There's more water than land on the point that marks
the northern tip of Virginia's Mobjack Bay, and that's
just how the folks who live there like it. [February 2005]
By Wendy Mitman Clarke
Photographs by Scott Sullivan
Morning, and I find myself drawn again down the narrow, lumpy road that rests on the uneasy low ground here, past the oaks and loblolly pines tangled in greenbrier and honeysuckle, past the tidy cottages and brick ranchers. I drive the blacktop until it gives it up for dirt and oyster shell, past where the trees cede to swaying marsh grasses, and the warm, moist air smells of salt and mud. Down to the lighthouse, again.
I can't get to the lighthouse by land. It stands alone on a storm-wrecked fragment of New Point Comfort, surrounded by rocks, marking the northern side of the mouth of Mobjack Bay. There was a time, not so long ago, when the locals of Bavon and New Point—the two little communities that occupy this bit of land's end on Virginia's Middle Peninsula—would picnic on the pure white beaches beside the lighthouse, the Chesapeake spread out before them like a great palm opening outward. Back then on mornings like this, nearby Harper Creek, just around the corner from the light, would be noisy with the sound of diesels as the pound-netters fired up their engines to head out for another day on the water. Today, as I stand at the lighthouse overlook at the mouth of that same creek, there is none of that vibrant racket of money being made, of human lives being lived. Gulls and cormorants perch on what's left of the pilings where watermen once tied off their boats. Profound as the silence is here, it says as much as anyone or anything can about the way of life that made this place.
The tide is slowly creeping into the marsh flanking the creek, and I can hear the little pock-pock sound of fiddler crabs popping out of the mud. Now and then, out of the corner of my eye, I see the fiddlers moving stealthily among the periwinkles and grasses, skittering from hummock to hummock like tiny commandos on a covert mission. Just past the marsh, what's left of the woods of New Point Comfort is a thinning forest of tufted loblollies brushing the sky. Beyond, the pure white sand glistens in the sun, and I hear the constant shush and hiss of waves breaking on it. And beyond that stands the lighthouse itself, stoic and alone on its mound of earth and rock.
From here, Mobjack Bay opens onto the Chesapeake. The wide open fetch from the Atlantic some 25 miles southeast invites all sorts of things—the booming southerly that builds nearly every afternoon, sea turtles, sharks, dolphins and birds, and tides that can drown whole neighborhoods. The Hurricane of 1933 washed over this peninsula and severed the lighthouse from the mainland. And now, the story of a different hurricane— Isabel—is written on the trees, where salt spray has burned the loblollies' needles rust red. This wide water has always set this place apart. It's a blessing, and sometimes a curse.
The first time I came here I went fishing with Walter Coles Burroughs, then one of the few pound-netters left in the area (he died just last year, in November, at 77). Leaving Mathews Courthouse, I got utterly lost, as I would on subsequent occasions. I like getting lost here. That first time, I followed a road until it ended at a small marina on Davis Creek, and I was amazed to see the wharf mounded with whelk shells. Page Cutler, owner of Davis Creek Marina, told me that conchers work out of here from May through the end of summer. The marina, which caters mostly to watermen and recreational fishermen, has been here about 60 years, and though Cutler had to refurbish the place completely after Isabel, the woodstove that has warmed hands and feet for generations still sits in the middle of the marina store, doing its important work.
On that visit I felt like I'd never seen anyplace quite like it, and I still feel that way, every time I come back. It's not a boating destination in any typical sense; Bavon and New Point are really just neighborhoods, so there's no town center, no restaurants, no shops, unless you drive the seven miles to Mathews Courthouse. And, as I would learn later, there are times when that long Atlantic fetch makes it the last place you want to be in a smallish boat. Still, I come back as often as I can. And that never seems to be enough.
