A young Chesapeake waterman launches a boat—and a career
The small towns dotting the marshes of lower Dorchester County, Maryland, were once home to a vibrant seafood industry, as well as some of Chesapeake Bay’s legendary boatbuilders—O’Neill Jones, Bronza Parks, and Paul Jones among them. They supplied watermen up and down the Bay with beautifully handcrafted wooden skipjacks and Chesapeake deadrise-style workboats; in the process, they established the lower Dorchester County peninsula as a boatbuilding center. To this day, wooden boats are still being built in this area of Maryland’s eastern shore, albeit in greatly diminished numbers, with the same classical craftsmanship that has distinguished the area for generations.
Millard Littlepage first came to Dorchester County in 1982. He purchased a home in Crocheron, a small town near Bishops Head, at the tip of the peninsula, and quickly became fascinated with the watermen’s way of life and with boatbuilding. He jumped at the opportunity to volunteer with Roger Bloodsworth, a full-time boatbuilder who crabbed and worked odd jobs on the side. Like most people in the area, Roger did whatever he could to make a living. He was happy to have Millard’s help, and Millard was happy to have an introduction to boatbuilding.
In 1984, after his two-year apprenticeship with Roger, Millard was commissioned by a local waterman to build his first boat on his own. Since he was then working full time for the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration, the boat took him a year-and-a-half to finish.
After that first boat was launched, Millard continued to build boats in his spare time, and in 2013, nearly 30 years and six boats later, he began his magnum opus: a 39′6″ Chesapeake “deadrise” boat that he would build with, and for, his son Lucas, who upon graduating from high school had begun to work on the water.
Lucas had learned to crab with his father and worked as a deckhand on local workboats; his father jokes, “It’s my fault that Lucas wanted to work on the water.” Lucas’s fascination for harvesting the Bay led him to a Waterman’s Apprenticeship Program designed to encourage young people to enter the aging workforce of watermen. Millard began building the new boat that fall; he named it LAST ONE, because he reckons it will be his final wooden boat—a gift to his son as he begins his career as an independent waterman.
As the Chesapeake Bay environment changes, so does the seafood industry that depends upon it. Of the eight seafood-packing houses that lined the shores of lower Dorchester County when Millard arrived in 1982, all but one have gone out of business. The old builders passed away, and modern-day watermen have mostly transitioned to fiberglass boats. While LAST ONE is Millard’s final boat, the name is also representative of the bigger picture: of the 10 to 12 wooden boat builders who were working in the 1980s, Millard is, in fact, the last one. This dramatic change in an area that he holds so close to his heart is a sad reality, but he says, “It is rewarding to know that my boats are still out there every day and that when I am gone, my legacy and work will live on through them.”
The building of LAST ONE was a joint project between the father and a son, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them to work together. “Working with my dad on the boat has provided me with an experience and an education that I will be able to cherish for the rest of my life,” said Lucas.
After the launching, Lucas and Millard worked at crabbing in Fishing Bay through October, but once the oyster season opened, Lucas went by himself, harvesting oysters with physically demanding hand tongs. Lucas was not catching his daily limit, but he “was learning and making just enough,” said his father.
In a Chesapeake Bay that is constantly changing, working on the water will always be a learning experience for Lucas and other watermen.
Jay Fleming, a regular contributor to WoodenBoat, has spent many years documenting diminishing ways life on and around Chesapeake Bay. His images capture the full spectrum of the seafood industry, and include underwater shots of oyster divers, crabs shedding their shells, portraits of workers in picking house, and watermen in deadrise boats getting underway before sunrise. He recently collected these efforts in his first book, Working the Water, which was reviewed in WB No. 255.