Cover Story

The Waterman's Song

The Heritage Tour Program Is a Step Toward Preserving a Way of Life

Story by Audrey T. Hingley, Contributing Writer

Photos courtesy of Chesapeake Environmental Communications and Audrey Hingley.

In the early morning chill, Captain William Saunders deftly maneuvers his 38-foot deadrise Miss Nicole from its mooring at Carter’s Cove Marina in Weems and heads out toward Irvington’s famous Tides Inn resort.


Accompanied by first mate Rusty, a larger-than-usual Yorkshire terrier, Saunders pilots his boat effortlessly on calm creek waters. Designated the official boat of Virginia, the deadrise features a flattened V-shape on the hull’s bottom and can accommodate heavy, bulky work equipment. Useful in both shallow and rough water, traditional workboats like Saunders’ have been used by Chesapeake Bay watermen since the 1880s.


Saunders, 45, grew up in Weems, a historic watermen’s community in Lancaster County on Virginia’s Northern Neck. With close-cropped hair and a ready smile, he talks easily about his hometown and work.


 “There used to be 150 boats [here] when I was a kid,” recalls Saunders, who now lives in Kilmarnock. “Today there are only two privately owned working boats on this creek, one owned by my cousin, and my boat.”


Gesturing toward a large house on a knoll overlooking the scenic creek, Saunders says, “My grandparents sold the land on that hill for $3,000. It’s now owned by [a bank executive] who only comes here once or twice a year.”


On the water since age 4 with his waterman grandfather, Saunders owned a construction company in 2007; just as the recession was hitting he decided to go back on the water. From October to February, he dredges in designated oyster grounds harvesting wild oysters to sell. Otherwise, he stays busy with another kind of catch: taking tourists on historic

watermen tours and other specially designed cruises.


One of Saunders’ clients is the Tides Inn. “The Oyster Experience” lets visitors board Saunders’ boat for a trip to local oyster beds, where they learn to sort and size oysters. After loading the harvest, they visit a shucking plant and learn how oysters are cleaned, shucked, packaged and shipped. The tour includes an eat-what-you-catch component.


Chesapeake Bay oysters

Tides Inn food and beverage manager/ executive chef T.V. Flynn explains, “We do a tasting when they return; they can sample the oysters raw, roasted and fried. The feedback has been great.”  


Saunders is an enthusiastic supporter and participant in the just-launched Virginia Watermen’s Heritage Tour, a focused effort connecting trained, seasoned watermen with visitors wanting to experience the heritage and culture of Virginia’s waterways. The training helps watermen develop their own tourism businesses, offering new income possibilities amid Virginia’s $21.2 billion tourism industry.


The initiative comes not a moment too soon for Virginia watermen, who have been battered by everything from pollution to increasing regulations to fluctuating seafood yields.


Ken Smith, 67, president of the Virginia Waterman’s Association and an initiator of the new tour program, explains, “The water business is so different than what it was 30 years ago. You had to work, but it used to be kind of lucrative. The resource isn’t there like it used to be. If watermen make it today, they’ll have to market themselves differently. Hopefully, the heritage program will help them do that.”


Paula Jasinki, president of Gloucester’s Chesapeake Environmental Communications, helped Smith get the ball rolling for the program. She observes, “It pulls everybody under one umbrella. By putting this mass of captains together, it develops some consistency and professional training.”


Three decades ago, Smith says there were about 8,000 commercially licensed Virginia watermen; he estimates that there

are now about 3,000 watermen, adding, “but I don’t know how many of them are actually [still] working.”


Brothers Forrest Dameron, 35, and Brad Dameron, 32, of Wicomico Church in Northumberland County, are fifth-generation watermen embracing the heritage program. Their family is involved in crabbing, wild-oyster dredging, cage-raised aquaculture oystering (via Forrest’s Penny Creek Oyster Farms) and a shucking house/seafood-processing facility.


Forrest, who studied business administration and aviation at Averett College, is also a pilot and has flown fish-spotter planes for Omega Protein’s menhaden industry in Reedville, which dates to 1878. His father, Cecil Dameron, has been an Omega Protein pilot for years. He also owns Dameron Seafood, which supplies fresh seafood to restaurants, including

Cecil’s own Kilmarnock-based KC’s Crabs & Cues Restaurant. Now the family is adding watermen’s heritage tours, with hands-on summer crab-potting tours and other customized tours. Forrest calls the heritage program “a way for us to tie it all together.”  


