- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
A life on the water always seemed in the cards for Robert C. “Bobby” McKay Sr. of Ridge, who was recently named waterman of the year by a St. Mary’s County organization.
Born in 1933, McKay spent most of his life in, on or next to St. Jerome Creek, a tributary that empties into the Chesapeake Bay just north of Point Lookout. He eventually moved into a house next to his childhood home and opened a successful seafood business there that is now run by one of his sons.
“My father worked on the water for 60 years,” the 78-year-old Bobby McKay said recently while sitting overlooking his wharf in a worn armchair, patching a crab pot. “I went out with him every chance I got.”
Before he finished elementary school, his father, Benjamin McKay, had built him a 12-foot rowboat that Bobby started using to collect soft crabs from St. Jerome Creek.
“The water was clear, grass was plentiful. There was no problem catching” seafood back then, he said.
The only problem he did run into was being late for school most mornings after taking a little too much time on the creek, he said.
“If I wasn’t crabbing, I was swimming,” he said of his youth.
Bobby McKay graduated from St. Michael’s School, which went through 12th grade at the time, and he bought his first boat (before he owned a car or truck) right out of high school so he could work full time on the water.
Like most watermen, he crabbed in the warm months and harvested oysters in the cool months, with some fishing throughout. He said he usually made a decent living, at least enough to take care of his family.
“I had six kids, so you had to work,” he said. “They all took there turns working with me out on the bay.”
He married Marian Springer, daughter of a Valley Lee farmer and oyster house owner; shortly after that he was drafted into the Army. Upon completing his service, he returned to Ridge and began working on the water again, where he’s been for some six decades.
“I’d do the same thing again,” he said. “I was more at peace out there [on the water] than anywhere else.”
All but one of his children went on to find their own careers and lives. His son, Mark McKay, however, continued working with his father and became a waterman in his own right.
Mark said he learned a lot from his dad during time spent on the boat and ashore.
“He raised the whole family. I guess he did all right,” his son said. “He did what he wanted to do.”
Bobby is proud of his children’s accomplishments; that, he said, is what satisfies him the most in life.
“He’s happy,” wife Marian said.
After decades of plying the Chesapeake and its tributaries, Bobby and Marian now spend a lot of their time outside their home by the wharf chatting with customers and other visitors.
He still gets out on the boat some to help his son. But with several grandchildren nearby, along with a few neighbors from the younger generation who are thinking about working on the water, he has plenty to keep him busy on shore.
“There’s always somebody coming and going,” he said.
The couple tends to the soft shell crabs that are separated in floats in their yard.
“It’s a babysitting job,” Marian said.
Blue crabs shed their shells to grow; after dropping the hard shell, they lie dormant for a while as their new exterior slowly hardens. The McKays have to keep a close eye on the peelers and keep the soft ones separated from what are known as busters, which will prey on others.
“It’s an art that you learn by doing,” Bobby said.
Bobby McKay was recently selected as the 7th District Optimist Club’s 2012 “Waterman of the Year.” The award recognizes a St. Mary’s County waterman who has spent his life working the bays and rivers of the area harvesting oysters, crab, fish and softshell clams.
Mike Barbour, a member of the 7th District club, said the nomination form turned in by McKay’s family was quite impressive.
“He lived and breathed the water,” Barbour said.
The Optimists plan to present McKay with a plaque in October at the Blessing of the Fleet.
“He’s kind of on the other end of the county from the 7th District,” Barbour said. That’s OK, though, because the award, while mostly given to watermen from the northern end of the county, is open to any St. Mary’s waterman, he said.
“To say that younger McKay generations are proud of their dad and grandfather, and his waterman heritage would be an incredible understatement. Bobby, like his dad, will no doubt be working on the water for the rest of his days,” daughter Pamela McKay wrote in the nomination package. “As it has been for decades, the family still gathers regularly, from near and far, to enjoy the heritage and bounty of their bay harvest.”