“She’s from D.C.,” my tour guide, John VanAlstine, said helpfully from our boat, the Patricia Anne, which we’d brought alongside Matthews’s Little Rascal II.
Details: Chesapeake watermen tour
The matter was soon cleared up, thanks to some District landmarks, no less: VanAlstine showed me that the female crab has a rounded abdomen— the shape of the Capitol dome — while the male’s is needle thin — think the Washington Monument.
It’s not every day that you can shoot the breeze with some watermen — the shrinking group of men and women who make a living oystering, crabbing and fishing on the bay — but the Watermen Heritage Tours program has made it possible.
In 2008, after a decade of plummeting crab populations, the federal government declared a fishery disaster, and Congress designated money to support the bay’s 5,200 licensed watermen — a group that’s far smaller than in the past, although historical numbers are unknown, according to the Maryland Watermen’s Association. Some of those funds went into a tourism-training program, led by the Chesapeake Conservancy in partnership with the Coastal Heritage Alliance and other bay organizations, which since 2010 has certified 80 watermen to lead trips throughout the bay. (Another training course may take place in 2014.)
The idea is this: Tourism opens up another source of income for watermen while giving the public a chance to experience such centuries-old practices as baiting crab pots and tonging oysters. Or, if you’re the less hands-on sort, listening to a fish tale or two on a sunset cruise or a kayak trip. “When I think of the Chesapeake Bay, there’s nothing more iconic than a waterman on the water in his white workboat,” said
Joanna Ogburn, director of programs for the Chesapeake Conservancy, when we chatted before my tour.
And so, as a Marylander curious about my state’s history, I found myself one chilly September morning on such a workboat, turning the key to start the steady rumble of the Patricia Anne’s engine. I’d met VanAlstine in Galesville, a small riverside town south of Annapolis where he has moored his boats for 15 years.
VanAlstine gave me a quick orientation of the 40-foot-long vessel — the “house” is the little room that contains the steering wheel and two seats, for instance — and then we chugged north across the flat bluish-gray river, where silhouettes of watermen at work speckled the horizon. While steering the boat, VanAlstine filled me in on the life of a waterman — unpredictable harvests, rough weather, unreliable paychecks, bad backs and knees — all balanced by the freedom of working for yourself, continuing old traditions and just the joy of being out on the water.