He started oyster farming in 2010 and has 500-plus cages of oysters on 80 acres of owned and leased bottom in the Great Wicomico River. Known as triploids, cage-raised oysters are disease-resistant and take 12 months to two years to reach salable sizes (2 to 3 inches). Wild oysters take three years to reach “sale” maturity. Raising caged oysters allows the Damerons to offer oysters for sale year-round.


Captain Danny Crabbe, an affable third-generation waterman who grew up in Ophelia in Northumberland County near Reedville, is adding heritage tours to the charter-fishing-boat business he’s operated since 1973. He also owns Fat’n Happy Oyster Company, an oyster aquaculture business with oysters grown in 300 cages on 40 acres of leased bottom in the Little Wicomico River.


After working several jobs in the “big city” of Richmond post-high school, Crabbe says he “had enough” of city life. He came home and worked with his father before buying his first fishing boat.


“Sometimes you think you’re gonna get rich and you don’t. If you think you’re going to starve, if you keep working, you won’t,” he says.


Capt. Danny Crabbe

Crabbe’s 43-foot fiberglass deadrise KIT II can carry as many as 28 passengers for fishing or custom cruises on Potomac River, Chesapeake Bay and coastal Atlantic waters. A new 16-foot-by-40-foot working platform pontoon boat allows visitors to experience oyster operations.


“I feel like the heritage program is a positive thing to keep our watermen’s heritage alive,” Crabbe, 69, says. “The Chesapeake Bay is cleaner and getting better. When I was 7 or 8 you’d see cans and bottles [floating in the water]. Seldom do you see that now. I think people are doing their part [to help].”


He adds, “It’s fun showing people how a peeler crab turns into a soft-shell crab. It’s fun to see someone from California who’s read about the Chesapeake Bay see it, or watch a child catch their first fish.”

Program coordinator Glenn Markwith, who grew up in Colonial Beach in Westmoreland County and is the son of a retired waterman, calls captains like Crabbe “poster children for this program.”


“It takes a certain kind of personality [to do tours],” he admits. “Twenty people have been trained and five are starting out with us this year. We’re satisfied to grow the program slowly.”


Jason Perry, vice-president for workforce development with Rappahannock Community College, where training classes for the new program are held, notes, “The program is in its infancy but we already have a waiting list [of other captains] who want to participate in the next round of classes.”


He adds, “Watermen can not only supplement their income, they can be champions in terms of sharing information about the ecology, marine environment and local heritage of an area.”


Smith believes as watermen see other watermen doing well with heritage tours, more will want to participate.

Captain David Rowe of Lottsburg in Northumberland County grew up in Lewisetta, a small island-like cluster of homes on the Potomac River. He began working on charter boats as a helper at age 13, and by 19 was a fully licensed captain.


After earning an art degree from Virginia Commonwealth University, he says he “fell back into” the charter business and bought his first charter boat. His Bay Quest Charters offer bay, river and Atlantic Ocean fishing trips on a 43-foot fiberglass deadrise, Bay Quest. He also does eco-tours and scenic river tours; off-season he oysters, does commercial net fishing and crabs.


“When I heard about [the heritage program], it resonated with me because it’s kind of what I’ve always done,” Rowe, 62, explains.


Capt. David Rowe

Rowe started doing eco-tours in 1987 when his son Matthew went to the Governor’s School and Rowe offered to do a program there. He’s guided trips for students at St. Margaret’s School in Tappahannock and Longwood College professors. He even has a special aquarium he puts on board so visitors can get a close-up view of sea life.


“It was reassuring,” he says of the heritage training he received. “I have the clientele so I know the potential is there. With oysters, we discuss equipment and use hand tongs. I discuss how crab pots were patented by Northumberland watermen in the 1920s. The next generation needs to know this.”


Greg White, president and CEO of Northern Neck Electric Cooperative, grew up on Gwynn’s Island in Mathews County, where his grandfather and uncle were watermen.


“The cooperative was initially formed by rural people who were farmers and watermen on the Northern Neck. We’d like to see them continue to succeed,” he says. “These tours are a great way to showcase the area to people not familiar with it. People really need to take these tours to understand what life is like here.”


For more information:


Virginia Watermen’s Heritage Tours

(804) 824-9914


The Tides Inn “Oyster Experience”

(804) 438-5000; 800-843-3746


Workforce Development, Rappahannock Community College

(804) 758-6750


Virginia Waterman’s Association


Chesapeake Environmental Communications

(804) 824-9914



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