When the teeth of the oyster tongs open, a small mound of oysters tumble onto the worn wooden surface of the Bay Quest’s culling board. They are fresh from the floor of the Coan River, on Virginia’s Northern Neck. Their shells are slick with gray silt and dotted with barnacles.
On another day, Capt. David Rowe might take these oysters to market. Today, he’s using them to tell stories of the Chesapeake and the decades he’s spent working its waters.
Rowe is among the working watermen taking part in a heritage tourism program that gives visitors an authentic look at a traditional way of life along the Chesapeake Bay.
“Back when I was oystering hard,” Rowe said, “we’d have those winter days when the sun would come up and make that long, bright light on a cold morning. Then we’d go back in the warm cabin for lunch and watch the ducks go by.”
In between, there was hard physical work.
“We’d always have a laugh about oyster season,” Rowe said. “We’d say there were three times a day we loved it. Riding out, eating lunch and riding home.”
Rowe continues to harvest, but the catch has declined and become less predictable. Like others in the trade, he’s found ways to stay on the water and still make a living.
In the 1980s, Rowe commissioned a custom-built boat, the Bay Quest, that could haul oysters, crabs and passengers. “I was banking on oystering all winter and running fishing charters in the summer,” Rowe said.
Now, Rowe finds that some people are as interested in his stories and life experience as they are in catching fish.
Soon after the Bay Quest departs from the Coan River Marina, Rowe can point back to the small fishing village of Lewisetta, where he grew up. Rowe’s family has deep ties there. His father was a commercial fisherman and his grandfather ran the general store.
Lewisetta once had a cannery, oyster house and steamboat landing that connected its residents to Baltimore and the world beyond. “Anything that came in here was from Baltimore,” Rowe said. “I have my grandmother’s old furniture and if you turn it over, it has tags from Light Street.”
At 13, Rowe jumped at the chance to leave a lawn-mowing job and take to the water. He began work as a first mate for a local charter captain and was a licensed captain by age 19.
After college, Rowe dabbled with other work but eventually returned to his roots. “I tried to leave,” he joked. “Then one day I told my wife, ‘I’ve got bad news for you. I’m buying a boat.’”
He’s glad he did.
This spring, Rowe took part in a heritage tourism training workshop for watermen organized by the Virginia Watermen’s Association, Chesapeake Environmental Communications, Northern Neck Planning District Commission, Rappahannock Community College and the Coastal Heritage Alliance.
Twelve watermen attended the workshop, which was inspired by a similar, more extended program in Maryland. More than 80 watermen have participated in the Maryland program since it was launched in 2010. The program was initiated by the Chesapeake Conservancy and supported by the Maryland Watermen’s Association, Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum and Coastal Heritage Alliance.
While watermen have lots of knowledge and stories to share about the Bay, the heritage program adds information about Bay history and ecology, including the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.
The program also helps watermen prepare for the practical side of the tourism trade, such as making sure their boats are equipped and licensed for passengers.
“It’s always been my hope that they can use their tools of the trade and their way of life not only to educate the public but to reinforce within themselves their own heritage,” said Mike Vlahovich, director of the Coastal Heritage Alliance. “So every time they tell their own story, it becomes more important to them and they hopefully pass it on to other generations.”
The types of tours and experiences vary.
“Everyone is offering something different, and they’re not all water-based tours,” Vlahovich said. “Some put on crab feasts, some are involved with museum campuses or make presentations to local groups.”
Costs vary, too. Water-based tours generally start at $75 to $100 per person for half-day trips, but could cost $25 or $40 per person for larger groups on a boat with high capacity. In some cases, passengers get to keep the day’s catch.
Last spring, Rowe and fellow waterman Capt. Danny Crabbe greeted a charter bus with approximately 70 passengers on a trip organized by California winery Gundlach Bundschu.
Crabbe showed them an oyster hatchery and shucking house, while Rowe took them on the water to look at oysters in the river.
“A few wanted to try tonging, so I let them have a go at it,” Rowe said. “Then I shucked a couple of the oysters so they could try the raw product right on the boat. They were all over that.”
Rowe said they liked his accent, one of those soft blends of Virginia and tidewater watermen that the sharp ear still hears along the shore.
More recently, Rowe welcomed a group of teachers and teachers-in-training from Longwood University. Their Bay-intensive summer program explores Bay science and policy from different perspectives.
The group boarded the Bay Quest the day after making a trip to Annapolis to see a historic skipjack. Rowe helped them trap crabs and fish, then showed them the oyster beds and new oyster aquaculture area in the Coan River.
Biology professor Mark Fink said the day was full of firsts — their first look at oyster tonging and their first experience on a Chesapeake deadrise workboat, which is the official boat of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
“It was also our first opportunity to be on a boat with a working waterman,” he said.
Vlahovich said that he believes that exchanges like these are good for the hosts as well as the guests.
“They use storytelling to enhance and strengthen what they already believe in and what they might in some cases take for granted,” Vlahovich said. “When they see people have a keen interest in what they do, it gives them hope.”
Watermen Heritage Tours
These tours are as varied as the watermen (and waterwomen) themselves. Some can shape their tour to match visitors’ interests, on land or on water. These websites list those who have participated in heritage tourism training.
- For Virginia’s Northern Neck, along the Potomac and Rapphannock Rivers, visit www.northernneckheritage.org.
- For Maryland’s Eastern and Western shores, visit www.watermenheritagetours.org.