On Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, an Unusual Attraction

June 15, 1999

The City’s garbage skimmers draw stares as they scoop refuse from the water.

If you’re going to collect garbage for a living, this is the place to do it – out here where the gulls cry and the brown Inner Harbor water laps against the bulkheads like a lullaby, In fact, when a summer morning blows in blue and soft across the masts and the condos, such a task can seem more like pleasure than work.

That’s true even when you’re piloting one of the city’s six trash skimmers, a contraption that looks like a cross between a tractor and a Zamboni ice groomer.

Whenever a thunderstorm scours the basins of the nearby Jones Falls and the Gwynns Falls, the leavings of sloppy people from Highlandtown to Reisterstown roar into the Harbor on a boiling current the color of coffee, sluicing as fast as if someone had turned on a big spigot at the city dump.

“When that happens, you know it’s going to be dirty everywhere,” says David Booker, 39, as he eases his skimmer away from the Department of Public Works dock in Canton.

The gully washers bring dead animals – dogs, cats, fish and sometimes bigger creatures.

Tires and trees

Then there are the tires, enough to outfit a parking lot full of cars, and now and then a floating refrigerator, buoyed by its insulation. And trees – “I mean, big trees,” Booker says.

UMI Trash Skimmer clearing debris along the promenade in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor

There is also the usual deluge of plastic bottles, Styrofoam cups and chip bags. A single storm can wash into the harbor up to 20 times as much trash as in a normal week.

Booker has been doing this job for a little more than a year, piloting the boat and working the controls of the conveyor-belt “wings” in front that scoop up the refuse and carry it to the hold.

One of the most important things Booker knows is boats don’t have brakes, but he stops and turns this one on a dime by pulling at a row of levers that control the propellers on both sides of the stern.

He cruises past the new marinas at Canton, directly across the water from the cranes of the Maryland Port Administration. As he nears the inner reaches of the harbor, a flotilla of water taxis fans out about a hundred yards away to the starboard side. In the near distance on the port side, cars roll along Key Highway and the Domino factory looks like a brick colossus.

There are a few rules of thumb in this trade, a few laws of the garbage sea: when the ride is high, the trash heads out; when it’s low, the trash heads in. Watch the wind in the flags along the shore – it will tell you where trash is liable to be piling up.

When Booker reaches the bulkheads of Harborplace, he uses the wings like the sides of a bumper car to guide the craft along, jostling to scoop up all he can.

“What I’m doing is what we call ‘running the wall,’ ” he says.

On the sidewalk, two women with a boy gripping a Beanie Baby lean out for a better look, gawking.

“We’re kind of like a tourist attraction,” Booker says. “When we’re out on a Saturday, you’ll see people actually stop to look and totally watch what this thing is doing. Sometimes, they’ll take a picture.”

Goodwill Ambassadors

UMI TrashCat Trash Skimmer

UMI’s TrashCat™ operating  at the heart of Baltimore’s  waterfront tourist area

Occasionally, they’re also ambassadors of good will, tossing retrieved baseballs, footballs and basketballs to children along the shore.

As Booker steers toward the harbor’s two huge tour and party boats, the Bay Lady and the Lady Baltimore, a boy on the deck of a moored sailing yacht, the Cassandra II, stares while eating his breakfast. Within a few moments, the Lady Baltimore’s bow is looming as blue as the sky, towering above the dwarfed garbage boat.

Riding nearby are Leonard Johnson 41, and Babe Lindeman 48, in the City’s newest trash skimmer. While all six skimmers, called “TrashCats”, were bought from Baltimore-based United Marine International LLC, only the latest one, just delivered, is specially designed to go under bridges that Booker’s bulkier craft can’t negotiate.

Johnson is at the helm, while Lindeman nets a few pieces of trash at a time.

They head beneath a low clearance pedestrian bridge linking the National Aquarium to the Hard Rock Café.

Music plays loudly. People on the second floor of the Barnes & Noble Booksellers stare down, coffee cups in hand.

Source: Excerpted from a story on the front page of The Baltimore Sun 6-15-99