Volume 13, Issue 38 ~ September 22 - September 28, 2005
Photo by Alison G. Norville
Precise boat handling is not mere sport for watermen; it’s their profession and vocation.
Chesapeake Rodeo
Boat-docking shows who’s quickest on the Bay
by Alison G. Norville

The West has its cowboy.

The Bay has its watermen.

Both have reputations for bravely facing danger and hardship. They are spirited, independent men who exemplify the manly virtues of courage, self-reliance, respect for the environment and love of the outdoors. Tales of their lives have become a part of American folklore.

When these strong men gather after spending days on horseback or on the Bay, they boast of their prowess. Only a match will prove who is superior. Thus a cowboy has his rodeo, and a waterman has his boat-docking contest.

Waterman’s Rodeo
Out West, cowboys toss lassos and ride bulls over dry, dusty earth, but the cowboys of the Chesapeake do their tricks onboard, lassoing pilings instead of cattle and manuvering tons of wood or Fiberglas instead of balky mammals.

Each summer and autumn, more than 10 boat-docking competitions around the Chesapeake gather watermen to try their skills. Upping the ante, each has its own rules. Crisfield requires that lines be attached on all four corners of the slip. Kent Island uses electronic scoring lasers to pinpoint the centering of the craft in the slip. Tilghman Island, coming up on October 15, combines the score from two different runs. And Solomons, on September 25, has two sets of rules for two classes of competitors. Charter boat captains have a mate fasten the single stern piling line, while commercial captains loop both starboard bow and stern lines themselves.

To dock a 40-plus-foot boat, a waterman relies on his own dexterity and boat handling skills as well as the quality of his equipment. He must be able to judge the water’s current and wind to navigate the tight course, have the coordination to toss the line around the piling and have the equipment to withstand the strain.

Each time a captain docks a boat, he races against the clock from a starting line in one slip until the boat comes to a complete rest in another slip with the proper number of lines secured to the pilings.

Watch those pilings: Hitting one’s a penalty.

Cadillac-Style Competition
Solomons’ competition begins with the nautical equivalent of Cadillac SUVs. Charter boats, equipped to take six to a couple of dozen fishermen for a day on the Bay, cost between $200,000 and $300,000.

Capt. Shawn Pruitt of Owings berths his boat Never-Enuff at Calypso Bay in Tracys Landing — when he’s not working the Bay or on busman’s holiday manuvering lines and racing against the clock. At last year’s Calvert County Waterman’s Festival, Pruitt and crew Alex Williams hawk-eyed other captains at practice, scrutinizing their strength and weakness.

“That’s what kills you, going too fast at the start,” Pruitt said as black smoke billowed from the stern as a competitor threw his boat into reverse.

When his turn came, Pruitt nimbly backed his Robbins 40 into the starting slip. He powered the 450-horsepower Cummins diesel engine to half throttle for the 90-yard forward run.

An abrupt shudder shook the boat as the propeller shifted into reverse to head the big boat into the 16-foot-wide slip with only 18 inches to spare on each side.

Pruitt was disappointed with his average time.

“We’ll make up time with our line,” Williams said, referring to the next contest, piling lassoing. He’d specially designed a rigid lasso of duct tape and rope that he predicted would make looping the piling a piece of cake.

In docking, Capt. Marty Simounet of North Beach had the fastest time of only 26.28 seconds for docking Kyran Lynn, a Harry White 40 with a John Deere 375-horsepower diesel engine.

“He lassoed that pole like Gene Autrey,” said announcer Steve Zimmerman, president of Calvert County Watermen’s Association.

The competition brewed confidence as nearly every boat increased its speed on its second run. When the smoke and spray settled, Kyran Lynn had decreased her time to 24.6 seconds.

Sporting Work
Precise boat handling is not mere sport for commerical watermen; it’s their profession and vocation.

A waterman often begins working on family boats as a boy during the summers and on weekends. When he graduates from high school, he invests about $80,000 in his first boat, usually a smaller used model, and with the assistance of his father and uncles joins the family franchise.

