At the Helm of History
Maryland’s Watermen Heritage Tours keep the traditions of a Southern Maryland way of life from being lost to time
Writer: Joseph Casey Martin | Spring-Summer 2022
Crabbing, fishing, oystering and making a living on the water have long been a way of life for many in Southern Maryland.
Steeped in rich tradition, the work of local watermen (and now women, too) on the water continues just as it has for centuries – harvesting oysters, pulling up crab pots, catching fish. But what the curious can do today is see the work of these folks up close and, in some cases, actually do the work. At the same time, these boat captains are educating residents and visitors while providing a genuine, real-life experience through tours of these various trades.
OLD SALTS, NEW PROGRAM
In 2008, a down year for harvests of the world-famous Chesapeake Bay blue crab, the Maryland legislature established the program with disaster relief funds that aimed to provide the necessary skills and knowledge to area watermen that would allow them to conduct tours with patrons to demonstrate how to make a living on the water. Hence, the Watermen Heritage Tours program took shape.
The original program lost funding some time ago but achieved its purpose.
Many watermen today now conduct tours on their own or in association with regional entities such as Chesapeake Bay Storytellers, Calvert Marine Museum and county tourism departments. These tours span across all waterway trades and industries from the Chesapeake Bay down to the smaller creeks and streams found throughout the counties.
Tours are extremely varied; some watermen may specialize in one industry while others operate more as a “jack of all trades” year-round.
Capt. Rachel Dean has conducted heritage tours with her husband Capt. Dale “Simon” Dean and brother Capt. Jason Williams out of Solomons Island since 2012. They started under the heritage training program and have been offering tours ever since.
Capt. Rachel says the goal of the training program was to “give watermen another source of revenue, but also to promote tourism in the state of Maryland and really give people access to our way of life, the way we make our living and the Chesapeake Bay … things that they otherwise wouldn’t have access to.”
The program provided building blocks such as marketing strategies for local watermen to start their own independent businesses.
Capt. Rachel describes her family’s operation as “double-duty.” They are licensed captains who can carry passengers but they also have tidal fishery licenses in Maryland that allow them to commercially harvest fish, oysters and crabs, and sell them.
The composition of their tours depends on the season and the tides.
Clients who board Capt. Rachel’s vessel can expect to learn about pulling crab pots, catching fish, harvesting oysters and even collecting eels. On her boat, there is no set menu of options to choose from; activities are simply dictated by the current fishery market.
This holds true for many captains who decide to conduct heritage tours.
Patrons enjoy seeing where their food is sourced and finding out where to buy seafood in support of local watermen.
On top of fishery tours, Capt. Rachel’s family offers custom tours tailored to individual interests such as sunset cruises, creek cruises, shark tooth expeditions, historical tours, swimming trips and even bird-watching excursions. They will work with restaurants and other businesses that would like to plan a tour after dining or partaking in other activities. Clients can craft their own unique tours that they would find most intriguing and enjoyable. Some even allow pets.
“I really enjoy the opportunity to kind of be the ambassador between watermen and the public and be that bridge that shows them what we do, how we harvest seafood and how they access their seafood. By the end of the trip, clients always tell us that it was way more than what they could have hoped for and way more than they expected,” Capt. Rachel says.
HANDS-ON AND EDUCATIONAL
Capt. Phil Langley is a tour veteran who commands a 48-foot-long, Coast Guard-inspected vessel called the Lisa S that is authorized to take larger groups out to sea.
“I was doing lighthouse cruises and heritage-type stuff for the area for probably 20 years,” Capt. Phil says.
He likes to take out groups of around 25 so he can keep per-person costs down while still providing an authentic experience.
Among the tours he can provide — sunset cruises from the Leonardtown Wharf and heritage tours out of St. Jerome’s Creek in Dameron. Having an oyster lease allows him to demonstrate the process of hand tonging to clients who choose to book with him.
These tongs can best be described as two, 12- to 25-foot-long rakes turned inward toward each other and connected like scissors. Oyster farmers use them to scrape the bay floor for oysters by opening and closing the tongs which they then heave out of the water by hand and slap onto a culling table on the boat where they’re sorted by size.
It’s a labor-intensive occupation, but honest and satisfying, nonetheless, Capt. Phil says.
In addition to harvesting oysters, Capt. Phil sets crab pots and lets trip goers pull the pots out of the water alongside him. Tourists learn about the lifecycle of crabs, the differences between a male and female, and how to identify types of crabs such as sallies, sooks, peelers and sponges.
He is especially keen on explaining the numerous benefits oysters provide to the Chesapeake Bay and oyster population history.
“It’s a combination of hands-on and educational,” he says. “Everybody learns something when they go out, and that’s what makes it all worthwhile, when you see people light up in appreciation for our environment and the waters of the bay.”
Just like Capt. Rachel, Capt. Langley always gets overwhelmingly positive feedback from patrons.
Watermen who do not possess captain’s licenses still provide tours of their own and play an integral part in upholding watermen heritage. Many provide activities such as kayaking tours, river walks and local cuisine tastings.
Through their work, these men and women embody the heart and spirit of Southern Maryland and collectively keep the history of Southern Maryland watermen from being lost to time. •