck is an oyster hoister and why on earth would anyone need one?” Let me explain.
When we first started our oyster farm, we had no boat. We did however have a very large dock that extended out into the York River. The only logical place to put our oyster cages was on the river bottom next to our dock. However, the style of cage we selected is three feet wide and four feet deep. The cages are double stacked with a total of four compartments in them to hold oysters, two on the bottom and two on the top. The cages are then held together by a series of bungees. As the cages sit on the river bottom they become “fouled” as all kinds of marine life such as sea squirts, barnacles, and aquatic grasses begin attaching to the cage. A fully fouled oyster cage can actually weigh upwards of 850 lbs. These cages are typically lifted by a boat with a large davit crane attached to it. We had neither of those important items.
So for the first summer and fall, I was wading in the York River, dismantling the cages and lifting them overhead to my wife Laura on the dock above. This was exhausting work. We needed a mobile lifting device to raise the oyster cages, especially as the winter temperatures would make wading in the water, especially at high tide, quite unpleasant.
I scoured the Internet for months trying to come up with ideas on any type of crane that would work. None of the stock items I found were capable of lifting out over the side of a dock while being simultaneously mobile. I was about to give up when I found a rudimentary mobile device at the Tidewater Oyster Gardeners website. This contraption was a mobile hoist designed to raise a much lighter, single compartment oyster cage. It does so by using a rocking motion to lift the cage up and over onto the dock. After thinking about this contraption for a while, I finally had the guts to show my architect friend, Wilson Rayfield, when we met up for lunch one day what I had in mind. I handed him a printout of the design and after taking one look at the contraption he said: “that thing is going to snap in half like a toy the first time you use it on your cages.” I knew he was right, but I had been trying to find a solution for months and was at the end of my rope. I told him well I was officially stumped unless he had any better ideas. I was going to build the stupid thing and give it a shot. Thankfully Wilson stopped me, “you are going to end up in the hospital if you try and use that thing on those heavy cages. Let me see if I can come up with something. “ I could see the wheels turning in Wilson’s head, but I had no idea what he had in mind. It was a couple of week’s later, when he asked me to stop by his house as he had drawn something up that he wanted to show me.
During that meeting, he showed me the first iteration of the Oyster Hoister design. The thing looks like a medieval trebuchet or a giant pumpkin-chunking device. We spent the remainder of the day tweaking the design. This led to a 4 month long exercise where we would meet on weekends assembling this crazy thing and improving its design as we went along.
The basic concept is that the double “A” will swing out over the dock so that a wire rope assembly can be lowered from a DC winch. That rope assembly is connected to a snatch block at the top of the “A” that will suspend and hang in mid air over the side of the dock. The “A” is then connected to what Wilson affectionately refers to as the Power T (he is a University of Tennessee grad, and hence the power T name) that sits on the dock and is ratcheted down to the back of the dock using a come-along to latch it in place so the whole thing doesn’t go flying over the dock into the drink. I then demanded that we buy lockable caster wheels that we installed along the bottom of the whole thing so we could move it from station to station along the dock. Last but not least, we had a local steel shop fabricate a strut for us that locks the “A” in the extended position and then retracts back to a locked position where the cage can be swung back onto the dock and lowered into place.
For the maiden run of our oyster hoister, we had quite a day planned. My brother Ben, who is in the Air Force, had just returned stateside from the Middle East after his eighth deployment. Ben headed down with us to The Neck for the trial run. We packed a little Fisherman’s helper ( a.k.a., Jameson) which we could use to either: A) numb the pain on the way to the emergency room after our Oyster Hoister splintered into toothpicks and threw us all off the dock and into the York River head first, or B) drink in celebration of our first successful hoist. Thankfully, Scenario B was the result. Wilson could bask in the glory of his brilliant design and I no longer had to go swimming to work the cages. Wahoo!
After numerous hugs and high fives, we managed to polish off the Fisherman’s helper. We broke everything down, loaded up the truck, and headed to our next stop, the annual Urbanna Oyster Festival on the Rappahannock River. After parking in a corn field and hiking in to the festival, we immediately bellied up to the Oyster Bar and ordered 8 dozen oysters. Laura, Ben, Wilson, and I scarfed them down in a frenzy. Oyster Hoisting was tough work and we were starving. It was the perfect ending to our four month long project. I learned to appreciate Wilson’s architectural creativity during that time. I was very thankful for him giving up his weekends to design this crazy contraption. In the end, I had a load of fun building the device. I sincerely enjoyed spending the summer of the Oyster Hoister working alongside my buddy, Wilson.