Blessed are the watermen

Festival: Those who make a living as crabbers and fishermen will be celebrated in the rebirth of a Shady Side tradition.

August 08, 2002|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

In crabbing season, J.R. Gross leaves his Shady Side house in the pre-dawn hours. The 34-year-old fourth-generation waterman from southern Anne Arundel County sets out from Parrish Creek on his boat Miss Cindy, and has his baited lines in the water by 4 a.m.

He spends eight hours tracking crabs - mostly on the West River - and then heads home to bait about 6,000 feet of lines for the next day. After dinner with his wife and son, he tries for five hours of sleep before returning to the water.

This waterman's life - and that of other area crabbers and fishermen - will be celebrated and honored Saturday at the "Blessing of the Fleet Festival," reviving a Shady Side tradition last held 28 years ago. Gross will be part of a flotilla of 30 to 35 watermen's boats that will pass a reviewing stand of local clergy ready to bestow a blessing on each boat and its captain, wishing them safe journeys and good catches.

The all-day event will feature seafood, vendors and music. But amid the fun, organizers are promoting a serious message: that watermen have an increasingly difficult job harvesting the Chesapeake Bay's declining fisheries.

The event "will let people know that we're still here," says Gross, who conceived the idea of returning the traditional blessing to Shady Side. "People say, `Oh yeah, I enjoy crabs.' Well, crabs don't get to the table by themselves."

The number of working watermen in Maryland has plummeted from 9,000 five years ago to 4,200, and only 900 work full time throughout the year, says John Van Alstine, vice president of the Anne Arundel Watermen's Association.

"People have to realize that in order to harvest this bay, we need to work here," says Bob Evans, the association's president.

Working watermen have felt increasingly besieged over the past decade, as state-mandated limits on catches and working hours - rules designed to bolster the crab harvest - made their job more difficult.

As suburban development spread across southern Anne Arundel, they've also had to contend with bans on workboats at marinas and newcomers' complaints about smelly bait, unsightly crab pots and fishing gear.

"Watermen are kind of like a forgotten part of this county's heritage, and over the last few years they haven't had too much to really shout about, with the different crabbing regulations, the fact that oysters have gone to a large degree, that they're getting kicked out of marinas and can't have crab pots in front of their houses," says Adam Hewison, chief festival organizer and founder of Discovery Village maritime center. "This will be like their moment in the sunshine, which I think is most deserved."

The blessing was introduced in 1955 when a group of South County watermen decided to bring the centuries-old European practice to the area, according to records at the Captain Salem Avery House Museum in Shady Side.

This year's festival, which includes displays of fishing gear and a workboat docking contest - is a collaboration of the county watermen's association, the Shady Side Peninsula Association, area churches and Discovery Village, which will be the host for the event on its 8-acre waterfront site.

In his family, Gross is the last link to a tradition of working the West River that dates to the early 1900s, when his great-grandfather hand-tonged for oysters. As a 6-year-old, Gross joined his father, James Rodney Gross Sr., on his boat, Puddin, and helped by picking freshly caught clams off the conveyor. By 13, Gross was operating 500-pound hydraulic oystering tongs.

"Back during the oyster days when it was booming, I had three uncles on the water and a multitude of cousins," he says.

Gross worked summers on the boat until he graduated from high school, and then joined his father full time. His father died in 1989.

Trained as a shell fisherman, Gross became a crabber out of necessity in the mid-1980s, as parasites began to ravage the bay's oyster population.

Initially he was a "crab-potter," setting out crab cages in the bay and collecting the catch. But Gross switched to trotlines about 10 years ago, working the rivers and creeks as his grandfather and great-grandfather had.

"So I have to work on the tide and try to figure the crabs out," he says, "when and where they're feeding every day."

Gross doesn't remember the details of Shady Side's annual blessing of the fleet - an event he last saw as a child - but he thought of it when the Franklin United Methodist Church men's group was brainstorming for ideas to raise money.

"For some reason it just stuck in my mind," he recalls. "I figured with knowing the guys I could get them to participate."

In March, Gross mentioned the idea to Hewison of Discovery Village, and over the next several months his modest proposal for a church fund-raiser became a heavily promoted community event expected to draw at least 2,000 people.

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