The Norfolk Rebel chugged into Baltimore's Inner Harbor Friday morning, 34 hours after leaving Norfolk, with a thick glaze of ice covering its odd-looking bow.
"Fought a headwind the whole doggone way," said Lane Briggs, the white-whiskered, gold-earringed captain of a vessel that looks like a combination tugboat and clipper ship. "I call it a 'Tugantine.' A tugboat with sails."
Briggs and a crew that included his 21-year-old son Steve docked the Rebel just in time for the start of this weekend's East Coast Commercial Fishermen's Trade Exposition at Baltimore's Convention Center.
From his booth, in the midst of other booths displaying the latest in crab peelers, foul weather gear, boats, nets and navigational instruments, Briggs promoted wind power and provided the show with a much needed splash of optimism.
"The situation is kind of bleak," said Jim Salevan, representing Maryland's federally funded Sea Grant Program.
"With fishing there are good years and bad years. But it seems like most recent years have all been bad."
There are about 100 companies, from as far away as Seattle, trying to sell ideas or products at this three-day show that ends after a 10 a.m.-6 p.m. run today.
If they did not know it already, they have learned this weekend that times are as bad for the men and women who make their living on local waters, particularly the Chesapeake Bay.
The recession has only been the starting point for the watermen's woes. In the last year they have also had to cope with aquatic diseases, turf wars and fish that seem to have gone on strike.
The latest piece of bad news arrived at Christmas, when biologists confirmed what the watermen already feared: a widespread outbreak in the Chesapeake of MSX, a parasite that has drastically reduced this year's oyster harvest.
George Krantz, the director of the University of Maryland Cooperative Laboratory in Crisfield and an expert on bay oysters, said last week that the infestation could kill 90 percent of the oysters in significant parts of the Bay. At this weekend's show he talked with watermen in tones suitable for a wake.
Last year at this time the oystermen were hurt by a cold spell that froze the bay and kept their boats anchored. Next year, if the MSX parasite follows its normally lethal pattern, experts warn the oyster industry could suffer permanent damage.
Oysters were only the latest aquatic resident to betray the watermen. Last summer the season started with fishermen singing the blues over the disappearance of the bluefish. The normally dense schools of the fish played hooky all season.
In other years, when one species of fish dwindled, another was usually there to take its place. But this year the sea trout, rockfish and blues got scarce at the same time.
While the disappearance of those fish caused commercial and recreational fishermen to question the health of the bay, the Environmental Protection Agency released a six-year, $27 million report that provided answers no one wanted to hear.
The bay, said the report, is being poisoned by chemicals, treated sewage and sediment, much of it runoff from agricultural land.
The report noted that aquatic plants on the bay's bottom, crucial for crabs and other shellfish, have diminished significantly. Areas of "dead water," water that doesn't have any oxygen, are increasing.
Given that context, the fishing show in Baltimore this weekend has not been a scene of celebration.
Dealers are trying to sell new boats to watermen who are barely managing to pay off 18 percent loans on old ones.
"The interest in the bigger boats has been almost nil," said John Collamore of Hulls Unlimited East, a company based in one of the most famous boat building areas in the country--Deltaville, Va.
Collamore's company is well established and successful. It has just sold three 26-foot boats to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
Tom Hartenstine does not have that long standing reputation to trade on. He and his wife Paige Eversole started Susquehanna Skiff Co. in Havre De Grace three years ago. They now build wooden boats, but only part time.
"You can build the best boat in the world, but the fishermen won't buy it unless they have the money," said Hartenstine, an earnest looking 31-year-old who spent two years in boat building school in Maine. "The fish have to be there."