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The Waterman: A Novel of the Chesapeake Bay

The Waterman: A Novel of the Chesapeake Bay

4.5 2
by Tim Junkin

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Set along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, this first novel tells the story of Clay Wakeman, who spent his boyhood on the water and finds he can't leave it. When his father is lost in a storm off the Eastern Shore, Clay drops out of college to take possession of his father's boat and his work as a waterman, that is, as an independent commercial fisherman.



Set along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, this first novel tells the story of Clay Wakeman, who spent his boyhood on the water and finds he can't leave it. When his father is lost in a storm off the Eastern Shore, Clay drops out of college to take possession of his father's boat and his work as a waterman, that is, as an independent commercial fisherman.

Since the old boat constitutes his sole inheritance, Clay starts out small. He recruits his oldest friend, Byron, a traumatized Vietnam vet, to join him in a crabbing business. Just as they're breaking even, Hurricane Agnes roars in to ruin the salinity of the eastern Bay waters. Agnes forces them across the Bay to set their crab traps along the Virginia shoreline and to move in with Matt and Kate, Clay's uppercrust friends from college.

It's in these unfamiliar waters that their real troubles begin. Clay falls irrevocably in love with the spoken-for Kate; Byron's demons pursue him with even greater vengeance; and out in the Bay the partners stumble onto a drug running operation. Lines are drawn by the dealers. And, at the very end, in a riveting boat chase, Clay comes very close to losing the battle . . . forever.

Editorial Reviews

The prose smells of salt water and diesel fuel in Tim Junkin's first novel...It is a moody book full of shadows, impending doom, the ineluctability of fate...competently told in a manner evocative of its time and place.
Water Log Maritime Journal
Through real-life dramas and controversies set against the backdrop of authentic historical context and events, the reader is provided with a genuine peek into the lives of men in this seldom seen world. Throughout the book there is a constant reverberation of the camaraderie and commitment shared by Watermen.
Chris Barsanti
Many of the opening passages in Junkin's first novel are beautiful, in a static kind of way. But the people move stiffly through the lovingly described landscape, like mannequins moved about in a display window. You press on, though, thinking there really needs to be something on the other side.

