ANNAPOLIS -- Like Canada geese returning to the marshes of Chesapeake Bay, the watermen have come back again to this Colonial seaport, a more certain harbinger of winter than the first wind from the north or the slanting rays from a sun that traces an ever lower arc in the sky.
Their crusty wooden workboats named for wives and girlfriends, with Eastern Shore hailing ports inscribed across their transoms, are tied up at the pilings along the City Dock bulkhead where sleek, new yachts tugged at docking lines only weeks earlier.
They are a reminder of the days before the state capital was transformed from a sleepy fishing village to a haven of brick fern bars and upscale restaurants.
"That's what Annapolis is all about. It's what I remember about City Dock," gushed Dennis Lowman, 43, whose family moved its grocery store, Rookie's Market, from West Street to the dock in 1960.
"Look here," he said, pointing to a black and white photo that was hanging near the meat counter. It shows the City Dock one summer day in the mid-1960s, judging from the cars. Workboats are rafted together along the old bulkhead. A skipjack with its sails raised fills the foreground.
"It was like that all the time, not just in the winter," he recounted.
From mid-April until October, pleasure boats cram all 19 slips and most of the 280 feet of bulkhead space along what's known here as Ego Alley.
But after the U.S. Sailboat and Powerboat shows clear out and the crowds of tourists begin to thin, the watermen slowly begin to return.
They harvest clams and oysters off Hackett and Tolly points, near the mouth of the Severn River, from the time the sun breaks the horizon until late afternoon, sell their catch to buy-boats or the Waterman's Cooperative in the Eastport section of town, then return to the City Dock at night. Most sleep on their boats.
"I got a TV down there. It's fine," said Willard Marshall, a 28-year-old waterman from Tylerton on Smith Island, as he motioned with his head past the culling table to the cabin of his boat, Whippoorwill II.
For four years, he said, he's been piloting his boat to the Western Shore in November to work in the Upper Bay because of the lack of oysters closer to home.
He'd rather stay home, he said, but "there's not been no oysters over there for the last four or five years."
He and the others are attracted to Annapolis partly because of the supply of oysters nearby and partly because the city has waived docking fees for several years to give working watermen a break.
"It's really a big help they let us tie up here," said Glenn Evans, another Smith Islander whose boat was rafted near Mr. Marshall's. "I've been coming here for three years now."
Waiving the dock fees serves two purposes, explained Ric Dahlgren, the harbor master. It provides a boost for workers in an industry hit hard by the decline of the bay and it helps attract people to the dock area "at a time when otherwise there wouldn't be any boats there."
"It adds to the atmosphere," said Al Kaufman, who has operated a fruit and vegetable stand in the city Market House for 18 years. "And when there's more things like that around, it attracts more peopledowntown and helps business."
Of course, the workboats and the watermen who pilot them were not always viewed as such a local asset. In the early 1970s, the beginning of Annapolis' gentrification, they were considered an eyesore.
The men in old jeans and coveralls working among rusting tongs on decks scattered with oyster shells and an occasional empty beer can just didn't fit the city's new image. They were evicted to make room for well-heeled sailors.
But more recently, city officials invited the watermen to return. At first, they came from other towns in Anne Arundel County or farther south along the Western Shore. But as diseases decimated oysters on the Eastern Shore, more watermen began traveling across the bay.