The boats may be referred to as "she" and given names like "Miss Anne," but until recently their skippers and crew rarely have been women.
At the end of September, however, a woman completed her first year at the helm of the nation's oldest privately owned ferry, between Oxford and Bellevue, Md.
Last winter a woman became the first captain of a skipjack, one of the fleet of antique working sailboats that dredge oysters during cold months on Chesapeake Bay.
And this summer a female skipper was on the bridge of the 300-passenger Annapolis tour boat Harbor Queen.
More and more women are tonging or scuba diving for oysters, going out crabbing and fishing in their own boats and pursuing careers on the waves that traditionally have been ruled by men, according to Lila Line of Easton, Md., author of "Waterwomen," a small book being published this month by Queen Anne Press.
The book, which has won a $5,000 Wye Institute award for its author as the year's best book on the Eastern Shore, profiles the lives of five Maryland women who make their living on the bay: a woman who net fishes with her husband for bluefish and trout, another who tongs oysters with her husband, a woman who crabs from her own boat with a half-mile-long trotline, a young woman who scuba dives for oysters and a 69-year-old woman who runs her own fish market.
The book says the increase in "waterwomen" has occurred in recent years, with 9 percent of all Maryland crabbing licenses now held by women, as well as 13 out of 2,320 commercial fishing licenses and 250 of 5,000 oystering licenses.
As with men who work on the water, the major motivation for the waterwomen, says Lila Line, is independence. "You never have to worry about being laid off," the trotliner told Line.
Working on the water apparently is something that women in the past occasionally have done with their husbands or families but rarely thought of doing themselves.
Valerie Bittner, 34, who just a year ago became one of the few Coast Guard-licensed women captains on the bay, only recently though of becoming a captain--even though she is the sixth generation of a ferryboating family and the first female member to get a pilot's license. She and her husband, David, moved to Talbot County in 1975 to help her father, Capt. Gilbert Clark, who had sailed down from Long Island the year before to take over the 300-year-old Oxford ferry business.
"My husband, David, got a pilot's license and I did the ferry's bookwork," she said, gunning the ferry's fore and aft engines, "but it never really occurred to me that she could be a captain . Although ferryboats are in my blood and I loved sailing skiffs and sailboats when I was young, I had always dismissed the idea, partly because I was a girl." She spun the wheel and eased the 35-ton Talbot into dock.
The two-year-old ferry, joining the 50-year-old Long Island wooden ferry her father brought down with him to Oxford, makes the Tred Avon River crossing in seven minutes, carrying as many as 10 cars and 90 people. Capt. Bittner's U.S. Coast Guard license, for which she took a three-week maritime course in Annapolis, permits her to pilot vessels up to 50 tons on Maryland's inland waters.
This year she has shared the piloting with her father and husband and occasionally with retired Capt. Bill Benson, who ran the ferry from 1932 to 1974, when it carried only three cars. Sharing is necessary since two boats are often run simultaneously on summer weekends and the ferry's hours are from 7 a.m. to dark every day of the year except Christmas -- or when the Tred Avon freezes over and provides the pilots with an unexpected holiday.
Bittner, who has two children, helped build her family's house and works part time in a small Easton department store.
In the year since she has been a captain, the teen-age crew also has changed. The formerly all-boy crew now is frequently an all-girl crew.
The Oxford ferry operation has had several female owners since it was founded in 1683 by the Talbot County court, but slaves did most of the work rowing the boats that were used and it is not clear whether the women actually stood at the helm.
Bittner said, "I don't know of many women ferryboat captains, although I think there's a couple on the West Coast. The Delta Queen on the Mississippi has had a woman captain. And last spring we went to Annapolis with my daughter's class and rode the tour boat there and it had a woman captain. I was really surprised. . . .
"She came into Oxford a couple weeks ago on the Annapolitan, but we were both so busy we didn't get a chance to talk."
The Annapolitan, Harbor Queen and Miss Anne make up the excursion fleet of Chesapeake Marine Tours, which plies the waters of Annapolis harbor and the bay. Regularly at the helm is 24-year-old Cheryl Phipps, accompanied by her 160-pound St. Bernard, Elijah.
Capt. Phipps, who has a license to pilot boats of up to 100 tons on inland waters, has been making waves ever since she dropped out of pre-med studies at the University of Maryland to return to the bay. She said she has loved the water since she was 12 and had her own speedboat on the Magothy River north of Annapolis.
Phipps has been captain for a bay water taxi service that ferried crews out to the large coal ships waiting to get into Baltimore's docks, captain of a 50-foot state-owned boat used in oyster propagation and captain of a private 70-foot yacht in Florida.
She rose through the ranks, starting as a summer deckhand on the Annapolis excursion boats. "One captain hated to drive and gave me the wheel while underway, then let me dock it while he watched and then after a while I'd look around and he'd be down below," Phipps said recently as she gently brought the 86-ton Harbor Queen in to dock with 100 passengers leaning over the rail and a similar crowd on the dock watching her every move.
To prepare for her Coast Guard captain's exam "I'd sit up here and the captains would ask me questions and flash lights at me (flashcards of various boat lights and signals)."
But not everyone likes women captains. "I sometimes get a hard time from male passengers and from other boat captains," said Phipps. "You know, 'Christ, a woman driver.' I hear that a lot, but I usually come in so well they can't have any complaints. In fact, I'm really good at this."
She gets a warm reception from most passengers, however--especially women. That there is a woman captain of the excursion boats is known all over Annapolis. A waitress in a dockside restaurant said, "Oh, she's great. She brings it (the boat) right in and doesn't touch a thing."
But although Phipps likes the work, it is seasonal and the pay is low, "about $7 an hour," she says. So Phipps is thinking of going back to college and medical school or "what I'd really like to do, go to maritime school and become a bay pilot. There are no women pilots" for the big tankers and merchant ships sailing the bay, "and would that be a big breakthrough . . . but I'd have to get accepted by the pilots association and that will be pretty hard to do."
Being accepted is a problem for all women captains.
When the 50-year-old skipjack Lorraine Rose lost its captain last winter, an experienced deckhand, Leigh Hunteman, was tapped by the boat's owners, the Bridge Restaurant on Tilghman Island, to take over the ship.
"She didn't want to do it at first," said restaurant owner Francis Cole, "and she had trouble getting a crew. But then everybody has trouble getting crew" for an oyster boat. "Anyhow, it worked out better than I'd expected. She was the first woman ever to captain a skipjack in the history of Chesapeake Bay," said Cole. "But she left and got married" after the season was over last spring "and I don't know where she is now."