A prayer to help keep bay watermen afloat

In the Chesapeake Bay town of Shady Side, where summer in the city seems a world away, an ancient "Blessing of the Fleet" ritual took on a new meaning yesterday.

As nearly two dozen crab, oyster and fishing boats paraded along Parrish Creek under an arc of water sprayed by Anne Arundel County firefighters, hundreds of onlookers prayed not only for the fishermen, but also for the bay that provides their shrinking livelihood.


"We confess that we haven't very good care of it," said the Rev. Karen Gould of Centenary United Methodist Church in Shady Side. Gould led a prayer at the Blessing of the Fleet festival and asked for good weather, the watermen's safe return and a good harvest this season.

"This brings the community and the watermen together, and brings good public relations for watermen," said Bob Evans, 50, head of the county Watermen's Association and a "lifer" on the bay.


"We're always out there and, well, we wake people up. The people in the community are used to it, knowing you need watermen to feed a community."

Evans said some people don't understand the importance of the fishing industry.

"People from out of town tend to think fish can all be frozen," not fresh, Evans said.

Noting that watermen's way of life is fragile -- threatened by an endangered ecosystem as well as rising real estate and docking prices -- Evans said it is important for watermen reach out to others to help survive.

Del. Virginia P. Clagett, an Anne Arundel Democrat who sits on the House Environmental Matters Committee, agreed that there is reason to fear for the health of the bay and its waterways because the harvests are getting smaller and smaller.

"Crabs and oysters are really in trouble," she said.

The community's second waterside festival attracted hundreds of families to Discovery Village, where the daylong event took place.

The festival was also a chance for recent arrivals to meet residents who have lived in the area for two or three generations.


Shady Side resident Laureen Brown, 38, said her two young daughters never had a chance to meet her father, but know that he made a year-round living by clamming, out at 5 a.m. and collecting at least a bushel a day.

Billy Joe Groom, a 92-year-old retired waterman, watched his son Neal compete in the docking contest.

The elder Groom remembered the days when, he said, "I ran everything to Baltimore, tomatoes and watermelons." It could take six hours to make that run to Baltimore's shores from Shady Side, he said, and twice as long from Virginia.

Next to the Shetland pony rides, two symbols of hope for the bay were on display: a male terrapin and a much larger female one, for which the bay is a nesting sanctuary.

"They're just hanging out with us," said festival volunteer Marguerite Whilden, who said she had just been laid off from her job in the Division of Fisheries, Conservation and Stewardship at Maryland's Department of Natural Resources.