By Sarah Holm The Virginian-Pilot
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Commercial Waterwoman Jennifer Withrow shares the ins and outs of her working day which begins in the wee hours of the morning.
The alarm goes off for Jennifer Withrow at 2:30 a.m.
That's the time you get up when you work on the water.
Withrow, a commercial waterwoman, wakes up, feeds her animals, does some chores, sometimes watches a little television and then heads to work.
She typically makes two stops on her drive from where she lives in Hayes to the Menchville Marina in Newport News: one to get gloves and one for diesel fuel for the boat.
It's still dark at the marina when the watermen arrive. Hums from the boats' engines and smells of fuel and cigarette smoke swirl through the air.
Workers prepare their boats and watch the clock. They are allowed to leave the marina exactly an hour before sunrise.
Withrow, 38, and her cousin, Rodney Withrow, leave punctually in his boat Bay Queen.
The sky starts to illuminate with pastel colors that turn more vibrant with every minute approaching sunrise. Once they arrive at their spot for the day, and the sun has risen, they can begin their day's work. They throw out a buoy as a marker and start driving in circles.
They plunge a dredge to the bottom of the James River to collect oysters.
The process is repetitive. They pull up the dredge, dump the oysters, pick out the best, clean them up, throw what they do not keep back into the water, and pull the dredge back up to do it all over again until they have met their quota for the day.
"When I'm sorting through oysters, I try to pick the best the biggest, three inches and up," Jennifer Withrow said. "They gotta be clean this time of year. I wanna do better than what I did yesterday, faster than what I did. It's almost like making it a game or competing with your surrounding boats."
Withrow works on the water year round. She, and many others, endure the freezing morning temperatures or blistering hot summer days. If the winds are too high or they don't want to face the weather that day, they do not get paid.
"It's not your nine-to-five where, come Friday, you're gettin' a paycheck.
Because you get paid daily out here," she said. "You may miss several days. If it's cold, the river might be froze, and you may not be going."
"You don't know what Mother Nature is going to throw at you, and you have to be prepared to handle it."
Many watermen and women grow up working on the water -- it's something their family has done for generations. Withrow said she fell into it later in life. She went out with some friends who worked on the water for a boat ride.
"It was one of them things. I don't wanna sit back no more, this is pretty interesting and started asking questions and you know, it went from there," she said. "At the end of the day I had to go back to my real job, but it was on the back of my mind. Like, wow, I think I would really like to do it."
Jennifer Withrow and Rodney Withrow sell their catch to Dockside Oyster Farms, Inc., in Smithfield. What they are paid per bushel varies based on the time of year and if they are collecting from private or public grounds.
Despite the early mornings and the turbulent weather, Jennifer Withrow loves her job. She gets to see beautiful sunrises over the open water. She likes being her own boss.
"You're by yourself, you're on your own, you're mind is free to roll and think. You're out here with Mother Nature, the wind, the sun. It's exciting and there's always something different."
Even though aspects of the job are repetitive, each day brings the opportunity to see something different, catch something unusual or learn something new.
Although a strenuous job, Withrow views sorting oysters as a mental escape. The act has become automatic. The muscle memory flows through her hands, allowing her mind to wander.
"My mind is free to kind of not think, just to kind of not have that worry or care. In a sense, yes I have to think about what I'm doing, but it's almost more repetitious where my mind has a moment to (exhale), be free," she said.
"This is just my home now. It's my job, it's everything. It's just a beautiful place." ___ Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.