Ten minutes into my tour with Chesapeake Bay watermen, and I'd just asked the landlubber question of the century: What's the difference between a male and a female blue crab?
"How could you stand there and say that?" joked Calvin "Pee Wee" Matthews, a third-generation waterman who had just hauled up a net of wriggling crabs from his boat on Maryland's West River, a tributary of the bay, which is surrounded by Maryland and Virginia and is the largest estuary in the United States.
"She's from D.C.," my tour guide, John VanAlstine, said helpfully from our boat, the Patricia Anne, which we'd brought alongside Matthews's Little Rascal II.
The matter was soon cleared up, thanks to some Washington landmarks, no less: VanAlstine showed me that the female crab has a rounded abdomen — the shape of the Capitol dome — while the male's is needle thin — think the Washington Monument.
It's not every day that you can shoot the breeze with some watermen — the shrinking group of men and women who make a living oystering, crabbing and fishing on the bay — but the Watermen Heritage Tours program has made it possible.
In 2008, after a decade of plummeting crab populations, the federal government declared a fishery disaster, and Congress designated money to support the bay's 5,200 licensed watermen — a group that's far smaller than in the past, although historical numbers are unknown, according to the Maryland Watermen's Association. Some of those funds went into a tourism-training program, led by the Chesapeake Conservancy in partnership with the Coastal Heritage Alliance and other bay organizations, which since 2010 has certified 80 watermen to lead trips throughout the bay. (Another training course may take place in 2014.)
The idea is this: Tourism opens up another source of income for watermen while giving the public a chance to experience such centuries-old practices as baiting crab pots and tonging oysters. Or, if you're the less hands-on sort, listening to a fish tale or two on a sunset cruise or a kayak trip. "When I think of the Chesapeake Bay, there's nothing more iconic than a waterman on the water in his white workboat," said Joanna Ogburn, director of programs for the Chesapeake Conservancy, when we chatted before my tour.
And so, as a Marylander curious about my state's history, I found myself one chilly September morning on such a workboat, turning the key to start the steady rumble of the Patricia Anne's engine. I'd met VanAlstine in Galesville, a small riverside town south of Annapolis where he has moored his boats for 15 years.
VanAlstine gave me a quick orientation of the 40-foot-long vessel — the "house" is the little room that contains the steering wheel and two seats, for instance — and then we chugged north across the flat bluish-gray river, where silhouettes of watermen at work speckled the horizon. While steering the boat, VanAlstine filled me in on the life of a waterman — unpredictable harvests, rough weather, unreliable paychecks, bad backs and knees — all balanced by the freedom of working for yourself, continuing old traditions and just the joy of being out on the water.
Matthews, 68, feels the same way. He's now retired from full-time work — a sign on the front of his boat reads "Hardly Working" — but he still crabs in the summer. "I love it," he told me. "I used to work on land, and it was the most boring job I've ever had in my life."
Unfortunately for watermen, 2013 is a bad one for crabs — the crustaceans are down in number by 60 percent, the worst in VanAlstine's 18-year career. Part of the reason may be that a 2012 spike in numbers caused young crabs to eat one another, according to state officials.
Most of VanAlstine's crab pots — square metal cages with a pocket in the center for bait — were onshore due to the poor crab season, but we headed for the more open waters of the bay to check on the few that he did have out. When we arrived at his pots, VanAlstine donned orange overalls, work gloves, a long shirt to avoid jellyfish stings and then, with surprising speed, started yanking the pots into the boat.
Only a few crabs scuttled out of each pot. He separated, or "culled," the creatures based on factors such as size and sex and then threw the pot back with a fresh bait fish. (People on longer tours can participate in crabbing and take some of the catch home to eat.)
VanAlstine proudly says that he's known for having some of the best crabs: Each has to pass his "squeeze test," which means pinching the corner of each crab's shell to feel whether it's hard. This means that the crab is mature and thus has more meat. He'll later sell these beefiest crabs directly to buyers at a retail price.
Our next stop was VanAlstine's oyster grounds, which he leases from the state. The oyster population is still less than one percent of its historic numbers in the Chesapeake Bay, but the numbers are climbing slowly due to oyster sanctuaries and habitat restoration.
Each year, VanAlstine buys oyster larvae from the state hatchery, puts them on oyster shells and releases them into his oyster grounds, hoping that the babies, called spats, will grow on the shells and become marketable adult oysters in a few years.
He idled the boat over an oyster ground that he'd seeded earlier this summer and pulled out the 16-foot-long oyster tongs, essentially two long wooden poles with a metal basket attached to the bottom that opens and closes like toothy jaws. VanAlstine stepped up onto the edge of his boat, lowered the basket into the oyster bed and opened and closed the poles with rapid, scissorlike movements, scraping up the oysters.
"What I'm doing now you could do 100 years ago," he said, pulling up the tongs and spilling a mess of oysters onto the boat. He picked through the pile and showed me the rough shells on which babies are growing. And then it was my turn to oyster.
I struggled to maneuver the heavy tongs, managing to heft a few oysters onto the boat. I couldn't imagine doing this for hours at a time, much less in sleet and snow in the dead of winter. But then I thought of all us office workers "on land," spending our days indoors sitting at computers, and I understood what Matthews had said: "If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't change a thing."
Dell'Amore is a freelance writer in Washington. Her Web site is christinedellamore.com.