Holding on to a heritage
Eastport watermen hope new retail shop is key to success
By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer
The days start early and stretch well into the night for Patrick Mahoney Sr. and Patrick Mahoney Jr.
The father and son are among the last watermen in the Annapolis area, and they’re busting their tails from before dawn until nearly dusk trying to scrape out a living.
They start at 4 a.m. aboard their Wild Country workboat, the loud motor chugging as they head out onto the Chesapeake Bay to check their crab pots.
The two work almost wordlessly, pulling bright yellow pots, emptying angry crabs onto a culling table, rebaiting the pots and tossing them back overboard.
They’ve worked together so long that they’ve settled into a comfortable rhythm on the water. The only sounds are the engine and country singers belting out tunes over a satellite radio station.
It’s draining, physical work, but the Mahoneys can’t imagine doing anything else. It’s the only line of work they’ve ever done.
And if they don’t keep doing their work, they believe a traditional way of life in their Eastport neighborhood will disappear.
“There’s no full-time watermen in Eastport anymore,” Patrick Jr. said. “We’re trying to hang on by our teeth here.”
Patrick Sr. has been a waterman for more than 40 years. Born and raised on Eastport’s First Street, he said, “I’ve been around this business all my life.”
Patrick Jr. tagged along on boats with his dad, and when he was 10, his dad gave him his own rowboat to use for crabbing.
“I built the business up from there,” Patrick Jr. said.
Both lifelong Eastport residents, the Mahoneys have seen their neighborhood change over the years, with white-collar professionals and expensive sailboats gradually replacing watermen and their workboats.
“A lot of people worked on the water, boats tied up at all the marinas,” Patrick Sr. said. “You don’t see those boats anymore.”
Patrick Jr. added: “We’re trying to restore a little bit of heritage here in Easport.”
Jeff Holland has chronicled that change as the director of the Annapolis Maritime Museum, located in Eastport’s old McNasby Oyster Co. building.
“There were blacks and whites building boats, harvesting oysters, harvesting crabs, working in places like the McNasby Oyster Co.,” Holland said. “What has changed is, here we have a lot of people working in the marine industry, but the marine industry has shifted from working the bay to playing on the bay.”
At the marina where the Mahoneys keep their workboats, their vessels are surrounded by tall-masted, expensive sailboats.
“The Mahoneys are kind of the last vestige of that working-on-the-bay era,” Holland said.
Though there are a handful others in the neighborhood who hold professional licenses from the state Department of Natural Resources, Holland and the Mahoneys believe the father and son are the last ones left who both live in and run their boats out of Eastport.
But even as they lament the change in Eastport, the Mahoneys said they are hoping the new generation of well-to-do and socially conscious Eastporters will help keep them afloat.
The father and son recently opened a retail seafood shop in Eastport, Wild Country Seafood, where they sell their own crabs and other seafood items.
By cutting out the middleman, they plan to offer lower prices to customers and also earn more money for themselves.
Like all businessmen, watermen must navigate the tricky rules of supply and demand when selling their catch wholesale. And they have to compete with crabs that are flown in from out of state, which Patrick Jr. says are “cheaper but they’re crap.”
“When we were selling to wholesalers, they know they have you over a barrel,” Patrick Sr. said.
Now the two men are their own ultimate bosses, controlling their product from the time they catch it in the bay until a customer walks away with a bag full of crabs or fish.
The movement to buy local and sustainable seafood is strong in the area, and the Mahoneys said they hope to capitalize on it.
Patrick Jr. studied business in college – “I made him go in case this doesn’t work,” his dad said – and he thinks Wild Country Seafood can carve out a niche in the market by providing fresh, local, reasonably priced seafood.
“We live right around the corner and we keep our boats a block away,” Patrick Jr. said. “You can’t get any more local than that.”
For the Mahoneys, establishing the retail store, which opened earlier this month around the corner from Annapolis Maritime Museum’s McNasby building, has been a labor of love.
The Mahoneys have poured $100,000 into the store, turning an old workshop into a bright and airy seafood market with sand-colored tiles, sky-blue paint, and gleaming stainless steel tables, sinks and steamers.
Framed family photos on the walls show the father and son working on the water.
They estimate they did 95 percent of the renovation work themselves to cut down on costs.
Some nights, the store is open until 7 p.m., which makes for a grueling workday that stretches well past 12 hours.
“We’ve thrown everything in, jumped in with both feet,” said Patrick Jr., a father of two young sons who he hopes might one day follow him into the family business.
Spread the word
It’s been difficult, though, getting word out and convincing their customers that their prices aren’t too good to be true.
As they prepared to open on a recent Sunday, a curious bicyclist stopped in. Patrick Jr. fetched a crab from the refrigerator to help explain that the crabs are good and the prices are low because of the direct path from crabber to crab-lover.
Lately, the Mahoneys have sold crabs by the dozen at $25 for mediums, $45 for larges and $65 for jumbos – lower than many competitors.
“It’s hard to get through to people that it’s a better product,” Patrick Jr. said.
The Mahoneys also have had challenges getting word out and drawing customers.
Though the seafood store is in the heart of Eastport near the iconic McNasby’s building, it’s at the end of a little dead-end street, Bay Shore Avenue. They’ve placed banners to help customers navigate down the right street and they’re working on advertising.
Ruby Singleton Blakeney, a business-development official with the city government, said she sees promise in the Mahoneys’ business plan. She said a local seafood market was “much needed” in the community.
She has high hopes for Wild Country Seafood after attending a ribbon-cutting ceremony earlier this month.
“People were just walking up from the community, they didn’t have to drive,” she said. “It’s like going right to the dock and picking your fresh seafood.”
Published 06/23/09, Copyright © 2010 The Capital, Annapolis, Md.