Chesapeake Bay - Watermen - The Mariners' Museum
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Chesapeake Bay Workboats
The Development of the Deadrise Workboat
Harvesting the Bounty
Suggested Reading

Chesapeake Bay -
Our History and Our Future
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Who are Watermen?

A Chesapeake Bay Waterman, 1872
A Chesapeake Bay Waterman, 1872
Men and women who make a living by fishing, crabbing, and oystering on the Chesapeake Bay are called watermen. The term "waterman" dates as far back as the eleventh century in England. These early English watermen were actually smugglers who used small boats to transport stolen goods across waterways. When the English settled in the Chesapeake Bay, they continued to use that name, applying it to the men who worked in the fishing industry.

Most watermen on the Chesapeake Bay are independent fishermen. They own their own boat and equipment, and they sell the catch to different wholesale seafood houses. Most watermen start their day at sunrise and depending on the catch, may travel several miles to the fishing or harvesting grounds. In the summer they crab, and the spring, fall, and winter they fish for a variety of fishes and eels. The winter months are also oyster season. Throughout the year the watermen fish in all kinds of weather.
Deadrise Susan Carol softshell clamming, 1957
Deadrise Susan Carol softshell clamming, 1957
They do not earn any money if they do not work. Many watermen work on the water as a second job. They sometimes work a night shift and then come home and crab or oyster for a few hours, sell their catch, and then go to sleep. This makes for a long day, but most do it because they love being on the water.
Unloading a day's catch
Unloading a day's catch

Most watermen live in small waterfront communities. In some ways, life in these communities has changed very little through the years. This is especially true of the islands in the Bay, such as Tangier Island and Smith Island. Even the way the watermen talk and the words they use are often different. Sometimes, their speech is a lot like the speech of people in England hundreds of years ago. It can be very much like the speech of the early colonists who first settled the Bay region.

Waterman Billy Moore tongs for oysters on the James River.
Waterman Billy Moore tongs for oysters on the James River.

Because the Chesapeake Bay is unique, over the years, watermen have developed special boats to fish with, and with the help of marine scientists, special tools to catch the seafood.


 

 

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