We’re spending the month of June doing something we’ve meant to do all along - exploring the Chesapeake. Oh, we’ve sailed the bay before, but always en route to Baltimore or Annapolis or Norfolk. This is the first time we’ve taken the time to really gunkhole
around a few of the many rivers, creeks, towns and other sites on the bay.
Turns out, this bay is vast
. Looking at it on a map doesn’t do it justice. I grew up on San Francisco Bay and I’ll bet you could fit a dozen of them in here. Larry and I both commented it’s almost as if they should have called it a Sea rather than a Bay. The weather conditions can be every bit as extreme as the Atlantic, from what we’ve seen, and in many parts, you can’t even see the western shore from the eastern side.
These past few weeks, though, have been quite calm. In fact, after leaving Norfolk and spending a few nights in a sheltered little creek near the Severn River on the western shore, we set out early last week on a dead calm morning that can only be described as eerie. It was a sunny day, but the sky was all but obliterated by a heavy mist. The water was flat and jade green; our boat wake left oily-looking ripples as we motored northeast toward Tangier Island, Virginia. We had never been in fog like that - San Francisco fog is freezing
. This was quite warm. Later, we were told by a fellow boater that it was the result of a huge forest fire up in northern Canada. Must have been a hell of a fire, as it stayed with us three days before gradually dissipating. But while it lingered we were blessed with some amazing yet eerie “orange ball” sunsets.
We approached Tangier Island by curving around its southeastern side - past vast areas of land submerged in just a few feet of water - to take the eastern channel in toward the only marina in town. We’d heard about this place from several friends, who recommended the local museum and a B&B and restaurant called the Chesapeake House for its all-you-can-eat crab cakes.
Comments on our Active Captain cruising service warned us that 84-year-old marina owner Milton Parks can be hard to reach to make arrangements for docking. We’d called twice in two days, getting a gruff “Leave a message!” followed by a mechanical voice announcing the voice mailbox was full. Larry managed to hail Milton on VHF as we chugged slowly into town. “Are you the fella that called yesterday? No? You’re just calling me now? You shoulda called ahead! OK, come on in and we’ll find you a spot.”
Poor Thalia had to slide through a good amount of low-tide ooze to make it to the dock, but make it she finally did. And Milton turned out to be worth the effort. “Hello, Love! Hello, George!” he bellowed. (Turns out he calls all women Love or Darlin’ and all men George. It’s easier than trying to remember all those names.)
Once Thalia was secured, I asked Milton about the Chesapeake House, thinking a leisurely crab cake dinner would sound pretty good later in the evening. He glanced at his watch, eyes widening, and said, “It’s 4:15! They close at 5! We’d better get you over there. Come on, I’ll give you a ride!” And with that, we were squeezed into the front seat of Milton’s golf cart, stepping around and over his 17 cats to get there (“When my wife died, she left me with 32 of them!”). Off we went on a narrow road into the tiny town, Milton giving us a wonderful running monologue of local history, gossip, and his own memories.
He was born and raised on the island, so we passed by everything from his parents’ graves at his beloved Methodist Church to the local schoolhouse and, yes, we blew right by the Chesapeake House on what turned out to be a half hour tour of the island. I didn’t want to eat dinner at 4:30 anyway, so was kind of relieved. (Milton appeared to have completely forgotten the original mission was to deliver us there.) By the time we returned from the journey, we opted for cool showers and an alfresco dinner after sunset in our cockpit instead.
A Blast From the Past
I’m no historian, and will not be able to do this place justice. But I can tell you I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The island was settled by four or five families in the mid-17th centuries, among them the Smiths (as in Captain John Smith, who reportedly named the island because it reminded him of Tangiers, Africa). Also the Crocketts, the Dises, and the Parks (including, eventually, Milton). These are the names dominating every single graveyard, and I’ve never seen so many graveyards. I suppose it stands to reason, with 400 years of history crammed onto an island less than five miles long and a mile wide.
The island’s earliest settlers wiped out the Indians, sold off all the timber, and started raising hogs and various crops, including sweet watermelons for which the island became famous, delivered to the mainland piled high in skiffs. But the island had an ongoing erosion problem, even several hundred years ago, and has lost close to half its original mass as the years have passed. The water became too brackish for growing large-scale crops, and the inhabitants turned more and more to oystering and crab fishing as a way of life. To this day, that’s what they do, and Tangier is known as the soft shell crab capital of the Chesapeake.
This is not without its issues as well, as pressures on the crab population from pollution and over-fishing have caused the state to issue stricter and stricter limits on harvests, making the future far less certain for the sons and daughters of fishermen who for generations have known no other way of life.
