Volume XVII, Issue 35 # August 27 - September 2, 2009

Working the Water

Captain Rachel Dean finds charter fishing a good job for a woman

by Sara Newman

Captain Rachel Dean is not a stripper, but there has been some confusion.

At seven-months pregnant, Dean walked onto the docks to assist her husband with a bachelor party charter.

“Alright! The stripper’s here!” shouted one of the bachelors.

“That’s my pregnant wife,” corrected Simon Dean, captain of the Red Osprey, where Rachel is first mate.

And 27-year-old Dean got another funny story to add to her collection of the experiences of a woman in a male-dominated profession.

“The first boat that I worked on, back in 1996, had a few other captains working at the same marina, and they were all taking bets on how long I would last. I think some of them got blown out of the water,” she says.

In 11 years on the water, Dean has developed a system of warming up her charter parties. She lies low at first to avoid overwhelming the party with the fact that a woman will be helping them fish. As she baits the hooks and sets up the rods, people get the hint that she may be more than along for the ride.

“How long have you been doing this?” people ask.

“Oh this is my first time,” Dean jokes. She then tells them that she’s been captaining or mating on charters for over 10 years and has fished her entire life.

Dean is used to being underestimated, especially, she says, by older men. She says she is met with resistance possibly because men don’t want a woman to help them bring their fish in over the boat. They’ll make rude and crude jokes, but Dean is resilient and laughs along with them.

“I don’t get insulted. There’s nothing the guys can say that I haven’t heard before,” she says. “I’m over that point where I feel like I have to prove myself.”

She’s worked the water long and hard enough to earn respect. After fishing with her, parties ask for her again because they had fun and caught fish.

She hasn’t seen and done it all, she says, but she’s seen and done plenty, from having a bird poop on her shoulder to finding a dead body in the water.

“If it hasn’t happened to you,” says Dean, in a saying common among captains, “you haven’t been doing it long enough.”

Wetting Her Feet

Dean grew up in Lusby, near Solomons Island, in a house built by her grandfather on the St. Johns River. Her fishing career began on the family pier, crabbing and catching minnows.

“For my parents, fishing was always a hobby,” Dean said. “But as I grew up, I realized I could make good money during the summer being on boats.”

Dean started working on boats at 16, the summer after her junior year at Patuxent High School. With her new driver’s license, she had the mobility to get to Solomons Island.

She got turned down on her first try, at Bunky’s Charter Boats, where Dean’s future husband later worked as a charter captain. Dean suspects she lost out because she was a woman.

“We joke about it now,” Dean says. “It’s like, Bunky wouldn’t hire me, but he gave Simon a shot!”

Captain Mike Shaw gave Dean her first job, on the Elizabeth S. She worked five summers for him.

Dean liked the work so much — being surrounded by the sights of the water, the smells of the fish and the feel of the fishing rod — that she kept going for more than summer cash.

In her junior year at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, she got a promotion to first mate, working on the Sandra Marie with Captain Mike Gerek. In 2003, Dean graduated with a bachelor’s in teaching and also earned her U.S. Coast Guard Captain’s License.

In 2004, Dean was set for a career on the water when her alma mater, Patuxent High School, wooed her into the classroom. She was glad to have a source of income during the winter months when she wasn’t fishing. During her free summers she worked on the Sandra Marie.

Two year later, with a push from Gerek, Dean earned her Commercial Tidal Fishing License. Gerek, ill with terminal cancer, grew too weak to run the boat. Dean then took over as captain.

“It’s almost like Mike had this master plan for me to get my license because he knew he was sick. But I never knew,” Dean says.

On the Job

The typical charter fishing day lasts six to eight hours. Usually the trips will travel 40 minutes before reaching the day’s hot spot, which is usually determined by good catching the previous day.

“We fish for rockfish, and they’re called that because they stay around structures like lighthouses and rocks, so that’s where we go. Some of the structures are under water, like wrecks, so you have to know where those are. Sometimes it’s just plain instinct,” Dean said.

With parties of six coming from Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District, the pressure is on to show them a good time.

“It’s definitely a people business,” she says. “People come out there to have fun, and what I promise is that whether they catch fish or not they’ll have fun out there. The only thing we can’t promise is the weather.

“At the end of the day it’s all about the other person,” Dean said. “You love to see that aha! moment from the kids, and you love to see someone else get excited about catching a fish.”

Captain Dean and Daughter

Now that Dean is almost nine months pregnant, she doesn’t fish as much as she used to. Her last paying trip was in April, but she still goes out twice a week with her husband, whether they’re working, catching bait fish or practicing.

Dean and her husband bought a boat named Rough Water this past spring for oystering.

With a daughter due September 17, Dean is glad for the benefits her teaching job brings. She expects to go back to the classroom after a month’s maternity leave.

After Baby Girl Dean is born, Dean says, “I’ll definitely go back out there. And as soon as she’s old enough she’ll go with me.

“It’s one of those things you want to do until you can’t do it anymore.”