As a Maryland native and first-generation waterman, Rachel Dean bristles at the thought of being called a "waterwoman."
Thirty-two-year-old Rachel Dean is kneeling beside a plastic baby pool, as she shows a cluster of kids a whole mess of marine life — like this horseshoe crab.
“You want me to kiss him?” she asks with a grin. “Mmmwah! Ewwww!”
Rachel found the twelve-legged arthropod in the Patuxent River near the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, Maryland. It’s getting on dinner time, and the Calvert County native has spent all day on the dock entertaining visitors as part of the museum’s grand re-opening festival, which is celebrating the facility’s $2-million renovation.
“I don’t know which is more tired,” she says with a laugh. “Me or the animals!”
But here’s the thing: Even after the crowd heads home, Rachel Dean has a bit more entertaining to do, this time on her 40-foot boat, The Roughwater.
“I’m going to slip the boat out of the boat basin, we’ll go out on the Patuxent River and I can show you how we work the dredge,” she says. “And if it looks like we can get away with it, I’ll drop the patent tongs, show you how those work, too.”
See, in addition to teaching young people — and the mother of two actually teaches professionally: high-school English — Captain Rachel Dean also works on and around the Chesapeake Bay as a waterman.
“As a schoolteacher I hear so many kids say, ‘Oh, there’s nothing to do around here; I can’t wait to grow up and move out of here,’” Rachel says. “And I just say, ‘This playground? You want to leave this?’
“I went to college, and I have a master’s now, but I’m always going to come back to [the water],” she explains. “You hear the old-timers say ‘Once it’s in your blood, it’s in your blood.’ For my husband and I, we’re both first-generation [watermen], so it must have gotten injected somewhere, because it wasn’t inherited!”
Rachel and her husband, Simon, supply rockfish, crabs and oysters to local businesses through their company, Patuxent River Seafood. They also run Solomons Island Heritage Tours, making them part of a growing number of watermen offering what are known as Watermen Heritage Tours. The Chesapeake Conservancy, Coastal Heritage Alliance, Maryland Watermen’s Association and the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum have been training people like Rachel and Simon to show off their way of life to tourists: from setting up crab pots to dredging for oysters.
On today’s private tour, after Rachel calls in her scientific-collection permit (necessary to do demonstrations off season), she shows how she harvests oysters with her boat’s jaw-like/claw-like patent tongs, as well as the power dredge: a heavy chain bag attached to a long rope.
“You can feel it; you can feel the rope,” she says. “You can feel it hitting the oysters on the bottom, feel it vibrating.”
She then dumps the oysters with a crash onto a metal culling table.
“That’s [sic] some pretty oysters right there,” she says as she sorts through the specimens. “Some real big oysters. They have a lot of growing bills on them. Looks real good for next year. If we can keep them alive, we can keep them happy, we’ll have a good year, and many years after that, too.”
The way Captain Rachel Dean sees it, she and her fellow watermen want nothing more than to keep species in the bay happy. But she worries those of us who aren’t on the water every day might not get that.
“The waterman’s way of life is something people don’t know much about,” she says. “And when you don’t know much about something, you kind of start to speculate, or you go on things that you hear, so there’s a lot of things that people really don’t know about us, that if I can bring them out here on the boat and I can show them, then maybe we can gain their support, they’ll start to buy the fresh, local seafood. So much of our seafood comes from out of the state, and really, out of the country!”
Rachel says her tours often highlight the challenges watermen face — like encroaching development and increasing sedimentation in the bay.
“Oysters need a hard surface to be able to grow,” she explains. “So we’re struggling with the populations of the oysters, because these oysters aren’t finding that clean substrate to set on. So we have a lot of sediment.
“You hear people say, ‘Oh, we shouldn’t be harvesting oysters. We’re at one percent of historic populations.’ But it really isn’t the harvesters compared to, you look around, and you see all these houses and you know what’s happening to our waterways.”
In fact, she says, if anybody is truly invested in where these populations are going, it’s a waterman. And yes, she does think of herself as a waterman — not “waterwoman.”
“I don’t want that distinction,” she says.
Though females are in the minority, Rachel says there are several female watermen in the area.
“We have one that got her captain’s license after just completing the Heritage training program,” she says. “There’s a couple of lady charter boat captains, too. There’s a young lady, I believe she’s out of Anne Arundel County, she works her own boat full-time. She, like I did, was out here pregnant!”
Rachel actually charter fished until she was about six months pregnant. And now, she says, her daughter is part of the crew.
“She asked Daddy for a cruise shirt for Christmas, so she got it,” Rachel says with a smile.
Not that all watermen are quick to embrace a woman on the water. Captain Rachel Dean loves talking about the superstitions held by more old-timey watermen. Like how you shouldn’t paint your boat’s bottom blue. How you shouldn’t let dogs on your boat. Or bananas.
“And can you believe they think a woman on a boat is bad luck? Yeah! I’ve heard that one, too! It’s never really bothered me much!”
Music: "The Mollusk" by Ween from The Mollusk