Despite this, island life still revolves around crabbing. Mountains of crab pots - each handmade - line the docks, adorn backyards, and even in one case serve as a quirky support for vining tomatoes in a front yard garden. Each fisherman has his own shack on the docks with its pile of pots, boat dock, and water troughs where juvenile crabs they’ve caught are closely monitored and checked every four hours for signs of molting. As soon as the shells come off, the crabs are removed from the water (to prevent a new shell growing) and packed into boxes for delivery to restaurants near and far. The shacks also serve as a sort of man-cave, a tiny home away from home for hard-working men, each decorated to its owner's unique taste.
Back in town, the first thing you notice are the residents’ accents, which are quite peculiar. The local speech dates back to the settlers’ roots in Cornwall, England 400 years ago. Because of the isolation of the island, this evolved over time into a unique dialect, exactly as it did on another isolated island in the Bahamas, Spanish Wells. And oddly, the two dialects sound rather more like each other than they do the modern lingo of either nation.
Tangier is also a deeply religious place. No alcohol is served on the island (although we have heard of certain men hiding their gin bottles in their woodpiles). Most folks belong to the early 19th century Methodist Church, whose simple white spire dominates the skyline along with a water tower decorated with a painted crab.
We visited the church on our exploratory bike ride our one full day there. It is a very lovely and unique building, built entirely by hand with no power tools. Its stunning stained glass windows hint at the island’s maritime history. My favorite surprise in that building’s architecture, though, was the tin work. I adore pressed tin ceilings. This church’s interior is almost entirely clad in ornate and beautifully crafted pressed tin, covering its vaulted ceilings and most of its walls and painted a creamy white. Inspiring, indeed!
The roads in Tangier are few and narrow. Nearly everyone rides a bike or drives a motor bike or a golf cart. Milton has both, and is much loved in the cruising sailboat community for his habit of riding his motor bike up and down his docks to help with tie-ups and to greet guests.
There are few cars and no SUVs at all. Doors are never locked. It goes without saying that everyone knows everyone else, as they are nearly all related by blood or marriage. The island has a very small general store/grocery that is also reminiscent of what we saw in the Bahamas. There’s also an ice cream shop and several gift shops for the tourists who arrive twice a day on ferries from both sides of the mainland. There are no gas stations, bars, movie theaters, or shopping malls.
There are three restaurants, all seafood-focused, including The Chesapeake House. Much like Mrs. Wilkes’ Boarding House in Savannah, Georgia, The Chesapeake House serves family-style meals just as it has for 100 years or so. We stopped for lunch after we’d explored the island by bike and taken a long walk on the beach on the western side. We were joined by about a dozen others who trickled in - the tourist season isn’t quite in full swing yet, but will be in about a week.
Lunch was interesting. It was indeed all-you-can-eat crab cakes and clam fritters for $22, which is quite a bargain if you have a good appetite. I couldn’t even finish two of the crab cakes, which are so fat they’re almost round, nearly as large as tennis balls. They were very fresh and tasty, but I was really disappointed in the side dishes. Canned green beans, canned pickled beets, applesauce from a jar, and corn pudding that was so sweet I couldn’t eat it. Also served were potato salad, a good coleslaw, homemade rolls, and a lemon pound cake. Those were a considerable improvement over the canned fare. All in all, we’re glad we went, but wouldn’t dine there again.
An Uncertain Future
After lunch, we headed over to the local museum, where we spent several hours immersed in the local history, folklore, and culture. It was small but crammed full of artifacts and information, and really well done. Running videos documented the island’s history, wildlife, people, and unique culture.
The theme underlying all of this information is the island’s uncertain future. The slowly declining crab industry is one issue. Another threat, arguably much more serious, is that with rising water levels, the island itself is slowly disappearing. Its shores are eroding, particularly on the western beach side. And its once dry land is becoming submerged. We saw this for ourselves, viewing the vast marshes, the standing water visible under many of the homes, and the way residents have built little boardwalks as pathways to their front doors. Many have even built raised wooden platforms on which to park their golf carts so they don’t become mired in muck when it rains.
Despite all this - or perhaps due to it - the people of this island are incredibly positive. They’re tough and resilient, friendly and welcoming, eager to share their unique lives with those who take the time to visit them. I wonder what the place will be like in another decade or two. It makes me glad we were able to visit now, and hopeful that solutions will be found to help these unique people carve out a sustainable future for themselves.
If you’d like to read more, here’s a link on the island’s history and culture, where you can hear their speech for yourself: www.youtube.com/watch?v=upKqzxuJ5L4