Welcome to the world of competitive boat docking. It is a circuit that only exists on the coasts of Maryland and Virginia. And competing boatmen like it that way. | ET REALITY


The Chesapeake cowboys arrived in St. Michaels, Maryland, on a hot Sunday in August, and the air smelled of crab relish and diesel exhaust, with a hint of light beer and lime.

A couple thousand spectators had gathered in the colonial-era resort town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, about 80 miles from Washington, D.C., to watch the cowboys face off in a contest unique to the Chesapeake Bay: the boat docking.

Fans crowded into the hot stands overlooking the Miles River. They were shoulder to shoulder on the deck of a lighthouse. Some brave spectators balanced, precariously, on the pilings of the pier without spilling their drinks.

A DJ played a love song for “ice cold longneck beer.”

“It’s a Southern race like NASCAR, only on the water,” said one competitor, Ronnie Reiss, known as “Reissy Cup,” on his boat, the May Worm.

After a prayer for safety and a recording of Chris Stapleton’s “Star-Spangled Banner,” a woman shouted “start your engines” into a microphone. Crab and oyster boats, known as “deadrises” for their hull design and how they handle the shallow Chesapeake Bay, grunted to life.

For the next two hours, fans screamed and shuddered as ships with names like Nauti Girl, Outlaw and Hard to Handle backed out of their moorings in a cloud of black smoke.

“The louder you scream, the faster they go,” said the MC, Erik Emely, known as “Flea,” his Eastern Shore accent sounding almost Southern.

The annual boat docking competition at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum is part of a circuit that travels to about 10 towns in mostly rural coastal areas of Maryland and Virginia in August and September. The first event was held in 1971 and was born, as a ChesapeakeStory.com video surmises, “from boatmen’s innate need to turn everything into a competition.”

Mr Emely said: “These were sailors shouting into their radios saying I can moor faster than you. They were simply bragging rights. The only thing they won or bet on back then was a tray of soft crabs.”

Nowadays, winners can collect thousands of dollars in a day or some gas money to get home. Pride is also at stake.

Each driver competes, alone or with teammates, against a stopwatch. It’s like an extreme parking lot with some detour at the end.

After clearing their boat moorings, competitors accelerate forward and spin hard, causing a surge that sometimes wets fans. (It was 90 degrees at noon in St. Michaels, so no one cared.) The boaters back away hard, again, backing into another narrow slip next to the slipways at full speed. Ideally, boats stop inches from the bulkhead and then captains rush to tie two lines to the pilings.

The competitor who does it the fastest wins.

“I like to think we’re a show, so no one really loses,” said Miss Julie captain John Ashton.

Sometimes ships crash into pilings. Sometimes they don’t stop. The crowd is amused by any mishap.

“We crash all the time,” said Jake Jacobs, captain of the Outlaw, one of the fastest boats in the bay. “If it crosses your mind that you could scratch your boat, you’re lost. “You can’t be afraid of damaging your boat.”

Jacobs, 37, won two classes at St. Michaels, hoisting trophies and a Crown at the end of the day. He said he could earn around $10,000 in a season. His boat and a few others have sponsors, many of them landscaping or construction companies.

“Some of the local businesses we like to help out, whether it’s $500 to put a little decal on the boat or a tank of gas to get them into the competition,” said Jason Murphy, whose business name, Peake Contracting, was listed on the banner of Mr. Reiss’ May Worm.

The cowboys (the name the competitors coined when they unsuccessfully competed for a reality show more than a decade ago) had been in Cape Charles, Virginia, a week earlier. There are a few competitions left in the season: Solomons Island, off the western coast of Maryland, and Tilghman Island, across the bay.

The favorite of fans across the Bay is Mr. Reiss’ daughter, Peyton Reiss, who is 9 years old and sports turquoise braces. She competes in children’s categories, if there are any, but more often against adults, hitting families in the stands with her fists.

