Watermen try their hand at tourism

Program helps crabbers, oystermen find ways to supplement income

  • The tour group approached the Route 50 bridge over the Nanticoke River aboard Captain Dicky Webster's deadrise workboat, the Three K's.
The tour group approached the Route 50 bridge over the Nanticoke… (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore…)
November 19, 2010|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

VIENNA — — David Whitelock stood in the open stern of the workboat and reveled in the nearly pristine view as the vessel cruised the Nanticoke River. A bald eagle flew along the wooded shoreline while his 6-year-old daughter Hannah fidgeted around him.

The 39-year-old from Deal Island and a few other watermen took off from oystering this week and spent a day retracing a voyage of Capt. John Smith, the 17th-century English explorer whose adventures helped open up the Chesapeake Bay to European settlement.

But this was no ordinary tour. Whitelock and the other watermen aboard were getting paid to learn about Smith's wanderings. The daylong cruise up the Nanticoke was part of a new government-funded effort to encourage some of the bay's dwindling commercial fishermen to branch out into tourism — and, in the process, preserve their endangered livelihood and culture.

"Every time you tell your story, pass it along, it reinforces your values," said Mike Vlahovich, leader of the three-day training session, which included two days of presentations and brainstorming in a farmhouse retreat at Dames Quarter, near the mouth of the river.

Vlahovich, director of the Coastal Heritage Alliance, has spent years restoring historic fishing vessels in the bay and in the Pacific Northwest. He has also led similar maritime culture tours in Alaska.

Beginning with their first six prospects, Vlahovich and his partners hope to recruit and train up to 100 watermen and their wives to supplement their fishing income by offering to show and tell the natural and cultural history of their waterfront communities. Others involved in the effort are the Chesapeake Conservancy, a group dedicated to preserving and promoting access to the bay's "treasured landscapes," and the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. Both are based in St. Michaels.

"The idea is to provide the training so these men and women have skills for another line of work that can provide some income," said Michael Shultz, spokesman for the conservancy. The group especially wants to encourage greater public use of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, the nation's first water trail which retraces the English explorer's voyages from Virginia to the Susquehanna River.

The "heritage tourism" training program is financed with a $428,000 grant from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The grant draws on $15 million in federal disaster relief funds the state received two years ago to help watermen weather a drastic decline in the bay's blue crab fishery, its most lucrative seafood catch.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, the Baltimore Democrat who pressed federal officials for the funds, said the tourism training fit with her goal of providing opportunities to watermen who'd seen their crab harvests decline for years. The number of licensed watermen in Maryland has declined as well from nearly 8,000 in the mid-1990s to fewer than 6,000 now, according to state figures.

The crab stock has rebounded since then, though with much tighter catch limits. Thomas O'Connell, the state's fisheries director, said regulators still wanted "to diversify the portfolio of crabbers so they weren't as dependent on crabs, because there's more crabbers than the fishery can support."

The group assembled this week at Dames Quarter included four watermen and one waterman's wife, plus one former crabber who runs tour boats out of Cambridge now. Vlahovich said they were the first of about 18 to be recruited from around the bay to approach and train other watermen and their families. They received briefings from state and local tourism officials and from a member of the Coast Guard on what they'd need to do to carry passengers.

"We're not here to teach them their own heritage," said Vlahovich, but to help them find ways of earning income by telling their own stories and the history and traditions of their communities. Such heritage tours "open up a door to a world people can't readily access," he added, and the watermen and their families "have the keys to let people into that world."

Watermen would need to get a Coast Guard license to carry passengers and might have to spend thousands of dollars upgrading their vessels. They also face the challenge of drawing tourists to remote communities with few other amenities — something Vlahovich says would require them to forge ties with museums, restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts.

"Nobody's going to get rich at it," said John Page Williams, senior naturalist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, who served as guide for the Nanticoke cruise. "It's going to take some ingenuity to make it tick, but there's an opportunity here for somebody."

A few in the initial group have already gone into part-time tourism.

Ed Farley, captain of the skipjack H.M. Krentz, said he's been taking passengers out when he's not oystering since 1985, first for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and then on his own.

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