A spring cruiser and her dog may have found the Narrows just waking from its long winter's nap, but a great crabcake and a run in the mud were enough to keep them happy . . . and smug.

by Jody Argo Schroath
illustration by Richard C. Goertemiller

Smug. Yes, that's how I felt. I freely admit it. After all, while the rest of the world was busy laboring in offices everywhere, I was looking out on charming Knapps Narrows, watching the workboat traffic come and go while the Bay's busiest lift bridge periodically clanged up and down. The trees and shrubs around me were bright and brave against the sharp chill with their newly opened blossoms, white and pink and yellow against the militia blue of the sky. But more importantly to my state of unrepentant self-satisfaction were the remnants of the season's first great crabcake sitting on the plate in front of me.

Oh, yes, life was good! Besides, this year I had finally won first-great-crabcake-of-the-season honors. This is a long-standing competition among a group of my friends. It's informal, of course, but there are two inflexible rules. The crabcake has to be made from locally caught crabs (we always ask before we order), and it has to be from a restaurant we haven't tried before. Well, what had been set before me at Bay Hundred Restaurant in Knapps Narrows had been a beautifully concocted, incredibly fresh-tasting tennis-ball of a crabcake--perched on a lightly toasted and buttered brioche bun with a paper-thin slice of green tomato and a little mayonnaise to set it off. "I win! I win!" I texted several times, as I took a break before polishing off the last couple of bites. I had asked about the provenance of the crabmeat before I'd ordered, of course, especially since the Maryland season had opened only a couple of days earlier. My waitress had checked with the kitchen and returned with the right answer. A little while later, Bay Hundred's chef and co-owner, William Dickey, had himself come out to specify the crab's exact origins, as well as his own origins and even the origins of the recipe. You just can't say better than that.

But my smugness that day went beyond just finding a great crabcake and avoiding a day at the office. I had also discovered that Knapps Narrows is as good a destination as it is a shortcut between the Bay and the Choptank River. Coincidentally, I had also been able to get a feel for what the Narrows' notoriously shifty channel had in store for boaters this year. When I had come through late the previous summer in my Vega 27 (draft just under four feet), I could have sworn that the shoals between red markers "2" and "4" were reaching out to grab at my keel like Hogwarts Merpeople, with the result that I found myself zigging and zagging like a crazy person trying to keep the boat in deep water. Even when I had come through earlier that summer on a shallower-draft Albin 28, parts of the channel had seemed mighty thin. But this time--again on the Albin 28 and again entering the Narrows from the Bay--I managed to hit the channel square on by hugging "4". Of course, it also helped that there were no other boats on the water at the moment so there was no problem of being crowded out of the channel. 

When I had entered the Narrows itself and gotten nearly to the bridge, I turned south into the basin to tie up along the Talbot County portion of the bulkhead (the other part of it is owned by the Bridge Restaurant). Skipper the dog, who had been standing at the stern to make sure we weren't being followed, leapt happily onto the dock as soon as I had made us fast. With his leash now made fast as well, he trotted along happily as we walked across the bridge to the mainland side, past the Knapps Narrows Marina boatyard, which was bustling with spring commissioning, and finally reached Tilghman Back Creek Park, another Talbot County facility. Here was a lovely empty park with exercise stations and a paved path leading to a broad deck that looks across a shallow back channel and the remnants of an island to the western mouth of the Narrows. Best of all from Skipper's viewpoint, there were steps that led down to a kayak/canoe launching beach and access to the shallows along the shoreline. I unclipped the leash, and Skipper immediately launched himself into the water, skittering back and forth through the shallows and the mud until he emerged 10 minutes later exhausted, mud-caked and stinking to high heaven. He was a very happy dog . . . yes, even smug. You could almost see him thinking: "Yes, other dogs are sitting at home right now with nothing to do but sleep, whereas I get to ride on a boat and then run in the mud. Oh yes, I'm cool!" 

He may have been a hound-mix George Clooney, but he was also nearly lethal from an olfactory point of view. Walking back across the bridge, pedestrians we met practically hurled themselves across the street to get out of our way. On the other side of the bridge, we left a scattering of stunned watermen in our wake as we walked past them in front of Fairbank Tackle Shop, where they were gathered to pass the time of day. Trailing a bad smell and as much dignity as I could muster (Skipper didn't care), we sauntered back to the basin where we had left the Albin--to look at the workboats and admire the trio of melancholy old hulks, weeping rust from every pore. The most familiar of these relics to boaters transiting the Narrows is likely the Crow Brothers buyboat, with its artificial crow perched permanently on the cabin top. She's been there for years, hard aground and unlikely to ever move again. Still, she and the others add a certain tone to the place. Walking back toward the road, we passed the Bridge Restaurant and its popular tiki bar, overlooking the basin and the bridge. It was still too early in the season and too cold for outside dining. Just as well, I thought, as Skipper and I wafted along the bulkhead and the empty patio. Below us, a small sloop towing a dinghy circled smartly in the current as the bridge clanked open.

We left the basin and headed south through the community of Tilghman, quiet too on this chilly mid-week afternoon. After we had passed Fairbank Tackle, I looked wistfully over at Crawfords Nautical Books in the old brick Tilghman Bank building. It wouldn't be open until the weekend, and what with one thing and another, it was just as well. We gave Crawfords and everything else a wide berth and headed instead for Dogwood Cove, just down the road on the Choptank side. Dogwood Cove is home, famously, of the world's last working skipjack fleet, as well as several dozen newer but no less handsome workboats. But first we walked as far as Harrison's Chesapeake House--110 years old if it's a day--which was alive with renovation and repair work.

"You sure can eat yourself silly on Tilghman Island," I told Skipper, whose idea of a good meal is a six-day old dead fish. Returning to Dogwood Cove, we dawdled down the line of workboats, while Skipper's odoriferous mud coat slowly baked to a fine powder and began to jettison itself little by little. By the time we'd worked our way back to the Narrows bridge, Skipper looked for all the world as if he'd just had his fur done. Though the smell lingered on. The upshot was that now when we walked within nose shot of anyone, it was me they suspected of being a stranger to a hot shower!

Well, I just hoped that the smell hadn't really rubbed off on me, because I was famished and there was no hiding at the edge of an outside patio. I tucked Skipper back on the boat with a big bowl of water and walked back across the bridge to Bay Hundred Restaurant next to Knapps Narrows Marina for a late lunch. It was three o'clock when I walked through the doors to find myself in sole possession of the dining room--except for the staff, of course. I chose a seat where I could watch the boat traffic, should there be any. But it wasn't the waterway that caught my attention. It was the chalkboard. Fresh local crab, it said in big chalky letters. So when the waitress came to take my order, I asked, just to be sure. . . 

But, wait, this is where I came in. Remember, first great local crabcake of the season? Right. And as much as I'd like to go on and on about Bay Hundred's crabcakes, I shouldn't. This is a cruising story, after all, not a restaurant review. (Definitely a good idea, though, and the perfect excuse for a return trip later this summer!) So I'll just skip ahead and say that it was late in the afternoon when the two Smugs--one human and one canine--pulled away from the dock and headed back through the channel, taking care not to be so smug that we got sloppy by straying outside the markers, and headed back up the Bay for home. 

[6.11 issue]