A journey through the jaws of the Smith Point jetties pays off in a visit to Cockrell's, one of the Bay's oldest and most successful marine railways.

by Jody Argo Schroath

The Little Wicomico River, which lies just inside Smith Point, at the mouth of the Potomac River, is a good example of determination rewarded. You really have to want to get in--especially if you have a lightly powered or deep-draft vessel. Frequent shoaling, a wicked current and a pinpoint entrance can give even a veteran boater a case of nerves. However, when I decided to go into the Little Wicomico River for the first time last fall I had three things going for me: my vessel, an Albin 28, had plenty of power; it had a fairly shallow draft; and the channel had recently been dredged. Besides, I really wanted to stop for the night at Cockrell's Marine Railway. Nonetheless, as I made my way toward the entrance, marked by short stone jetties and by lighted markers "4" and "7", I was at full attention.

On the chart, the Little Wicomico reminds me of the upper and lower jaws of a dinosaur skeleton. And passing between the jetties late in the afternoon, I had the distinct impression that I was about to be just another bite of the Jurassic dinner. Once inside the belly of the beast, however, things opened up nicely and I found myself in the midst of a lovely rural landscape, populated with old farmhouses, small seafood facilities and more workboats than I regularly see in a month. The Little Wicomico is clearly still a working river, a rare find on today's Chesapeake. But I was looking for a very particular survivor of the old days--Cockrell's Marine, which has been an immutable part of the fabric of life in the Virginia waters of the Bay for four generations. I spotted Cockrell's three miles upriver on a point of land opposite Willis Creek. On the right side of the point were a long bulkhead with the fuel dock and several piers with slips; on the other were more docks, a warren of covered slips and a marine railway. Ashore, I could see a small village of work buildings.

Myles Cockrell met me at the fuel dock and directed me to an empty slip nearby. As we chatted, Myles pointed down the bulkhead to where his father Andy was working on a boat. The boatyard was founded in 1926 by Dandridge Cockrell Sr., Myles's great-grandfather, to build and service workboats. These days, Cockrell's employs about 15 people, repairing and rebuilding boats both wood and fiberglass, and doing specialty work, such as converting large vessels for commercial work. They are also doing some boatbuilding, this time adapting plastic materials to traditional workboat designs. And, of course, there is the marina, which welcomes transients like myself to this quiet corner of the world.

After tying up at the slip, I whiled away the remaining daylight hours wandering through the marina, admiring the boats in the covered slips, and then walking out into the nearby countryside. The next morning, I mused, the Little Wicomico would spit me back out into the Bay. Grimacing at the thought, I promised myself then and there to swear off Jurassic anatomical metaphors the next time I was anywhere near the Little Wicomico--which would definitely be soon.

Cockrell's Marine Railway 
Heathsville, Va.
Fuel: gas and diesel
Power: 30/50 amp
Depth: 6 ft
Pump-out: Yes

[3.12 issue]