by Jane Meneely
photography by Vince Lupo
"You know, Joe, that's a right-handed pole." Emcee John Martin is joshing Joe Anderson of Mechanicsburg, Md., one of the contestants in the Waterman of the Year contest, a heated competition held every year at the Watermen's Expo in Ocean City, Md. Anderson, obviously a lefty, is carefully coiling a heavy dock line, glancing occasionally at a makeshift piling 15 feet away from him, planted on the floor of room 208 in the Ocean City Convention Center. He's going to heave the line and try to lasso the piling as if he were heading into a Chesapeake dock. Only here his feet are blessedly balanced on a level floor and not dancing on the bucking bow of a deadrise. If he succeeds, he'll have the opportunity to try again--only he'll have to back up another five feet. If he misses, he's out of the round. In this particular contest, one of several leading to the Waterman of the Year title, the one who stays in the game and successfully loops the piling from the farthest away stands to win $100 and a few more points toward the championship.
It should be a snap. After all, Anderson's been roping pilings since he was a kid. These days the 20-year-old deckhand works aboard a tug pushing barges full of dredged material from Baltimore Harbor to Hart-Miller Island. He's tossed plenty of lines plenty of times, probably thinks as much about it as a banker thinks about tying a necktie. You get pretty good at it after a while. You heft the line just so, feel its weight in your hand, note the rhythm of the chop underfoot, eyeball the piling and send the line flying so the loop on the end settles over the piling top like a fallen halo. Nothing to it . . . except when you have an audience. There are thirty or so people hunkered down in folding chairs, and focused on Anderson's every move--family and friends enough to make a cucumber jumpy.
The audience leans forward expectantly, the better to follow the action. You can hear someone suck out the last of a soda from a cup full of ice, and someone's foot slips off the rung of his chair and smacks the floor. Anderson straightens up and surveys the spectators with a cool look. Then he bends toward the piling, swings his coil back and forth, gently rocks his body to build momentum. You can just imagine engines growling, diesel fumes spewing and a few rowdy seagulls taunting him from the air. Suddenly the heavy white line snakes out like a lizard's tongue, but it only licks the piling. A sympathetic "Awwww" erupts from the audience.
"A right-handed pole," Martin repeats with a grin as the next contestant steps forward and begins carefully coiling the line.
Everybody calls it the "Watermen's Expo," but officially it's the annual East Coast Commercial Fishermen's & Aquaculture Trade Exposition, put together every year by volunteers and staff from the Maryland Watermen's Association. It draws watermen and their families from up and down the East Coast, including Canada's maritime provinces. But plenty of recreational boaters are here too, perusing the exhibits, checking out the new gear and generally keeping tabs on what's going on along the commercial waterfront these days. It's a lot like a boat show, with an impressive list of informational seminars thrown in and the added hijinks of the skills contests. Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association and de facto host of the whole shebang, puts it well. "The trade show has been going on for thirty-some years," he tells me. "It's an opportunity for all the watermen who are scattered throughout the Mid-Atlantic area to come together to discuss the problems facing the fishing industry today and maybe come up with some solutions. They get to preview some of the new technologies and contribute their ideas. But it's as much an opportunity to buy gear that they don't have access to in their small communities and to meet old friends they haven't seen in a while."
I'll say. The gathering has the feel of a giant family reunion. As I join the throng of expo goers, I can't help but notice the delighted hum of women chattering affectionately with old acquaintances and the high fives and whoops of recognition coming from men greeting long-distance friends. Not surprisingly, the kids connect with each other too and begin sliding into the crowd--to check out "all the cool stuff," as one excited redhead aptly put it to a freckle-faced charmer his own age. With an approving nod from nearby moms they're off to the Junior Watermen's Expo, a sort of parallel universe where kids can splash in splash tanks, eyeball critters through microscopes or try to snag oyster shells from a simulated boat dock with a pair of long oyster nips (downsized oyster tongs used in shallower water).