Clay is the waterman of the title. He lives in a small town on the Chesapeake Bay and has returned from college, after his father's tragic death, to continue his fishing business. Through sheer momentum, Junkin's waterborne images eventually take the place of a strong story and become fascinating in their own right. Junkin, who worked as a waterman before becoming a lawyer and now a novelist, has a true, instinctual passion for the swampy waterways of the Chesapeake and the tough, canny people who spend their lives on it. But just as his characters start to take on a life of their own, he cranks up a lame subplot about drug dealers that brings everything to a halt.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Washington, D.C., lawyer and ex-waterman Junkin's first novel is a commendable effort that charts a belated coming of age in dangerous and tragic circumstances. Junkin sets his earnest but often meandering narrative in what lately has been Christopher Tilghman country: the Chesapeake Bay vicinity in 1968. Returned home from college to search for his father, who has been lost at sea, Clay Wakeman goes against everyone's advice, takes over his father's fishing boat and becomes a waterman. He partners with close friend Byron, a drunkard and thoroughly screwed-up Vietnam vet. In a well-developed love story, Clay explores his mounting passion for Kate, the longtime girlfriend of his friend Matty, a photographer. Though Kate shares Clay's feelings, Clay has qualms about the nascent affair, not only because it would mean betraying Matty, but because as a child he once stumbled on his father in an act of infidelity. Clay and his boat survive the crisis of Hurricane Agnes, but the storm decimates Chesapeake Bay's crabbing trade, so Clay and Byron move down the coast to Virginia Beach, where they find that the local watermen and law enforcement are territorial and hostile. Clay and Byron have a long-standing dream of salvaging shipwreck treasure, but self-destructive Byron stumbles on another sort of treasure, large quantities of cocaine. At this point the story, sluggish with too many supporting characters and copious information about crab fishing and boat operation, turns lively, with a long suspenseful boat chase along the Virginia/Maryland coast. This exciting trajectory leads to a surprising and moving denouement. The narrative is muddied by clumsy dialogue, with characters who mostly blurt, stammer and interject, but Junkin's strong sense of life on the water, and particularly on the Chesapeake, redeems his freshman gaucheries and suggests promise in his work to come. Author tour. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Clay Wakeman was born and raised on the Chesapeake Bay. He drops out of college when his father is lost in a storm off the Eastern Shore in order to take possession of his father's boat and work as a waterman -- an independent commercial fisherman. Clay's friend Byron joins him in a start-up crabbing business, and just as they are breaking even, Hurricane Agnes roars in to ruin the salinity of the eastern Bay waters, forcing Clay and Byron to crab along the Virginia shoreline. Here their real troubles begin as Clay falls irrevocably in love with Kate, Byron's post-traumatic stress kicks in with a vengeance, and the boys stumble onto a drug ring. The Waterman is a riveting, exceptionally written, highly recommended novel of well drawn characters, great background detail and flavor, and a robustly crafted plot of suspense and danger.
Kirkus Reviews
Debut novel from a Washington, D.C., lawyer that tries to give an insider's view of life among the watermen who work the Chesapeake Bay. Clay Wakeman, a 20-year-old college boy at Georgetown, leaves school and moves back home when his father, George, vanishes without a trace from the Miss Sarah, the Chesapeake Bay crab trawler he'd worked off for years. In his will, George has left the Miss Sarah to his son, a legacy that Clay sees as an opportunity to give up on college altogether and make a life for himself on the Bay. His Georgetown classmate Matty, and Matty's girlfriend Kate, think this is a genuine and courageous way to live, but Clay is more modest: the Bay is what he knows best. So he teams up with his childhood pal Byron and sets off to follow in his father's footsteps. By 1972, though, it's hard to make a living from crabs: the Bay is fished out, and the waters are increasingly polluted. Clay considers running pleasure cruises for a shady businessman named Brigman, then decides instead to move his operations farther afield to Virginia, where the waters are better. But life soon becomes complicated. Byron stumbles onto a drug-running operation that makes use of inland waterways to evade the Customs patrols, and Clay and Kate find themselves in love. This means trouble—with Matty, with the cops, and with Brigman (who turns out to be even shadier than he appears).Can Clay find his way back to shore? There's no better navigator in the world than a waterman born and bred, after all, but the Bay can swallow you in a wink.

Product Details

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.24(h) x 1.03(d)

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Read an Excerpt


Hurricane Agnes veered westerly overnight, picked up speed and force, and by Wednesday morning was threatening to hit the North Carolina coast. She boasted winds of over 150 miles per hour. Clay had listened to the reports all evening. He took a short nap after midnight but rose early to check the news. No change. Outside in the dark morning, the screen door was banging, and it had started to rain. He waited anxiously for a while and then decided to go after his pots. He dialed Laura-Dez's house, trying to find Byron, but got no answer. He called Mason's. Blackie answered the phone half asleep. Byron was not there either. Clay went outside several times and finally decided he wouldn't wait. It was just after four when he left for Pecks.

The morning was coal black, and the rain streamed through the headlights of his Chevrolet as he drove the back roads, bumping over the potholes in his hurry. As he traveled down the oyster shell drive, he noticed that cars were parked askew. The lights from the wharf were on, and the floodlights lit the dock and spotlighted several men working the boat lift. Jed Sparks was hollering to a man on a pleasure yacht to back out of the way. There were four or five boats, lights ablaze, backed up in a line in the creek, and general commotion everywhere.

Clay patted him on the shoulder. "Can you save me a spot for a lift about midday?" He had to speak loudly over the din.

Jed regarded him for a moment. "I dunno, Clay. I got forty-some pulls promised already. All good winter customers. Never make that, probably. I've turned down as many. Maybe the storm'll turn."

Clay understood. It would take as long to pull his three-thousand-dollar boat as it would to pull the thirty-thousand-dollar yachts already in line, and there wasn't time enough for everyone. The yard was already crowded and the confusion increasing.

"We get hit direct, this wharf gonna look like a junkyard anyway." Jed shrugged. "We only got so much cable." He looked at the sky and the water. "The river'll take what she wants. You know that better'n most." He eyed Clay. "Don't forget your daddy's diesel mooring."