Most roads in Mathews County eventually lead to water, and nowhere does this seem more true than down at the very tip of the county—and, indeed, the Middle Peninsula—to which Bavon and New Point cling stubbornly and somewhat precariously. From here, it's a heck of a lot quicker to get to places like Cape Charles, Hampton Roads or Tangier Island by boat. It's a bit arbitrary, but fair enough to say that New Point and Bavon occupy the peninsula bordered to the north by Horn Harbor (which, despite its name, is really a creek), by the Chesapeake Bay to the east, Mobjack Bay to the south and Pepper Creek to the west. Perforated by waterways and marsh, it's very nearly an island, since Horn Harbor and Pepper Creek come within about a half-mile of each other in the middle. Along with Bavon and New Point, there's the neighborhood of Shadow, near Pepper Creek, and Motorun near Davis Creek. The first human inhabitants were Native Americans from the Paleo-Indian period, 10,000 to 8,000 b.c. Early colonial records make reference to "New Poynt Comfort," and as far as anyone knows, the first European settlers to live in this place are those buried in an old cemetery, deep within the loblolly forest at the tip of the peninsula.
That is where lifelong Bavon resident Edward Pritchett is taking me on a warm spring afternoon. The land is now part of a 95-acre Nature Conservancy preserve (the Conservancy and Mathews County built and maintain the lighthouse overlook on one side of the preserve's boundary), but when Pritchett was a boy, there were still six families living out here. "I have two great uncles who drowned off the lighthouse, buried in here," he says. "They were bringing a load of oysters around."
Hurricane Isabel knocked down many of the trees, and we climb over and under thick trunks entangled with greenbrier. It takes us a while to find the cemetery, but suddenly we come upon clusters of headstones, and the local names ring out from the past: Hudgins, Pritchett, Brooks. "Capt. James Brooks, b. Sept. 21, 1803, d. Feb. 19, 1888. His toils are past, his work is done, he fought the fight, the victory won." "
Susan R. Hudgins, born Dec. 5, 1848, died Sept. 13, 1879. Gone but not forgotten." And the stones marking Edward's drowned ancestors: George W. Pritchett, his birth date worn away, and Edward J. Pritchett, born in August 1810. Both drowned June 26, 1866, probably within sight of this spot. Around us, daffodils send their slender shoots sunward beside the old stones, and the place is lulled by the sibilant waves breaking nearby and the wind high in the pines overhead.
Waterlogged as this spit of land is, it should come as no surprise that water is what has driven life here for generations. People lived and died by it, quite literally. And when the water was generous, fishing pound nets or gill nets, oystering, crabbing or building the boats that did the work were good ways to live. Commercial wharves dotted the water around the point. Among them was Bayside, which stood a half-mile offshore and had a store, cold rooms, and a car track with a Model-T Ford on it to haul the catch. All that's left now are some rotten pilings; Hurricane Hazel in 1954 wiped that one out, Pritchett tells me.
Aside from fishing or boatbuilding, the other major employer was an hour away—at the Newport News Shipyard. Making the commute is still common for people here, and the shipyard remains one of the biggest local employers. Pritchett was general foreman in the welding department and worked there 32 years, night shift, so he could set crab pots in the daytime. He retired in 1993 to work the water full-time. Very few of the younger generation are following the water now. One is Pritchett's son Chris, who crabs full-time. "He does it for a livin' and I guess I taught him well," Pritchett says. "Sometimes I worry he's going to starve to death, but he enjoys what he does and that's half of it."
