For the first summer this decade, Edwin "Smitty" Smith's crab boat is idle, moving only to bob in the gentle waves in a small creek where it sits. The motor is cold; the crab pots are empty.
Smith, 52, was squeezed out of business this year when the cost of docking his 28-foot boat at a Calvert County marina nearly doubled from $80 a month to $156 a month.
The bills from the Town Center Marina would eat up his profits, Smith figured. So he moored his boat in a creek behind a friend's swimming pool and went to work full time in his Solomons seafood store, selling crabs from North Carolina.
Smith's problem is the latest trial facing watermen in this part of Southern Maryland. First, they struggled with dwindling catches in the Bay and its tributaries.
Now, in this seafaring county with a rich history of oyster and crab fishing, there is no wharf for the waterman.
"The places that we used to tie up to were packing houses and crab picking houses, and they're all being sold out for condo development and marina development," said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, who lives and works in Kent County. "A lot of marinas let a few watermen tie up, but some don't want them. Watermen's boats don't look like a yacht. Watermen can't pay the fees that yachters can."
The newcomers--or "money people" as the locals call them--are flocking to this skinny peninsula with boats in tow. They are buying up waterfront land along the Chesapeake Bay on the east and the Patuxent River on the west. They are moving into condominiums with boat slips as well as parking spaces. "You never have to mow the lawn" is the advertising slogan for one waterfront complex. And some remain city dwellers who weekend in the county, sleeping on their boats.
Those watermen who can afford commercial marinas complain they are not always welcome.
"Some of the marinas don't want a work boat tied up next to a $450,000 yacht," said waterman Kenny Keen, 37. "You got a guy down from Washington on the weekend sleeping in his boat, the last thing he wants to hear is a Caterpillar diesel start up next to him at 4 in the morning."
Matt Gambrill, whose 450-slip Calvert Marina has no watermen, said the work boats clash with pleasure craft. "The hours are incompatible, the dirt is incompatible, the noise is incompatible, and the storage of smelly stuff is incompatible," he said. "You put six or more fishermen on a dock, they're excited about going out, drinking coffee and talking loudly. There's no way that's going to go over well."
A wharf is as important to a waterman as a boat. Besides acting as a parking space for the boat, the wharf is a staging area--watermen unload bushels of heavy crabs off their boats onto the wharf and then carry or load them onto handcarts that are rolled up the pier to waiting trucks.
While most of Maryland's coastal counties have designated at least one wharf for watermen who can tie up their boats for free or reduced fees--Kent County has about 30--Calvert has none.
And so the 40 Calvert men--there are no women--who earn their livelihood from the water are like firefighters without a station house or pilots without an airport. They improvise.
Keen, the president of the Calvert County Watermen's Association, moors his work boat in neighboring Anne Arundel County, where he struck a deal with a marina owner who charges him only $75 a month.
Others have fragile agreements with homeowners who allow them to tie up their boats at private docks behind homes.
"There's no set price. I give her money during summer and winter," said David Abell, 36, explaining his deal with an elderly friend in Lusby. "She'll call me and tell me she could use a little bit of money. I keep the grass cut for her. . . . She don't use the land. It's basically a favor. We were friends before I took the boat there."
Abell estimates his arrangement costs about $1,200 a year, less than the $1,800 he said he would pay at a commercial marina. Still, the deal makes him uneasy. "I'm not going to be able to tie up there forever," he said. "As soon as she passes away, I'll have to look around for another place. And there ain't too many slips around."
At the height of Maryland's oyster industry in the late 1800s, Solomons was a major port for work boats around the Chesapeake Bay, especially Baltimore, Crisfield and Cambridge, said Richard Dodds, curator of the Calvert Marine Museum. "It was a place where oyster boats gathered and anchored and resupplied," he said. "It was convenient and fairly safe anchorage, especially in winter or in bad weather."
Now, the handful of watermen working in Solomons are nearly invisible. "There are few if [not] none left in Solomons," said Skip Zanhiser, who owns one of the biggest marinas in the town.
That estimate stings Bobby Darnell, 34, a waterman since 1980 who docks at a private pier a few miles from Zanhiser's. "I go right by his marina every day on the way back to my slip," Darnell said.
Overbuilding in the 1980s has actually produced a glut of boat slips in Solomons, Zanhiser said. But even when marinas have vacant slips, and the watermen need a place to dock, the working men say they can't afford the commercial marinas, where slip fees include access to restaurants, swimming pools and tennis courts. For a 40-foot boat, Zanhiser's Yachting Center charges $2,600 a year.
Across the road from Zanhiser's, near a boardwalk by the bay, an abstract sculpture has a past-tense inscription: "To Those Who Fished the Bay and Built Their Boats." Nearby, the Lore Oyster House was once a major oyster packing business but closed in 1978 and is now a museum.
"We're not dead," Keen said. "They got memorials to us, but we're still out here, struggling to make a living."
Watermen who work year round--pulling crabs from the bay and the river in the spring, summer and fall and fishing for oysters in the winter--can earn from $10,000 to $50,000 a year, Keen said. Those like Keen who also have their own retail shops stand to make the most, as retail prices are about three times higher than wholesale and this summer have risen as high as $95 a bushel for crabs.
Keen named his 45-foot fiberglass boat the Longshot because "it's long and lean-looking." But the name just as easily describes the work. "Every day's a gamble," he said. The size of the day's catch ranges wildly. The worst this summer was around Memorial Day, when Keen pulled only 2.5 bushels of crabs from his 500 crab pots on the bottom of the bay. A more typical day yields about 12 bushels. That's still much less than the 55 bushels a day Keen was catching in 1983.
At the Town Center Marina, from which Smith pulled his boat rather than pay higher fees, general manager Alexis Kelly said Smith had been enjoying an informal rate break that ended when new managers were hired this year.
Keen, who is credited with reviving the local watermen's group, has been pushing for a county wharf for a year. The county is seeking a $50,000 state grant to create a wharf for watermen in a Solomons creek that runs past a public parking lot.
"Some of these watermen are essentially pushed out by recreational boaters and charter boats because of the changing nature of the community," said County Board of Commissioners President Linda L. Kelley (R-Owings). "Much of the heritage of this county is in the waterman way of life as well as the agricultural past. We help the farmers; we ought to help the watermen."
The watermen's wharf would have transient slips for about 20 boats and be restricted to those who work the water full time. The public would be able to buy seafood straight from the watermen as they unload their catches, Keen said. That could help the watermen and boost tourism, he said.
"It would keep a flicker alive of a commercial fishing operation," Smith said about a watermen's pier. "This is what Solomons was founded on, and now it's down to a few boats. Every year it gets more dispersed and harder and harder."
He paused in his small seafood shop and thought about sunrise on the bay and the wind and the hope that comes just before a pot is lifted out of the water, when it could be full of big, meaty crabs. "I would love to get back out there right now," he said.