Clay patted him once again on the back. "Don't worry. But if you see Byron, tell him I'll be unloading pots at Boone's Landing. Tell him to get his pickup there."

Jed grabbed his hand. "Careful out there. And good luck."

"Yes, sir. To you too." Clay turned and walked down to the Miss Sarah. He climbed aboard and felt her sturdiness. She started up on the first turn. He untied all of her lines from the pilings and stowed them aboard and eased out of the slip. He passed by the yachts, all backing and churning, trying to maintain their positions in the creek, and was out in the open river, aimed at the Benoni light, which marked the distant black horizon with the four-second beacon he knew so well.

In the streaming rain and with the steady drum of his engine, he worked his way out of the river, the wind sharp across his bow, the waves rough and rolling. He passed Benoni Point, and as the lighthouse receded behind him, he made out the first streaks of grayish light spearing the horizon, and underneath them gradually spread a haze of granite and brass. He angled south along the dim shoreline, found his pot lay, and began to work, pulling and then yanking open each pot, emptying the crabs into the river and the bait into the bait barrel. He wound the warp line and buoy around the pot, securing the buoy underneath the last coil, set the pot on the floor, and moved to the next. He worked with utmost concentration and was only peripherally aware of the awakening day. After he had coiled about fifteen pots, he stacked them and lashed them tight using a line running to the canopy top. Stepping down off the rail he slipped and caught himself on the stanchion. He realized he had almost gone over. The bateau was tossing more in the waves, which had been building with the wind. The color of the day was slate from river to sky, and the Bay was beginning to whip with whitecaps. He was soaked. He found a towel in the cabin and dried his face, then moved on to the next pot. He worked until the aft deck was stacked high and full.

He had not brought a watch, but he figured it was late morning when he turned the bow east for Boone's Landing. The wind, though uneven, was averaging about twenty-five knots, he figured, and out of the southeast. The rain had eased. Pointing east he advanced through the waves, which pitched against his starboard bow. He was carrying not quite half of his pots and believed he could complete another run if the weather held steady. He turned on the radio. The news was unchanged. Agnes was moving in. Hurricane warnings stretched from the Carolinas to New York. The storm was predicted to make landfall somewhere along the coast after dark.

Boone's Landing was a small, neglected public dock, next to a ramp used occasionally by the locals to launch boats from trailers. The dock was unprotected, jutting out from the northern shore of the Choptank, near the mouth of the Tred Avon. It was buckled from past ice floes. The water was deep enough for the Miss Sarah, though, and adjacent to the landing were some thick woods. As he approached, Clay looked for Byron's truck, but the dirt lot was empty. The waves were pounding the pilings and the shore, and Clay had to dock her with the propellers in reverse to counteract the violent thrusts of water. Once she was tied, he looked back out toward the Bay, which heaved in the braying wind. Unleashing the pots, he was able to carry four at a time onto the shore and into the thrashing woods, then partly up a bank to higher ground, where he found a place to stack and tie them, binding them together with their own warp lines and securing them to a stand of young poplars surrounded by other larger trees. He worked fast. His arms and legs ached from the effort, and his hands were raw. With each trip back to the boat, he felt the wind was strengthening, and he noticed the shearing of the tops of the whitecaps offshore.

When the last pots were set in the woods, he returned to the bateau and took her two Danforth anchors out of the forward locker. He brought them and a third anchor, which he had taken from Pecks, to the bow and coiled the lines for each so they would be ready. Casting off, he backed away from the dock in full reverse throttle with the spray battering the stern. Turning west, he ran the wind and waves with a slow lurch and bucking of the bow. Salty foam whipped across the water. The rain had started again and flew laterally across and against the bateau. From underneath the cabin bunk he retrieved his rain slicker and put it on, then took a dry towel and wrapped it around his neck. The Choptank had turned dark, and visibility was minimal. A steady whine filled the amphitheater of the river, overlaying the crashing of the waves as they toppled over themselves. Rising over each crest, the bow dropped into the next trough and rose again, waves threatening from behind, the progress forward wet and slow. Seeking any changes in the storm's course he turned on the radio and, finding static, moved through the channels. As he did so, he could hear "Mayday, Mayday."