There was also a robust menhaden fishery here once, says Marion Grey Trusch, Edward Pritchett's first cousin—and someone I simply must talk to, says he and everyone else in town. Her house isn't far from Pritchett's, and so I meet her there to pick her quick-witted, encyclopedic mind. (Her late husband, Captain Edward Trusch, served in the Merchant Marine in World War II, and when he came home he captained a menhaden boat for years.) As Bavon's unofficial mayor and default historian, she istheperson to see if you have a question about these parts. Marion Grey (you'd never just call her Marion; nearly all the locals here go by their given and middle names) was born here in 1920. She was a schoolteacher—and remains so to many of the pupils who attended the class in U.S. government she taught for 30 years at Mathews High School. "There's a young doctor here I taught, I went to see him yesterday," she says. "And I said, 'Sterling, I still feel like I ought to be telling you what to do.' And he said, 'You know Miz Trusch, I still feel like I ought to be doing it!' ''
Trusch's grandfather, Captain Wesley F. Ripley (she calls him "Big Pa"), was keeper of the New Point Comfort Lighthouse from 1906 through at least 1912. (One of her bedrooms is furnished with the bedroom set Big Pa used while serving as lightkeeper—a beautiful chest, bed and chair, and a quilt Big Ma made.) Her father ran the post office and general store that still sits at the corner of routes 14 and 660. "I decorate the win-dah [of the store] on different occasions," she says. "I try to keep it looking nice for the neighborhood. Certain amount of pride in downtown Bavon." Marion Grey can tell you how the town of Motorun got its name—"because they could hear the motors running in the boats in Davis Creek," she says—but she admits to being baffled by the etymology of the name Bavon. Twice a day she hops in her car and drives the mile to the lighthouse overlook, just to reassure herself the light is still there. It's a kind of homage to the place's history, to her history. "This is where we all spring from," she says. "Our roots go awfully deep."
Nothing's too far from anything in this corner of the world, and so it's a quick drive for me to find Dennis Baker, who lives in a little enclave called Bavon Beach. Facing east, overlooking the Chesapeake, some 20 mostly modest houses sit behind a buffer of dunes flanking a beach as pure white as any you'd see on the Outer Banks. "Terrapins nest here, and we have a turtle watch," Baker says. "It's so clear some nights you can see the lights of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel and Cape Charles." He jokingly calls the neighborhood "the summer slums of Lower Mathews." A former director of the Virginia Parks and Recreation Department, Baker and his wife Linda, a marine educator, live in Richmond full-time. They bought and refurbished a decrepit little shack in Bavon Beach in the early 1970s.
Sitting on the pleasant screened porch, the air thick with the scent of pines, I can hear the Bakers' son Kevin banging away out back on yet another project to make this home completely unique. (For instance, Kevin has built a loft in the shape of a dory, so that when his son sits in the bow and looks out the window across the cathedral ceiling, he can see the sun and moon rise over the Bay. Kevin also roughly carved, into a piece of Osage orange, the best epitaph for a dog I've ever read: "Buzzard, Oct. 87–Nov. 02. Hit by a car 3 times, snake bit 2 times, shot 1 time, heart worms, 2 surgeries, 89 stitches, 12 dog fights, and I still had to put him down." The marker is beside the house, surrounded by daylilies, and Dennis says every word on it is true.)
The Bakers are pretty typical of the non-natives; many are from the Richmond area, bought cottages here as summer homes and are slowly renovating them for more year-round living as retirees. (Few new homes are being built because the land is so low it won't perk—which suits many people just fine.) The Bakers's introduction to the locals may be the quintessential come-here story: "We had gone over to Harper Creek," Baker says. "And we found all these gorgeous oysters—beautiful oysters—so we got a little bunch of buckets and we picked these oysters. But we didn't know if they were good to eat or not. The first place we stumbled on was a commercial dock where some folks were working, so we walked up, plopped the buckets down and said, 'Excuse me, we'd like to know if these oysters are good to eat.' " They had encountered, it turned out, Margaret Ann Haywood and her husband Jesse, who had been running a seafood operation on the middle branch of Davis Creek since 1974. Baker laughs when he recalls Jesse's response. "Jesse, who was of course such a charming person, said, 'They're mighty fine oysters, they're the best in the county!' And of course my wife, being the inquisitive type said, 'Well, how do you know that they're the best?' and he said, 'Because they'remyoysters.' He owned all the oyster beds out there!"