There’s plenty of work to do, as measured in one aspect of the commercial fisherman’s work, crabbing. All together, Maryland’s fisheries contribute more than $65 million to our economy each year.

Maryland issues three classes of crab-pot license: 300, 600 or 900 pots, according to Kenny Keen, former waterman and deputy director of Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ Fisheries Service.

Each pot needs daily baiting, because a crab will not eat rotten food. Such attention to crab pots means that speed and accuracy are vital. Watermen also steer a boat to the precise spot to snag the pot’s anchor line and quickly flip it over the winch, which winds the line pulling the pot up from the bottom.

“If you miss the pot and have to circle around again, you waste a few minutes. Multiply that by a couple of hundred times a day and you go out of business quick,” explained Ryan Kastel, a trotline crabber from St. Michael’s.

Working Men’s Turn
Next at Solomons, commercial watermen show their stuff.

Unlike their charter boat contemporaries, commercial boats are fitted out for work, not comfort. Their small and stark cabins might hold a seat for steering, a control panel with gauges for the many systems aboard and a locker for stowing gear; no cushioned seats or roomy private heads.

Like many others, Capt. Ryan Kastel bought his hull, a Kinnaman 32, from Johnny Kinnaman of Tangier Island and built the cabin and decks himself to the specifications he wanted for his crab- and fish-catching business.

Last year, Kastel raced No Name with his father, Barney, making the 375-horsepower Caterpillar roar away from the slip. Throwing the transmission into reverse, he sent a cloud of black smoke and spray into the cockpit.

“This time, go a little slower in the forward run so you don’t lose momentum when you reverse it,” Barney advised. “It will give a better score.” The new strategy worked; the boat lost little time at the transition point.

To lasso pilings, Kastel uses three-quarter-inch line stiffened with resin to form a permanent loop attached to float lines. The wide loop catches the piling, and the floating line can be retrieved quickly so it does not foul the propeller.

Capt. Joe Ruark, a pound-net and drift-net fisherman from Hooper Island, scored a first-time two seconds better than the best charter boat’s time.

He decreased his time to 20.41 seconds in his next try, but it was’t quick enough. The all-wood 45-foot Natalie Noel, skippered by crabber Kevin Marshall of Smith Island, beat him with 19.85.

Bragging Rights
Afterward, captains review their perfomances with play-by-play critiques.

“I’m not so fast,” Marshall said. “I make up for speed with my lines.” But not this time; he clocked a slow 19.69 seconds for piling lassoing

Tension to maintain the lead caused Capt. Kastel of No Name to fumble the bowline. In the fraction of a second that he glanced down, the wheel shifted and No Name rammed the piling at full speed, pushing it over.

Too embarrassed to finish, Kastel shifted to forward and barreled out to wait for the final run. After straightening the crooked piling, Buddy Evans, director of the Tangier Watermen’s Association, executed a flawless performance, though not as fast as his first. His finish time was 17.5 for second place.

After the last boat was docked, captains and crews headed out to prepare for another day of agily manuvering their vessels on the Bay.

But not without a bit of boasting.

The captains had gained some bragging rights, enough prize money to pay their expenses for the day and, as Capt. Lee Smith, a crabber out of Smith Island, said, “Some right purty trophies.”

Cheer on the watermen
  • Noon-5pm September 25, Calvert County Watermen’s Festival at Marina Watermen’s Wharf, Solomons: 410-326-3929.
  • 10am-6pm October 15 at Tilghman Island Day: 410-866-2677.

Bay Weekly’s Carrie Steele contributed to the final version of this story.

Alison Norville taught English in Anne Arundel County for 30 years, most recently at Southern High School. When she is not at her computer writing for several publications, she travels with her husband, David, and their two kittens. Her last story for Bay Weekly [Vol. xii, No. 23: June 3, 2004]. was Memorial Day Memories: Bill Gay’s D-Day.

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