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October 15, 2013

Soaking up the wisdom of the watermen

(Continued)

And so, as a Marylander curious about my state's history, I found myself one chilly September morning on such a workboat, turning the key to start the steady rumble of the Patricia Anne's engine. I'd met VanAlstine in Galesville, a small riverside town south of Annapolis where he has moored his boats for 15 years.

VanAlstine gave me a quick orientation of the 40-foot-long vessel — the "house" is the little room that contains the steering wheel and two seats, for instance — and then we chugged north across the flat bluish-gray river, where silhouettes of watermen at work speckled the horizon. While steering the boat, VanAlstine filled me in on the life of a waterman — unpredictable harvests, rough weather, unreliable paychecks, bad backs and knees — all balanced by the freedom of working for yourself, continuing old traditions and just the joy of being out on the water.

"Doing this job isn't to get rich. It's a quality of life. Fifty percent of my paycheck is the enjoyment of what I do," said VanAlstine, 47, who was born in landlocked Howard County in Maryland but became a waterman in his 20s and eventually earned the community's respect.

Matthews, 68, feels the same way. He's now retired from full-time work — a sign on the front of his boat reads "Hardly Working" — but he still crabs in the summer. "I love it," he told me. "I used to work on land, and it was the most boring job I've ever had in my life."

Unfortunately for watermen, 2013 is a bad one for crabs — the crustaceans are down in number by 60 percent, the worst in VanAlstine's 18-year career. Part of the reason may be that a 2012 spike in numbers caused young crabs to eat one another, according to state officials.

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