So began a beautiful friendship. Baker recalls cookouts when they'd hose down the dock at the Haywood's seafood wharf, set up tables, and everyone would bring a covered dish. "You had wonderful corn pudding, oysters that were absolutely exquisite, clam chowder and fish and conversation which was absolutely wonderful. It was just a lifestyle that you felt fortunate you were a part of." It was also passed on to the younger generation, he says. "Jesse, who just loved kids, would take our kids out on the workboats when they were pulling the pound nets, and so our kids had an opportunity to see what was involved," Baker says.
Knowing how to make things in government work—and wanting very much to give something back to this community—Baker is among those working on ways to allow for the inevitable growth and influx of outsiders but retain a strong sense of the place's history and tradition—what he calls a working cultural landscape. "We want there always to be a place for someone to see this way of life," he says. An example is a conservation easement on a private property along Davis Creek where the owner wants to protect the shoreline for working watermen, even letting them repair pound nets on his land. (That arrangement was being completed late last year).
To this day, Baker says, he loves to hear the sound of diesels drifting through the pines as the remaining workboats head out in the morning. Without this kind of planning, he says, "that sound is going to be something that will be lost in time in this particular area."
It's a fine, early spring day, and this time I am hoping to get to the lighthouse by boat. My husband Johnny and I have trailered our runabout to Horn Harbor Marina where we plan to launch it, cruise out the creek and head south to the lighthouse, then run up Mobjack Bay into Pepper Creek—circumnavigate the peninsula, such as we can. A fine plan, if you think you can outsmart the southerly sea breeze, which is a foolish thing to think. Today, in fact, it started early and is working up quite a head of steam, and Norm Turner, the marina's owner, tells us not to waste our time launching. "I'll take you out on my boat in a bit," he offers—a much more substantial Duffy 35. We say thanks, we may take him up on that, but we launch anyway.
Like most of the waterways around here, Horn Harbor is a beautiful place to just poke around. Largely undeveloped, fringed in soft sand beaches and tall woods, the creek's clear, blue-green water reveals the scalloped white sand below and makes me think of the Caribbean. Still, as we approach the creek's mouth it feels more and more like we're about to enter the North Atlantic. Turner was right; it's a mess out there. For once, we use common sense; we come about, tie up the runabout and wait for him and one of his daughters, 6-year-old Lily, to take us for a much warmer, drier boat ride.
"People come down here from the upper Bay and they don't appreciate how big it is down here," Turner says, as he deftly shimmies his boat around the shoals that mark Horn Harbor's mouth—an inlet that today resembles something you'd expect to see on the ocean. "There are days you just can't go out, and even if you can, you won't make any headway."
Low-key, well spoken and sneaking up on 40, Turner grew up around boats on New Jersey's Lake Hopatcong. He had owned a welding company, but at age 25 he and his wife Kris decided to change careers and surroundings. They started looking for a marina and found Horn Harbor, where legendary boatbuilder Alton Smith and his father L. R. "Lennie" Smith had established the Horn Harbor Railway in 1939, one of the premier boatbuilding facilities in Virginia. (Lennie Smith had opened his first railway in 1906 on nearby Pepper Creek; he and his son moved it in 1939 to deeper water in Horn Harbor.) In 1946, the Smiths hired on a boatbuilder named Edward Diggs—who was still there, building deadrises, when the Turners arrived in 1989. "I know I'm probably biased, but I think he built the best deadrises around here," Turner says. Diggs retired in 1993, but in those few years Turner soaked up as much know-how as he could. And, as the Haywoods had welcomed the Bakers, Diggs gave the Turners entree into the community. "A lot of the guys who I first met were the watermen, about as down to earth and deep as you could get," Turner says. "The fact that I worked with Edward every day building those boats, he kinda let them know I was okay, even though I wasn't from here."