Writer James A. Michener, who lived in St. Michaels for several years, once described Chesapeake boatmen as “quiet heroes, echoes of that long-ago day when most Americans lived close to nature.” . Some of the competitions are celebrations of that seafaring heritage.

Others, like the Salisbury Extreme Boat Docking Competition in Salisbury, Maryland, which place in a bar on the Wicomico River, they are more of a party and last all weekend.

On another hot August Sunday in St. Michaels Bay in rural Dorchester County, fans gathered at Slaughter Creek Marina for the Taylors Island Boat Docking Challenge. They parked on the shoulder of a two-lane highway with swamps and farmland in every direction. Attendees at the St. Michaels event donated thousands of dollars to help a competitor with testicular cancer; At the Taylors Island competition, proceeds from entries and refreshments (about $22,000 last year) went to the small town’s volunteer fire department.

In picturesque St. Michaels there were some sailboats, pastel polo shirts and boat shoes. The vibe at Taylors Island—Orioles caps, camouflage Crocs, or rubber fishing boots—was a little more country.

Organizers ordered 150 cases of beer, but many attendees lined up for an “Orange Crush,” a coastal Maryland staple made with orange vodka, triple sec, Sprite and (Taylors Island fans were adamant about it) freshly squeezed orange juice. A bartender at the tent there, a native New Yorker who had never heard of the drink before moving to the East Coast in 2005, said he had served hundreds before noon.

Many attendees compared the competition and atmosphere to NASCAR. Others mentioned tractor pulls and rodeos, all competitions based on real-world livelihoods. (Many of NASCAR’s early racers were illegal racers, honing their skills against the police on backroads during Prohibition.)

For now, docking isn’t on TV, and the unique design of those Chesapeake Bay piers, Virginia’s official state ship, will likely keep competitions local.

But docking competitions have been discovered by a section of social media that is apparently obsessed with all things boating, with some posts garnering millions of views.

The Chesapeake Bay even has a social media star who has reached around the world. Luke McFadden, a first-generation boatman from Maryland’s western shore, chronicles the work life of his 1.6 million TikTok followers. McFadden, 27, teaches viewers how to steam crabs in one video and how to handle a crab pinch in another: “Don’t pull on it,” he instructs.

They chased him around for photos and gave him beers at the St. Michael contest.

“People think of boats and a yacht,” McFadden said. “This is like the real value, what the ships were originally designed for.”

Many longtime competitors, like Ashton, 50, still work in the bay. But the number of licensed sailors has decreased over time.

TO study 2016 of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond said stricter government regulations and an aging workforce play a role in the decline. Bay fishing industry executives say they need more migrant workers to process crabs. Watch dogs They say those immigrants, most of them women from Mexico, receive poor treatment.

Mr. Ashton’s grandparents cooked and sold crabs on Hoopers Island, but the sailor’s life may end with him.

“None of my guys are interested in that,” he said.

Mr. Reiss works in marine construction, but in winter he still sells oysters. Peyton, his 9-year-old protégé, wants to be an engineer. Jacobs worked on a tugboat in the Port of Baltimore after high school, but left the water for what he called a more stable life driving a fuel truck. (Some competitions don’t allow you to enter his boat for that reason.) Jacobs said the costs of being a boatman — fuel, bait, the vagaries of the crab market and lack of help — “never add up.”

Some sailors have outfitted their boats for excursions or converted them into water taxis. Others have sold them. In St. Michaels, a woman recognized her mother’s name in red letters on the hull of the Kathy Marie, a working boat, and began to cry. The ship’s captain jumped up to hug her.

“That was my dad’s boat,” he told him.

Mr. Jacobs said the prize money helps because he spends a lot on tuning his boat. The trophies are nice too. But more than that, the competitions help him go back in time, and even if it’s just a few summer Sundays, that’s worth something he can’t count or carry.

“I will always be a boatman, that will never change,” he said. “I’m a boatman with a cowboy’s heart.”

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