"Cool stuff" is as apt a description as any for the grown-up exhibits that lie before me in the main hall of the convention center. Imagine the entire place chock-full of workboats, crab pots, fishnets--even pickup trucks--and men in ball caps poking through it all or standing in clusters discussing the past fishing season and speculating as to what's up for the next. An oyster bar set up on one side is drawing people like gulls to chum. They're slurping down the fresh oysters as fast as the shucker can split them open and fan them out on a sturdy paper plate. I decide to start there--"Oysters? You bet! I'd like a dozen, please"--and who should I run into but my old buddy Marcus Thomas, a waterman from Kent Island (and an occasional CBM contributor). I get a warm hug and lose a couple of my bivalves to Marcus's gaping mouth--a fair trade any day. But I'm sorry to hear that he has left the Bay for Chincoteague. "Gotta make a living," he says, adding that he's thinking of making the move permanent. He tells me that he even did a stint of long-lining on a New England fishing boat. "Now that's a story!" he says, seriously. "I thought we had it tough here on the Bay. I'm tellin' ya, I was never so glad to get off a boat in my life!" Write it up and send it to me, I tell him as he spots another friend and moves on. I toy with the idea of getting another plate of oysters but decide to wait. So much to see, so little time . . . I can come back for oysters later.
Not too far from the oyster bar and smack in the middle of the action sits the Maryland Watermen's Association raffle boat, a sleek locally built deadrise that will go home with whomever holds the winning ticket--the drawing will be on Sunday, as long as all 2,000 tickets ($200 a pop) have been sold (and no, the winner doesn't really have to take the boat home right away; he or she doesn't even have to be here when the winner is announced).
A makeshift stairway leads people up to the boat's spacious cockpit, and I join the line of folks going aboard to check things out. This particular vessel is an Evans 38, built just outside of Crisfield, Md. It's big and beamy, with the spartan accommodations one would expect in a workboat. But all that could change depending on how the winner would want to use it: fishing parties, family cruising, restaurant hopping. . . . Chesapeake boats are nothing if they aren't adaptable. I fill out my raffle ticket and hand over a check. I'm told I have most assuredly purchased the winning ticket, but I have my doubts. I'll bet they say that to all the girls.
I amble past the raffle boat, past boatbuilders beckoning to buyers and dreamers alike: Evans, Carmen, Judge, Donelle. . . . Donelle? I've never heard of them before, and small wonder--they've come all the way from Canada. I stroll by the monster diesels sprawled across the floor in come-hither colors, luring good old boys like cold beer on a hot day. You can almost hear their siren song in soft smoky tones: I am engine, hear me roar. Men circle the sultry behemoths warily at first, then they're bending down and looking at them real close. I imagine the engines winking at each other.
On the other end of the convention center floor is a cluster of pickup trucks. A spiffy black one is also being raffled to benefit the MWA, and the $100 tickets seem to be flying off the counter. I pass. I know what I'd do with a boat; I have no idea what I'd do with a pickup truck.
Beyond all that, spread across the Convention Center are aisles of booths touting all manner of goods and services, from white rubber boots to business insurance to marine art. Richie Tillman of Tilly's Tyes from Queenstown, Md., sits at a well lit table, tying bucktails and flies and chatting with customers old and new. In front of him gaily feathered earrings dangle from a display rack next to an assortment of yummy-looking fluorescent squid flies. "My work is going around the world," he says proudly. "One of my customers told me he caught a broad-billed swordfish off Africa, and another fellow caught a tuna off the coast of Guatemala. Word is definitely getting out." He puts the finishing touches on another squid and adds it to the others on display. Business has been brisk, he says, and the earrings are very popular with the ladies.
