A remembered past meshed with a hoped-for future on April 15, when a historic fishing boat set out from Cobb Island on its first journey since its renovation.
Aboard the restored skipjack were more than two dozen watermen, there to learn how to harness tourism to stay on the water as fisheries decline and regulations increase. The bay’s poor health threatens one of the state’s oldest industries and the people who practice it, working the water for oysters and crabs as well as rockfish, menhaden and other finfish.
The deck of the Caleb W. Jones was sanded but not painted, a last detail of a restoration consuming more than three years. It was left unfinished for a while to let passengers aboard. The boat was underwater at a marina on Deal Island when it was recovered four years ago and restored by Michael J. Sullivan of Mount Victoria farm in Newburg, who made it available for the day’s outing and for the next step in the students’ tourism training.
Before setting out, Michael McWilliams of California waxed enthusiastic about perhaps passing St. Clements Island, the island where generations of his ancestors once worked the water.
“Would that be a good destination for a tour?” asked Mike Vlahovich, founding director of the Coastal Heritage Alliance in St. Michaels.
“To me it would. It’s all my family,” McWilliams replied.
In fact, McWilliams’ heritage goes back to the beginning of the island’s recorded history, because his ancestors were aboard the Ark and Dove, the ships that brought the first Europeans to Maryland in 1634.
McWilliams works the water part time, with a license and oyster ground inherited from his grandfather. As for fishing, “people just don’t know it,” he said. “It’s one of the funnest things out there. People are amazed to see the crabs hanging there and getting the crabs off the line.”
Chesapeake Bay watermen have their own history and culture, and deserve their own TV show, McWilliams added.
“That’s what we need, to get the History Channel in here. That’s what this country was started on, in Maryland, Virginia and New England,” he said.
A pre-embarkation discussion at Sullivan’s home touched on darker, but potentially marketable, history, too. Bill Rice of Newburg hastened to say that he has “no relation” to the Hubbard Rice of Reedville, Va., who built the Caleb in 1953. The Virginia Rices also produced Gus Rice, a notorious 19th-century oyster pirate and murderer who plotted to kill a Natural Resources Police officer and survived a shootout with a police boat, Bill Rice said.
In his telling, Gus Rice and his first mate killed their own crew on one run to avoid sharing the proceeds from an oystering trip.
Rock Point, near Cobb Island, was one of the “bloodiest” places during those “oyster wars,” Rice said, where a corpse might wash ashore each week as men fought over territory.
These are stories to tell to visitors, Vlahovich urged.
“To me, it really comes down to how to tell your own story. Unfortunately, if you let someone else tell the story of the watermen there’s a chance they won’t get it correct,” he said.
Charter fishing and historical interpretation never will be enough on their own to keep a waterman working, course organizers said, but tourism could add to income from fishing for the 75 or 80 people who are expected to complete the course throughout the state.
“The expectation is this will not be a replacement for watermen’s income,” said Pete Lesher, curator of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels. “The idea is to add heritage tourism to their bag of tricks.”
Some watermen lamented circumstances forcing them to seek new income.
“The Department [of Natural Resources], they want to see everything sustainable. Their goal is a good goal. It’s the way the goal is being implemented is what I have a problem with,” said Paul Kellam of Ridge, owner of a carryout place and oyster picking and shucking house. “We’re in danger of losing the infrastructure over the welfare of the resource and the waterman has to take some of the blame.”
Maryland should place fewer restrictions on watermen, while watermen should make their case to the state in “a more diplomatic way” than their usual angry reactions, Kellam said.
Another waterman complained that the public faults watermen and farmers for the deplorable state of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.
“For the last 20 years the waterman and farmer had a lot of negative press. … It’s been shoved down [Marylanders’] throats that it’s my fault for wrecking the bay, my fault for not planting my crops right and polluting the bay,” a man said.
“We’re going to help you with that,” answered Joel Dunn, executive director of the Chesapeake Conservancy in Annapolis.
Federal earmark over
Funding for the heritage tourism class is managed by the Chesapeake Conservancy for the Maryland Department of the Environment, Dunn said.
The money originated in 2010 in the federal government’s Blue Crab Disaster Fishing Fund, and is about to run out. The conservancy is looking for new nonprofit or corporate funding to continue the project, including developing a Web site to advertise watermen’s tours.
“We don’t want to lose the momentum. We need to keep interest and passion up on behalf of the watermen,” Vlahovich said.
During its two years, the heritage tourism course enrolled 108 watermen at a cost of $428,000, Dunn and Vlahovich said, paying the students to participate.
A supervised tourism trip is the last portion of the class and participants receive a certificate of completion, Vlahovich said. The outing on the Caleb was the fourth class in the course, the first three involving classroom instruction.
As the Caleb returned to Cobb Island, it passed Rock Point. On the shoreline were the remains of a shucking house, collapsed upon itself, with only a wooden walkway into the river still standing.
“That really captures the essence of what happened. Things like this are collapsing and could go away completely,” Dunn said.