Lewis said his mother early on shut down any thought that he might follow that path, but over the years, the local author and historian’s appreciation for the demanding work and the characters who keep the industry alive has only increased.
It’s why Lewis is so passionate about offering watermen a platform to share their stories.
“Living here for so long, I just had this idea that a lot of the people in our community don’t really understand the watermen’s life or what they do,” said Lewis, who will host a Watermen’s Story Swap on Thursday, Jan. 11 at 5:30pm in the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum’s Van Lennep Auditorium.
Lewis has emceed a handful of similar events over the past decade, and he’s realized the power of gathering watermen together to explain their shared experience through enlightening, funny, and often profound tales.
At CBMM, Lewis will lead a panel that features both working and retired watermen hailing from around the Eastern Shore. The suggested ticket price is $8 per participant, with both in-person and virtual options available at cbmm.org/WatermenStorySwap. The event is funded through CBMM’s Regional Folklife Center under the Maryland Traditions program of the Maryland State Arts Council.
Lewis has found certain themes—mentors, bad weather, and unexpected Bay adventures, to name a few—to be universal, but ultimately, it’s the panelists’ unique memories collected over years on the water and the free-flowing format that make these conversations equal parts entertaining and unpredictable.
“You never know where we’re going to end up,” Lewis said. “We don’t have to stick to the topics as long as everyone’s involved and having fun. It kind of runs the gamut between really hearty belly laughs to more emotional storytelling.”
The author of four books with a fifth underway, Lewis has long helmed an oral history project with the Kent Island Heritage Society, and at the first story swap in 2016, held before a standing-room crowd in Grasonville, he brought together eight watermen who he’d interviewed for that project. There have been other iterations, including a couple at Chesapeake College’s Chesapeake Storytelling Festival, but it’s been more than five years since the last one.
Lewis found a partner in CBMM through its Folklife Center to launch the latest Watermen’s Story Swap, this time with the focus expanding beyond Queen Anne’s County. He and videographer Josh Willis are recording an on-going series of oral histories as part of the partnership. The Jan. 11 Speaker Event, bringing together watermen from the mid and lower Eastern Shore, will be documented among that group.
Lewis said working with CBMM’s Director of Curatorial Affairs & Exhibitions Jen Dolde and Vice President of Education & Interpretation Jill Ferris has breathed new life into the project by backing his belief in the importance of capturing these stories—both the ordinary and extraordinary.
“Working with CBMM, their enthusiasm for getting these stories down before they’re gone has helped keep my enthusiasm up,” Lewis said. “I can tell by talking to Jen and Jill that this is something that they feel is positive and beneficial to the community. If we don’t take the opportunity to document these watermen’s stories, once they’re gone, they’re gone.”
As much as anything, Lewis is excited to reach a new audience with this Story Swap. He’s worked hard to assemble a panel that will represent different voices within the industry and bring together watermen from across the Chesapeake.
With the group spanning geography and generations all together on Jan. 11, Lewis will start the conversation and see where it goes.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Lewis said. “If it goes right—and knock on wood I’ve never had one go badly—it’s very entertaining, it’s very informative, and I don’t think the audience members forget it very quickly.”