Though it was breaking up, the message still came through over the static on the shortwave. It was the Mood Indigo. She was caught aground off Benoni Point, her mainsail shredded. Clay listened and cursed to himself. He needed to get his pots. He listened for a rescue response, perhaps from the marine police. Nothing. He heard "Mayday" again. He continued his forward course. Someone else would have to hear it and come to their aid. Then he heard it once more, a cry of fear and panic over the radio. Still there was no reply. He wavered. Then he turned the wheel and changed course moving northeast toward the foundering boat.

Rain and wind now came from out front, the wind having veered easterly. Angling off the waves, he was able to increase his speed as he broke across the channel rip of the river. Locking the wheel in position he went forward and gathered the dock lines from the bow. He attached them each to the other and tied one end to the aft port cleat. If she was stuck off Benoni Point, he'd have to work the east wind without being pushed farther into the bar. Returning to the cabin he tried to peer into the slate fury of the storm: nothing but wind and pellets of hard rain slashing across his view, melding into a gray, cascading tumult only yards ahead of the bow. The tips of the waves were shearing. Pushing forward across the running storm tide, estimating his position, counteracting the side drag, he saw in his mind's eye the sailboat aground. A pealing bell off to his starboard told him he was nearing the lighthouse, though it was not visible through the rain. He angled farther to port. The shore seemed too close when he saw it, and then, like a ghost ship silhouetted in the storm, the sailboat appeared, just as he had seen it in his mind. She was jerking spasmodically between the waves and the river bottom, and her crew was huddled in the cockpit, though Brigman stood and started waving his arms when he saw the bateau. He wore green waders that came up to his chest, with suspenders running over his shoulders. Fall overboard, they'll fill with water and take him down, Clay thought. A good way to drown.

The boat was heeled over away from the wind, her mainsail shredded and snapping above the boom, which groaned with the wrenching of the keel against the bar, the storm jib bunched and tied at the bow. From the starboard winch, an anchor line went out, but it was not far enough out to allow any purchase. Clay came around to her leeward side, surveying the emerging catastrophe.

Brigman was shouting, "You can pull us off with your diesel. Take Amanda and Joanna aboard first. Then pull us off. Use your diesel, for God's sake."

Clay knew she was deep into the bar, and to pull the keel through it would be impossible.

"What do you draw?" Clay shouted.

"Just throw me a line," Brigman pleaded.

"Goddamn it, what do you draw?" Clay shouted back.

The other man had gotten up and stood next to Brigman. "Almost six feet," Brigman shouted.

"Six feet," the other one screamed.

A surge knocked Clay off balance. Grabbing the stanchion, he regained his footing, reversed his propeller, churned back, and then idled in closer. The rain, coming flat across the water, bit into his eyes. Clay cupped one hand to the side of his mouth, shielding his voice from the wind. "There ain't no time," he hollered back, "so you do what I say, and maybe I can get you off."

"Just get us out of here, will you?" Brigman pleaded. "Take us off."

"Do what I say, and maybe I can clear you off the bar. If it doesn't work, you'll have to leave the boat. Understand?"

Meet the Author

Tim Junkin is a lawyer and an award-winning novelist who lives in Maryland.

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The Waterman: A Novel of the Chesapeake Bay 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
What a find. This book's a reverie, a rhythmic poem to the fragile and beautiful Chesapeake estuary. Its people harbor that invisible connection, that bond with their land and water, with the cycles of the natural world, and this rare sensibility permeates the writing, comes through quietly and elegantly. The story is not without flaws, though. Occassionally the writing moves slow, the plot meanders, and the author dares to flout his genre, to end the book with raw realism that leaves an uncomfortable aftertaste. Yet it's a fine story, (a distinctive first novel), about the power of passion, of personal history, the heat of youth, and it turns suspenseful and thrilling as it spirals toward its dark finish. For those who still cherish the natural world, who appreciate how it enriches the spirit and enobles lives, and who enjoy hearing a new and enchanting voice, this shouldn't be missed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
True to the region. A good read.