Watermen Heritage Tours with Captain Phil Langley
Today’s Chesapeake watermen are heirs to more than 3 centuries of tradition, innovation, and adaptation to a changing world. For more than 100 watermen, “heritage tourism” and Watermen Heritage Tours, could be the latest adaptation that keeps them on the water, working the skills of their craft.
Watermen Heritage Tours, a partnership between the Chesapeake Conservancy, Coastal Heritage Alliance, Maryland Watermen’s Association, and the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, created a program to teach the insights and skills to conduct heritage tours. The training keeps watermen in their jobs and supplements their incomes in a related business.
Captain Phil Langley is a paradox: a walking contradiction. He is totally committed to preserving the Chesapeake waterman’s traditional way of life, yet he projects such a clear vision for the Bay’s future. A working waterman, Captain Phil fishes, crabs, and runs charter trips out of St. Jeromes Creek in Maryland’s Saint Mary’s County. He is also one of the dozen watermen, trained in heritage tourism, conducting tours that bring the public into the Chesapeake’s seafood industry.
Watermen Heritage Tours offers up-close opportunities to viscerally understand how people make their living from the Chesapeake, pulling crab traps or tonging for oysters, exploring the country’s largest estuary, and learning its maritime traditions. Tours are either land or water-based and may include activities ranging from oystering with a waterman to kayaking to cracking crabs and watching the sun set over the water. More than entertaining, these authentic experiences help preserve a culture.
Captain Phil has an insider’s perspective of the Bay and the waterman’s ability to make a living. He saw that he had to diversify. “I take people out on a crabbing heritage tour and help them catch a couple dozen crabs the traditional way. I also want another option for watermen, rather than having to catch an ever growing quota of crabs or fish. That puts a lot of pressure on the Chesapeake Bay resource.”
Aboard the Lisa, a classic Bay-built, Coast Guard certified workboat, Captain Phil conducted 15 heritage tours last year, sharing his world with more than 150 people. Each trip begins in a dockside pavilion, with a brief rundown of the cruise destination and activities. On the nearby pier, guests can try using traditional oyster tongs to claw and hoist the bivalves from the creekbed. Dumping the catch on a “culling board,” Captain Phil points out the fish and other creatures brought up with the oysters.
Aboard the Lisa, Captain Phil’s middle son, Cole, backs the boat away from the dock and deftly navigates the narrow, twisting channel out to the Bay. St. Jeromes, one of very few creeks that drain directly into the Bay, is reputed to have been a pirates’ haven because a sandbar effectively hid the creekmouth. Even though a recent storm broke through the sandbar, running the channel still demands skill and timing.
Out in the open Bay, Cole points the Lisa northeast, toward the Point No Point lighthouse, 2 miles offshore. Circling the octagonal, 2-story brick structure mounted above the waves on a cast iron foundation cylinder, Captain Phil uses the opportunity to talk about the history of Chesapeake Bay lighthouses and how they function
From the Point No Point light, Cole turns the Lisa south for the 6-mile run to Point Lookout at the mouth of the Potomac River, Maryland’s southernmost point of land. Captain Phil explains that Point Lookout had been a beach resort but became a government hospital and the Civil War’s largest prisoner of war camp. After the war, the point’s shifting sands once again hosted beach vacationers until erosion wiped out the beaches and hotels. Eventually, the State of Maryland took over most of the land for Point Lookout State Park.
The Point Lookout Lighthouse has a reputation as one of this nation’s most haunted lighthouses, perhaps inhabited by the spirits of Confederate prisoners who died in the camp. Unexplained sightings and noises within the structure were first recorded in the 1940s and 50s. Dr. Hans Holzer, a renowned parapsychologist from New York, visited the house in 1980 and remarked that “this place is haunted as hell”. In 1998, The Learning Channel included Point Lookout in its immensely popular documentary Haunted Lighthouses.
Cole turns the Lisa back north and stops on the way into the mouth of St. Jeromes Creek so that Captain Phil and his guests can pull some of his “50 or so” crab traps. Shaking out the catch, willing hands re-bait the traps and pitch them back over the side. The newly caught crabs can serve as the main course at a traditional meal back at the shoreside pavillion. Currently, Captain Phil’s 3-hour heritage tours cost $300 for up to 10 people, and $30 for each additional person. He will customize his tours to his guests’ interests and abilities.
Along with tour programs on and off the water, Watermen Heritage Toursalso serves as a resource for speakers and presenters. Captain Phil and the other participating watermen are very aware of the changes that have taken place on the Bay. They are also aware of the efforts underway to change things for the better.
“We can’t keep treating the Chesapeake Bay as a commodity,” he says. “Success with the heritage tours does not depend on how many bushels you catch.”
Written by: Reed Hellman
Reed Hellman is a professional writer living in Alberton, Maryland. Visit his Website at reedhellmanwordsmith.com, or e-mail your questions and comments to RHWay2Go@yahoo.com.