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Watermen try their hand at tourism

— David Whitelock stood in the open stern of the workboat and reveled in the nearly pristine view as the vessel cruised the Nanticoke River. A bald eagle flew along the wooded shoreline while his 6-year-old daughter Hannah fidgeted around him.

The 39-year-old from Deal Island and a few other watermen took off from oystering this week and spent a day retracing a voyage of Capt. John Smith, the 17th-century English explorer whose adventures helped open up the Chesapeake Bay to European settlement.

But this was no ordinary tour. Whitelock and the other watermen aboard were getting paid to learn about Smith's wanderings. The daylong cruise up the Nanticoke was part of a new government-funded effort to encourage some of the bay's dwindling commercial fishermen to branch out into tourism — and, in the process, preserve their endangered livelihood and culture.

"Every time you tell your story, pass it along, it reinforces your values," said Mike Vlahovich, leader of the three-day training session, which included two days of presentations and brainstorming in a farmhouse retreat at Dames Quarter, near the mouth of the river.

Vlahovich, director of the Coastal Heritage Alliance, has spent years restoring historic fishing vessels in the bay and in the Pacific Northwest. He has also led similar maritime culture tours in Alaska.

Beginning with their first six prospects, Vlahovich and his partners hope to recruit and train up to 100 watermen and their wives to supplement their fishing income by offering to show and tell the natural and cultural history of their waterfront communities. Others involved in the effort are the Chesapeake Conservancy, a group dedicated to preserving and promoting access to the bay's "treasured landscapes," and the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. Both are based in St. Michaels.

"The idea is to provide the training so these men and women have skills for another line of work that can provide some income," said Michael Shultz, spokesman for the conservancy. The group especially wants to encourage greater public use of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, the nation's first water trail which retraces the English explorer's voyages from Virginia to the Susquehanna River.

The "heritage tourism" training program is financed with a $428,000 grant from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The grant draws on $15 million in federal disaster relief funds the state received two years ago to help watermen weather a drastic decline in the bay's blue crab fishery, its most lucrative seafood catch.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, the Baltimore Democrat who pressed federal officials for the funds, said the tourism training fit with her goal of providing opportunities to watermen who'd seen their crab harvests decline for years. The number of licensed watermen in Maryland has declined as well from nearly 8,000 in the mid-1990s to fewer than 6,000 now, according to state figures.

The crab stock has rebounded since then, though with much tighter catch limits. Thomas O'Connell, the state's fisheries director, said regulators still wanted "to diversify the portfolio of crabbers so they weren't as dependent on crabs, because there's more crabbers than the fishery can support."

The group assembled this week at Dames Quarter included four watermen and one waterman's wife, plus one former crabber who runs tour boats out of Cambridge now. Vlahovich said they were the first of about 18 to be recruited from around the bay to approach and train other watermen and their families. They received briefings from state and local tourism officials and from a member of the Coast Guard on what they'd need to do to carry passengers.

"We're not here to teach them their own heritage," said Vlahovich, but to help them find ways of earning income by telling their own stories and the history and traditions of their communities. Such heritage tours "open up a door to a world people can't readily access," he added, and the watermen and their families "have the keys to let people into that world."

Watermen would need to get a Coast Guard license to carry passengers and might have to spend thousands of dollars upgrading their vessels. They also face the challenge of drawing tourists to remote communities with few other amenities — something Vlahovich says would require them to forge ties with museums, restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts.

"Nobody's going to get rich at it," said John Page Williams, senior naturalist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, who served as guide for the Nanticoke cruise. "It's going to take some ingenuity to make it tick, but there's an opportunity here for somebody."

A few in the initial group have already gone into part-time tourism.

Ed Farley, captain of the skipjack H.M. Krentz, said he's been taking passengers out when he's not oystering since 1985, first for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and then on his own.

"It's a nice transition for me," explained Farley, 59, a New Englander who moved here in the 1970s and fell in love with skipjacks, the historic sailing vessels built to dredge oysters. He takes the Krentz oystering from November through March, then from April into fall runs sightseeing cruises out of St. Michaels, a former fishing community that's become a tourist magnet.

"The reality is, in the modern world you have to diversify," Farley said. And if enough watermen can make enough money doing other things, he added, it might relieve some of the pressure on the bay's fish and shellfish populations.

Morgan White, 50, of Salisbury, who's been cook and crew member aboard the Krentz for 20 years, sees an opportunity for himself as well. A lifelong Eastern Shore resident, White says he paints houses in the summer, but the training program got him thinking about getting his captain's license to run sightseeing cruises.

On the Krentz, he explained, passengers get a bit of history and a chance to raise the sails and see how oysters have been dredged for more than a century.

"We have people from London and California," he said. "These people are paying $35 for two hours, and [they] tell us it's not enough."

Scott Todd, 47, a waterman from Cambridge, said he's thinking about starting a "boat-and-breakfast" with his skipjack, the Lady Katie. He still crabs in the summer and oysters in the winter, though with a more modern boat. The 54-year-old skipjack has been reconditioned, Todd notes, and has a smallish cabin where passengers might sleep, camp-style, as skipjack crews do when they're working far from home port.

"That's part of the charm of it — you're not going to get a queen-sized bed," he said.

Participants in the training program got a stipend of $350 a day to take off work from fishing, and they'll be paid to provide up to 20 hours of training and outreach. The pay was especially welcome this week, as usually independent watermen staged a de facto strike, staying ashore to protest a drop in the prices they were being paid for their oyster catch.

David Whitelock doesn't own a historic skipjack to draw tourists, and Deal Island is an isolated Somerset County fishing community still relatively untouched by tourism. But the training session got him excited about trying his hand at it, too.

"I don't see myself being a full-time tour guide," he said. "But one or two [tours] a week or every other week. Every little bit helps."

Besides, Whitelock added, letting passengers see how he makes a living might help boost the watermen's image among landlubbers who think all watermen are out to take the last oyster or crab.

"They can see I'm not a pirate," he said. "I can be a kind of public relations man."

Whitelock's wife, Dawn, who helps her husband with his soft-crab shedding operation, said she saw potential to draw some tourists to their remote hometown, but wanted to make sure it didn't get overcommercialized. "Keep it real," she said. Holding their 2-year-old daughter, Emily, she said, "I think it's off to a great start."

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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