SEAFORD, Va. (AP) — Bart White grew up on Landing Road in Seaford, in a house looking out to the Chesapeake Bay. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather did, too.
Bart’s ancestors were sailors and captains, fishermen and watermen. His dad, Alex White, worked in the Navy and Coast Guard. Bart and his older brother, Jeff, were taking boats on the bay when they were 9. So, in 2003, when he saw an advertisement in the Daily Press for a boat-towing company, it made sense to buy it.
It also made sense for Bart to go into the business with his brother and father, who live down the street.
“We’re all like, it has to be a good, fun family business,” Bart said. “You know, we live on the water and it would work out good.”
Eighteen years later, they say, Sea Tow Lower Chesapeake has helped almost 3,000 people and saved nine lives.
Alex’s house at the end of Landing Road doubles as the Sea Tow office, where the radio is constantly buzzing. On the walls, there are black-and-white portraits of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, Capts. Ernest Edward White, Ernest Alexander White and Charles Henry White.
The hallway is lined with each family member’s captain’s license, including Alex, Jeff and Bart.
“We come from a long line of water people,” Alex said. “We were commercial fishermen, what people around here called watermen years ago and we’ve descended from several generations of watermen. And that’s probably had something to do with how we got involved in the business here.”
Five houses on Landing Road belong to Whites.
“At one point, years and years ago, the Whites, we used to own from the street all the way down to the water,” Bart said.
Ernest Edward White co-founded the Watermen’s Museum in Yorktown. There’s a diorama of the Marion J., Ernest Alexander White’s boat, in the museum, and a mannequin modeled after Charles Henry White, a well-known watermen.
Sea Tow Lower Chesapeake, part of a franchise with locations across the country, tows boats and does salvage work (ungrounding beached vessels or refloating sunken vessels) for the whole Chesapeake Bay. It has four boats and a phone line where people who need help can call in.
The business is open 24/7, so the Whites keep a radio in the office on all day — and all night, too, Alex’s wife, Joan White, adds.
“Guys come across here, if they run into trouble, a lot of times they’ll get on the radio and they’re hailing the Coast Guard, you know, for assistance if they’re taking on water or whatever,” Jeff said. “So it’s a way to listen for potential jobs and people in need of assistance.”
Bart said that many times, Sea Tow’s boats can be out faster than the Coast Guard.
A few years ago, the radio saved four people’s lives — three adults and a child. A small boat went out during the winter and capsized. Two people managed to stay on the capsized boat, but the other two were carried off a few hundred yards by the tide.
“They should have never left,” Bart White said. “As soon as they went out there, it was too rough.”
Jeff and Robert, who rushed to the water as soon as they heard the “mayday” call on the radio, pulled out the boy and his father from the water, shaking from hypothermia. Then they went back for the others.
The two were awarded with “commander coins.”
“We got asked to come over to the Coast Guard base over there in Portsmouth and the commander of the base over there presented us with some coins,” Jeff said.
The family tows more than boats — once, they volunteered to tow a full-grown whale.
“There was a dead whale that was out in the York River, and we worked with the stranding team at Virginia Beach, we had to tow the whale across the river to, they call it Gilligan’s Island over here, and move it up on the island so I guess it could just decay,” Bart said.
Karen Schrader co-owns Sea Tow Hampton Roads, which covers James River, Elizabeth River and the rest of Hampton Roads. The two companies work together, especially if jobs cross boundary lines.
Schrader said she loves working with the White family, especially Alex.
“He’s just a great guy, to be his age, all that he does,” she said. “One of the things that we always say over here is, ‘Man, I wish I had an Alex at our area.’”
Both Bart and Jeff work other jobs, so Alex is usually in charge of manning the radio and taking calls, sometimes even at 2 o’clock in the morning.
“He’s the anchor,” Joan White said.
Bart said after working together for so long, the family has had a few minor differences here and there, but never anything major.
But he says he can’t see the business going past 20 years.
“It does take its toll after a while,” he said. “It’s so hard to be able to have a personal life on the weekends.”
The Whites have hired a few people outside of the family to help with jobs.
Richie Moore, a family friend of the Whites, always wanted to be a captain growing up. He didn’t have a reason to get a captain’s license until the Whites asked if he wanted to work with them at Sea Tow, and he jumped at the opportunity.
Moore said the work is difficult, but rewarding.
“When you go out there and someone’s broke down with their family or they’re having a bad day, we tow ’em in and try to save the day a little bit,” he said. “I help them (the Whites) as much as I can and, in return, they take care of me.”
Still, the Whites haven’t been able to have a family vacation since they bought the business in 2003.
“Every job seems like it’s just a mess. Nothing is simple anymore,” Jeff said. “There’s a lot of newbies out there, so a lot of crazy calls.”
But Jeff said when they drive down the road, there are always people waving and honking at them.
“Once you get somebody to the dock after they’ve been at it for a while broken down, it does give you a good feeling when it’s done,” he said.