If the craftsmanship on his Duffy 35 is any indication, Turner learned a great deal. He spent three-and-a-half years finishing the boat, using native black cherry for the interior, powering it with a 370 Volvo diesel, and attending to every detail. The same attention to detail is evident in his marina, with its 65 slips, 25-ton boat lift, 50-ton railway, woodshop, pool and clubhouse—all surrounded with tall pines landward and matted edges of marsh along the water's edge. Turner says most of his slipholders are fishermen who hang at the marina for the weekend, heading out for day trips.
Nobody's heading out today, though—as we clear the Horn Harbor shoals and Turner's Duffy starts taking green water to the windshield, we see one workboat muscling through the waves heading for home, and that's it. Minutes later, we do likewise. There will be no getting to the lighthouse in this blow. But around here, as Turner points out, "nothing happens as fast as you want it to. You've just got to take it as it comes, be patient and relax." Like the generations of remarkable people who have dug their roots into this tenuous fragment of earth, the lighthouse has withstood time, tide, storm and sun all these years. I reckon I can come back another day. In fact, I'm counting on it.
Cruiser's Digest: Mobjack Bay, Va.
Cruising to New Point and Bavon, Va., is really a matter of just cruising around. There's no real "downtown," so the waters around this peninsula are the entree to the life and people here. Horn Harbor marks the northern boundary of the area; the inlet here is a little tricky because you have to get over two bars that are exposed to long northeast, east and southeast fetches. Norm Turner of Horn Harbor Marina says it's no big deal for powerboaters if they mind the marks, but sailors may want to try it for the first time on a fair day. The dredged channel, which is well marked and has 6 feet at a normal low tide, starts at the 19-foot Morse A "HH". From there, you head west toward the 14-foot flashing red "2", and then toward two sets of "goalpost" marks—green "3" and red "4", then green "5" and red "6"—that lead you over the first bar. A turn to the north brings you to green "7" and then "7A". After "7A", Turner advises making your turn northwest toward red "8" fairly soon, as there's a shoal that has crept off red "8", so you don't want to get too close to that mark. From there, head for red "10", after which the channel turns west and is well marked throughout with good depth. Horn Harbor Marina (804-725-3223) is 2.5 miles from "HH", on the right off green "19". It has ample transient slips in 7 feet of water, a pool, gas and diesel, service off a 25-ton lift (but no engine repair) and pump-out.
Leaving Horn Harbor, head south toward the New Point Comfort Lighthouse. Shallow-draft boats can take a detour into Dyer Creek; this is a pretty little place and forms the nucleus of the neighborhood of New Point. Leaving Dyer Creek and heading south toward the light you will pass the homes of Bavon Beach.
Shallow-draft boats can get pretty close to the lighthouse, but it'll take something like a kayak to get you into Harper Creek, which has silted in significantly since the workboats stopped tying up there. Deep-draft boats will have to stay offshore around the lighthouse, honoring the 15-foot marker "4" just to the southwest. From there, it's a fairly straight shot northwest to green "1", a 14-foot mark that denotes the entrance to Davis Creek. The 8-foot-deep channel is well marked, and about halfway in on the right you'll find Davis Creek Marina (804-725-2452). The marina can take boats up to 45 feet in 9 feet of water and has gas and diesel, a marina store—and, best of all, you can buy fresh seafood.
Leaving Davis Creek and heading northwest, you'll pass the homes of Motorun and then find Pepper Creek. PVC poles inside the creek entrance denote oyster bottom, and though red "2" will get you into the creek, it's unmarked from there up, with depths of 5 to 7 feet. A little over a half-mile into the creek (where it starts to shallow up) you'll see a big wooden unpainted building; that's where L. R. "Lennie" Smith (Alton's father) built boats from 1906 to 1939, before moving to Horn Harbor.
A great way to really explore all the beautiful water around here is by kayak or canoe, and Bay Trails Outfitters (804-725-0626; 888-725-7225;www.baytrails.com) in nearby Port Haywood can help. They offer kayak and canoe rentals, sales and guided tours.