Before sleek yachts and sailboats dominated City Dock, before specialty boutiques and brick fern bars catered to an endless stream of tourists, oystermen tied their boats in Annapolis and settled in for a long winter.

But by the early 1970s, watermen disappeared from a gentrified waterfront amid rising docking fees and complaints that dirty workboats ruined the scenery.

These days, the oystermen have come back during the winter months, their fees waived by a city seeking to recapture a time when a bustling port housed a couple hundred workboats.

This year, some 25 oystermen came from the lower Chesapeake Bay's Smith Island, seven hours by boat and centuries removed from the upscale Annapolis dock.

On Smith Island, 400 people live much like their ancestors who settledthere 350 years ago. In their isolated world, a collection of old wood-frame houses, crab shanties and one-lane roads -- with no fast-food restaurants or convenience stores -- watermen outnumber everyone. Few people own cars because they have few places to drive. Water splits the island in two and cuts it off from mainland Crisfield in Somerset County, a 45-minute ferry ride away.

The Smith Islanders' existence aboard low-slung, shallow-draft wooden workboats in Annapolis seemed as anachronistic as their lives on the remote island.

At CityDock, the oystermen sleep on board in bunks in cramped, heated cabins. They rinse their hands in bay water, cook canned food on two-burner stoves and store cold cuts and soda in ice chests. They grab showers in dock restrooms for free, courtesy of the city.

"You ain't gotthe comforts of home," said Mike Harrison, 31, aboard the Miss Yvonne, a boat his father once captained and named after Harrison's mother.

But as Kenny Schoffstall, a 38-year-old father of two, put it, "It's something you have to do. That's what I grew up to. I never worked for anybody else. Where you gonna get a job with a high school education?"

Like their fathers and grandfathers before them, they'd spent their lives catching oysters in the winter and crabs in the summer, many of them quitting school as teen-agers to work.

"Being separated from the mainland, you have to count on the water business," said Willard "Woosie" Laird, tall, sandy-haired and easy-going.

Near Smith Island, parasitic disease had wiped out an oyster crop that had only begun to thrive again, forcing them to the waters off Annapolis. There they work during the winter weeks, sleeping on their boats.Each weekend, islanders car-pool and drive the three hours to Crisfield to catch the ferry home.

Oyster tonging is hard, lonely, tedious work, but most Smith Islanders have never known anything else. On most days in Annapolis, they would work from sunup to late afternoon.Then they'd deliver their harvests to the Maryland Watermen's Cooperative in Eastport.

It's a tough way to make a living, and few lasted in Annapolis through March, the end of oyster season.

As springapproached, oystermen had the wind to contend with. Oyster bars raked over for many months yielded little. Oysters got scarcer and workdays got longer. Frustrations mounted. Thoughts turned to going home, to readying for spring and crabbing. Each week, more Smith Islanders quit for the season.

"I'm barely keeping the wolf away," said Laird, who was lucky some weeks to take home $150, after a week's expensesaveraging $200. "It's all you can do to get by.

"I hate to leave home," said the 36-year-old father of three. "I tell my wife it's either that or starve to death."

On days when the wind whipped up a frenzy, some of the watermen kept their boats safely tethered in port.Homer Tyler, 65, usually set out anyway in his boat, the Queen Mary,skimming across the bay's silvery waters. Tyler wasn't one to sit around. Besides, he figured a day's work for even a meager haul of oysters topped no day's work at all. He had worked the water since he was14. As a young man, he dredged oysters aboard one of the graceful old skipjacks that have since rotted from age and all but disappeared from the bay.

Toward the end of March, only six Smith Island boats remained tied up at pilings along the City Dock bulkhead. At night, the boats huddled three abreast -- the Carol Ann, the Miss Yvonne, theDawn Michele, the Queen Mary, the Little Shayne and the Miss Bonnie,their transoms stamped with their names and home ports of Ewell, Tylerton or Rhodes Point.

Harrison, slim and dark-haired, determined to stick with it until the end, at least for this year. At age 12, he'd followed his father to the water; now he's considering following him away from it. Harrison's father works for the Department of the Interior.

"He made the right move. He got off the water," said Harrison. "There ain't no future for watermen. Everything is against the waterman."

Julian "Jukie" Bradshaw, 35, didn't feel that way when he began life on the water 21 years ago. He and his father tonged on adouble-rig oyster boat off Solomons. At that time, the state had just begun placing daily limits on oystering, looser restrictions than today's.

"Things have changed a lot," he said. "We would catch 50 bushels when I first started, me and my father. It was 25 bushels to aman. You wouldn't have to work very long. At Chesapeake Beach and Tilghman's, you'd catch your limit in four hours. You never see that nomore. Them days are gone.

"Prices of stuff you got to get to catch crabs have doubled and tripled. You can't get enough money for whatyou catch. If you're lucky, you work four days and make $400, but that's not clear. Then you have expenses. In the last couple years, that's when I really started getting fed up with it. Just hard times, I guess. I don't think it's apt to get better."

One chilly March morning, Laird's day started around 6 a.m. Dressed in a flannel shirt, jeans, a vest and a ski cap, he emerged from his cabin and revved up the diesel engine.

The Carol Ann moved swiftly through the morning mist, toward a Tolly Point oyster bar near the mouth of the Severn River. Water boiled on the two-burner stove for the first of a half-dozen cups of coffee. The Beatles played on a tape deck.

Sunrise overthe Bay Bridge ushered in hours of laborious, dirty work.

The hydraulic-powered tongs would rise from the water, their scissor-like jaws clenched with oysters and empty shells. Laird would pull the heavytongs toward him, step on a pedal and watch the bounty splatter overa culling table.

He would sort through the batch quickly, tossingoysters of 3 inches or longer into a bucket. Thick work gloves protected his hands from bay-soaked wind. With a flat piece of wood, he swept the empty shells back into the bay.

Slowly, the minutes blended into hours as, one by one, oysters piled up in bushel baskets. Cigarettes and occasional drinks of soda broke the monotony, but otherwise, Laird would lift, sort and sweep almost in one continuous motion.

Around noon, he took a break to eat a ham sandwich and confer on the radio.

"What are you doin'?" a voice came over the speaker.

"We're just floatin' around," Laird answered. "This is gettin' on my nerves. Been here since January. We should have a happy hour and collect our thoughts, 'cause I need counseling."

"That sounds all right," the other waterman answered, in a unique Smith Island dialect that twisted the vowels to sound like "aw royght."

Laird's father hadworked the water, too. One day, while shaft tonging on the Potomac River, he had a heart attack and died. Laird was just 5 years old.

As a headstrong 16-year-old, Laird quit school. Smith Island has justone school, elementary level. The older children get to school on the mainland the same way mail and supplies get to the islanders, by boat.

"I didn't like it, and I wouldn't listen," he said. "It's the dumbest thing anyone could do. If I had it to do over again, I'd go to school. I try to tell my children to go to school.

"It's not an easy way to make a living," he said. "I'll never make enough to retire. I like to dream of doing something else. But that's all I know. I guess I'll do this till I die."

Still, money can't make up for some things. For one, there's the independence that Laird and other Smith Islanders have a reputation for.

"If I want to take a week off, I can do it," Laird said. "I can quit when I want. I ain't got no boss and nobody to tell me what to do."

That, Laird and others from the island say, they cherish above all.

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