Longtime waterman retiring after rough seas

Bob Bearsch recovers after being pulled out of the water by a crab house crew on Sunday, Sept. 5 in a screen grab from a video taken by waterman PJ Elkins.

A longtime waterman is not returning to the heavy seas after his boat flipped on the Bush River earlier this month. But he lived to tell the story, after being saved by a local seafood chain owner and his crew.

“I’m not going back on the bay,” Bob Bearsch, who has been a commercial crabber for several decades, said earlier this month, a few days after the incident where he says he almost died.

Bearsch had been out on the water with his coworker, Don Foley, on the morning of Sunday, Sept. 5, tending to a few of his 180 crab pots in the Bush River area in Harford County when his boat, a 21-foot Parker Sou’wester from 1986, was pushed by the wind into a crab pot.

That pot belonged to to Vince Meyer, the namesake of Vince’s Crab House, a local seafood chain. And the rope from Meyers’ pot had wrapped around Bearsch’s engine. Meyer and his crew just happened to be approaching on his boat, the Harlee Marie.

Meyer’s restaurant was the subject of a long protest last year after he mocked the Black Lives Matter movement on Facebook. He later apologized, and the business is currently suing Baltimore County, alleging the police did not do enough to protect the crab house during those protests.

“It started out a little rocky when I got wrapped around his pot,” Bearsch said. While they, at first, elected against cutting the line, they started taking on water.

But when they decided to cut the line, the boat flipped.

“Don and I both fell in the water,” Bearsch said. “We were about 25 or 30 feet away from Vince. I still had my boots on, how I did it, I don’t know.”

“Once we turned around to talk to him, he cut the crab pot and the boat went under,” PJ Elkins, who was on Meyer’s boat and took a video of the incident while helping, said.

The crew on Vince’s boat was able to get Foley out of the water quickly, but it took a while to get Bearsch out.

“It was super choppy, and the bay was really rough,” Meyer, who has been crabbing in the Bush River area for about 35 years, said. The crew was trying to get him from the water without him going under the boat, or being smashed between the two boats. They eventually had to pull around.

“We had to walk Captain Bob around the back of the boat,” Elkins said.

When Bearsch was on board, he started getting cold, and was taken into the cabin to warm up.

“I was amazed at how fast I got cold,” Bearsch said.

The crew made it back safely, and handed the job over to the Department of Natural Resources police.

“Vince and the guys on the boat are angels,” Bearsch said. “I mean, they saved my life.”

It wasn’t Bearsch’s first life-threatening encounter from crabbing.

Last year, he scratched himself on a crab trap and caught the “crab fungus,” a bacteria which can kill crabbers who get scratched on crab pots if it spreads. Bearsch said he didn’t think much of the scratch at first, he had dealt with them many times throughout his career.

But after he went to the hospital the next day because the scratch began to swell, the doctor said he could have been dead if he waited another four hours. The ordeal also left him with a piece of his arm removed.

At 78, Bearsch has decided to end his career on the water. He said he wants to total the boat, donate his crab pots to Middle River Landing Marina, and stay home to care for his wife, whom he has been married to for 59 years and is his “sweetheart,” he said.

“I have enjoyed the Chesapeake,” Bearsch said. “I love it, it’s a beautiful thing, but I’ve gotta take care of my wife, and it’s time to call it quits.”