Tillman learned to tie flies when he first began fly-fishing as a kid, and then had time to hone his craft when a dismal string of childhood surgeries kept him indoors and sedentary. What began as a hobby turned into a lucrative mail-order business, with enough repeat customers to keep him too busy to fish as much as he'd like. "The downside of being so successful," he says. "My flies attract the fish, the fish bite, and by the end of the season those hooks are pretty well chewed up and the fisherman wants more, so he comes back to me. And of course his buddy was with him the whole time, watching him pull those fish out, and now he wants a dozen or so too. It just goes on." Tillman flashes a puckish grin, "Not that I'm complaining."
Marine art and crafts, cookbooks, crab spice, goose calls, you name it, if it has something to do with seafood or life along the shore, it's here, tucked in among the gleaming boat hulls and fishing gear. Nonprofit agencies are represented in force, offering the most recent scientific findings on topics ranging from seaweed to sturgeon. I even bump into the lovely Miss Crustacean--Brittani Hinman of Crisfield, Md., that is, bestowing dazzling smiles on all comers and delightedly posing for photos. All this and I'm still in the main exhibit hall.
I'm told that upstairs is where the action is--if action is what you're looking for. The Mid-Atlantic Commercial Waterman of the Year competition is held here on Saturday afternoon. The contest consists of several timed heats in which contestants show off their skill at knot tying, net mending, rope splicing and more. The winners gain points and pocket prize money. Anyone any age can join in at any time. If knot-tying is your thing, you can sign up for just that contest. And if you come out on top, you can walk away with a hundred bucks and call it a day. Hardly anyone does that, though; plenty of the same faces stand up when the different "heats" are called. No ringers here. The men, women and kids who join in the fray know what they're doing, and their nimble fingers start flying when the clock starts ticking.
It's fun to watch. Really. One heat in particular is downright hilarious: the race to put on a survival suit. These are heavy one-piece garments that are about as easy to climb into as the Playtex girdle your mother wore back in the 1950s. Sure, if you're on a sinking boat in the middle of a Chesapeake river in the middle of a Chesapeake winter--you'd be plenty motivated to scramble into a survival suit before you hit that frigid water. On hard ground, it's another matter entirely--it's quite awkward and, especially when a bunch of burly men are all doing it at once, hysterically funny.
The Watermen's Expo isn't all fun and games. A series of seminars led by marine scientists and field experts bring watermen together to learn about the latest fisheries research and marketing studies. One topic that's in the forefront is biodiesel, the fuel that, like it or not, is going to become more predominant at the fuel docks. The rise and fall of the blue crab population is another focal point. Discussions led by Doug Lipton from the University of Maryland zero in on current efforts to develop a crab hatchery and restocking program on the Bay in the face of dwindling numbers of crabs in the wild. And inside or outside the seminar rooms, the conversations invariably touch on the worrisome question of how long commercial fishing in any shape or form can offer a viable livelihood to the families that have traditionally staked their lives on the sea's bounty.
"I can't afford to hang around [the Bay]," Marcus Thomas says when I run into him again. "Chincoteague is beautiful. I just hope I can hang on there."
I've poked into every corner of the Convention Center by now. Checked out all the booths. Eavesdropped on plenty of conversations and initiated plenty of my own. I begin to make my way across the exhibit hall toward the main entrance, passing by the shoal of engines that has been luring the passing mariners all day now. I watch as a couple of older men get snagged by a comely 50-horsepower Cummins diesel. They are Art and Vic Scherer, brothers from Pasadena, Md. They fish for fun, they tell me, launching their 25-foot home-built boat on the Magothy River or in Eastern Bay. Vic is hard at work on another boat, Art says, a 30-footer that he keeps at Gates Marine in Deale, Md. But it's slow going. Vic doesn't drive any more, so the work is progressing in fits and starts. They've come to the Expo to dream.
Ah yes, I'm thinking as I finger my raffle ticket.
Next year's Watermen's Expo is scheduled for January 25--27 at the Ocean City, Md., Convention Center. For information: 800-421-9176; www.marylandwatermen.com.