'A waterman needs ... faith'

The Baltimore Sun

BOZMAN -- P.T. Hambleton could probably make this run blindfolded, and at 4:30 in the morning, he might as well.

Gliding through pitch darkness aboard his boat, the Lexi Maye, he is accompanied by the low gurgle of the vessel's diesel engine. Only the barest of navigational running lights mark the bow and stern. Electronic blinks of the Global Positioning System, nautical radar and depth finder pinpoint Hambleton's precise position - which he knows by heart - among the narrow channels and sandy shoals of Broad Creek, where four generations of his family have earned their living as Maryland watermen.

A couple of weeks shy of his 19th birthday, and a year out of St. Michaels High School, Hambleton has settled into the seasonal rhythm he has known and studied since the age of 8, when he caught crabs on trot lines from his own peewee-sized skiff near his family's marina and wholesale seafood business.

"I've always known this is where I'd be," says Hambleton, who bought the 41-foot workboat last year. "I know I can make money on the water. ... If I can't catch crabs, I'll catch oysters. I always have something to do."

Philemon Thomas Hambleton IV is carrying forth both his great-grandfather's name and livelihood as he bucks conventional wisdom and pursues a career as a waterman. The trends are depressing - declining harvests, increasing costs - and this year, especially, a malaise hangs over the industry as extremes in weather have conspired to make crabbing even tougher.

University of Maryland economist Douglas Lipton says Hambelton, and the few others of his generation who are giving the endeavor a try, might well be innovators who can outwork and outsmart gloomy forecasts.

"This kid really is the face of a new generation of watermen," Lipton says. "They need to be smarter, more comfortable with technology. They'll need to be better watermen than their fathers, and they really have to want to do this work."

Hambleton keeps a citizens band radio on board, but the squawk box belongs to another generation. He is more likely to talk to other watermen, the younger ones anyway, by text message on cell phones or on the Web site Facebook.

He revs up the Lexi Maye and figures he's out a little earlier than the competition - most of whom are twice his age and more.

In the distance, the sky has a pink nighttime hue, reflecting St. Michaels and Tilghman Island before sunrise. As usual, the sinewy Hambleton is running on about five hours sleep, nicotine, caffeine and Doritos.

Crabs have been scarce this summer in bay tributaries, but Hambleton has staked out a spot that lately has yielded three or four bushels a day. At $80 a bushel, he can easily cover his expenses, including the five gallons or so of fuel it takes to slowly troll for crabs through the morning until nearly noon.

A 2002 study by Lipton found that fewer young people were entering the industry. Only about one-quarter of about 3,600 watermen who reported their earnings to the state's Department of Natural Resources made more than $10,000 for the year.

"In Maryland, about one-third of watermen are over 60, and it is unlikely that younger watermen entering the fishery will ever match them one-for-one," Lipton says.

Even an optimist like Hambleton is hedging his bets. Last year, he got a loan for a truck, a trailer and mowing equipment for a lawn care business he calls his fallback. Most days, he works until dark after crabbing, and he's handling more than 100 properties. The equipment loan is already paid. He still lives with his parents, but recently bought a house he plans to move into once he's done with renovations.

Russell Dize, a skipjack captain who has begun carrying tourists out to learn how to run trot lines and other skills, says there will always be watermen who are resourceful enough to make a living.

"Sometimes, it doesn't look good, but the first thing a waterman needs is faith," says Dize, whose son worked on the water to pay for law school. "There's no doubt there will always be watermen willing to do what's necessary. It's what we do, what we are."

The choice gets tougher with each year, says Maryland State Trooper Jamie Marshall, a Smith Island native who lives in Salisbury. He keeps in touch with his heritage by entering boat-docking contests at summer festivals.

"I'm 32 years old, and I have a wife and two kids," says Marshall, who also worked at the Eastern Correctional Institute near Princess Anne, crabbing in the morning and working a 4 p.m. to midnight shift at the prison. "I think that most guys when offered full health and retirement would have to take it."

Crab harvests in recent years have proven fairly consistent, registering 28 million to 30 million pounds, says Lynn Fegley, who runs the Department of Natural Resources crab program.

This year, however, cold temperatures in the spring kept crabs huddled in the mud for much of April and May. Now, with the region buffeted by drought, the high salinity of the bay's waters apparently sent many of the animals skittering north, where the water is less salty.

"We'll just have to wait it out this fall," says Fegley. "Weather has been the huge component. Our winter surveys predicted lots of crabs."

Hambleton says he's finding enough crabs to make money. As for oysters, he points to harvests that, while tiny compared to years ago, have doubled in the past couple of seasons.

Many people attribute the increase not to a new abundance of oysters, but to the state's decision to allow watermen to more aggressively harvest the bivalves through power dredging in more of the bay.

But Hambleton is not buying gloom and doom about the industry. Neither are his close friends, most of whom he says are also trying to make a go of life on the water.

"My grandfather's father was the one who started all this," Hambleton says. "I don't see doing anything else."


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