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  • Writer's pictureThe Crab Place

"Preserving Heritage: A Conversation with Local Waterman Jamie Marshall"

Crab house on the water

Just off the shore of Crisfield, MD (Home of the Crab Place) lies a remote island with a community of about 350 people whose watermen roots still run as deep as the marsh mud. This community, know as Smith Island, was established in the early 1600s and known for its strong faith, family, and watermen values. Growing up here meant you had one of a few career options: either work on the water or find a way to provide a service in the town.

Waterman Jamie Marshall as a young U.S. Marine

Jamie Marshall, owner of Marshall’s Marine, was raised on Smith Island and comes from a long line of generational watermen. As far back as he knows his family have all been watermen, so it’s only natural that he would learn the family trade. He started crabbing when he was just a kid, and continued until he graduated high school and entered the Marines. This decision to serve made Jamie the first in his family to pursue something different. “I always wanted to be in the Marines, ever since I was little” Jamie says. And he served for four years travelling all over the world visiting places like Bosnia, Japan, the Philippines, and the Mediterranean.

Although he enjoyed his time in the Marines, Jaime realized his heart was somewhere else. Getting out so he could get married, Jamie moved back to Smith Island to pursue life as a waterman.

Making a life as a waterman is no easy feat. Jamie’s days were long, hard, and seemingly dreadful to most. His days would start 2 hours before sunrise with a quick trip to the shanty. For those who don’t know, a shanty is a place where watermen keep their catch until they’re ready to be turned in or sold. After this trip, he would prepare the boat, setting up bushel baskets and crab pots inside of the vessel to ensure they had everything they needed once they got out there. From that point until the afternoon, he would work tirelessly pulling up crab pots by hand, grading and sorting crabs, and baiting the crab pots so they could be put back into the water. This unforgiving task was done on the coldest of fall mornings and the hottest of summer days.

Jamie Marshall (right) helping his dad on the water in a boat.
Jamie (right) helping his dad on the water

After this exhausting work, there was still more to be done. When his work on the boat was complete, Jamie then would have to return to the shanty to “fish-up.” This process is where watermen will go to their shanties and ensure their crabs are harvested at the right time according to their molting period. Certain vendors in this local area will pay a premium for soft crabs, meaning it was up to the watermen to make sure the crab was taken out and sold at just the right time. This means the crabs have to be checked multiple times a day to catch them during the right moment.

So Jamie would return to the shanty once again after supper to get one more inspection in before going to bed and starting this process all over the next morning.

Young Jamie Marshall on a boat with a crab pot
Young Jamie Marshall

Although the work was hard, Jamie loved it. He said that there was just something about the duality of nature you got to experience on a workboat that no other place could replicate. Some days would begin with a breath-taking sunrise and a “slick cam” – which is the local way of saying perfect still waters - while others would have cloudy and muggy mornings covered with rain and waterspouts (water tornadoes). The temperament of the water was unpredictable, showcasing both its beauty and its power. Being a waterman gave Jamie a deep respect for the Chesapeake Bay and its ecosystem; it reveals the importance of working together to benefit the whole, as each season brings a new cycle of life that benefits the next.

Jamie and his wife (top) at their marine business, Marshall's Marine (bottom)

While the work was hard, it brought the waterman a sense of freedom and thrill. Jamie would have continued to work full-time on the water until he retired, but he recognized the importance of being able to provide for his family. Things were different when he was young, his father was able to give his family a plentiful bounty from his work on the water; but today, the industry has changed. Wanting to be able to secure benefits for his family, Jamie chose to move to the mainland (Crisfield) where he pursued a career with the Maryland State Police. However, not wanting to be separated from the water, Jamie started a marine business that allows him to continue to be a part of the work the watermen do.

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