They'd already sailed to Tangier Island and made the
obligatory tourist stops. This time, the author and his
wife came armed with a pair of kayaks and found birds
and beaches beyond expectation. [May 2005]
By Bill Mitman
Photographs by Dave Harp
Tangier Island, mid-July, early afternoon. We are tied up at Parks' Marina, done just about medium-rare. The heat shimmers above the water's surface. Crabbers are coming in, milling around waiting for dock space as the early birds finish unloading the day's catch. A fitful westerly breeze provides little relief from the heat. School is out, and the local youngsters are zooming up and down the harbor channel in their skiffs, revving their outboards, and generally messing about like their mainland counterparts might be doing at the neighborhood Tastee-Freeze. A marine patrolman, who looks only a few years older than the kids, cruises by and gives them a half-hearted hairy eyeball. Some of the skiffs have registration numbers, some don't, and there isn't a life jacket to be seen, but it's clear that these technicalities aren't going to bother the Law today.
My wife Cathy and I have sailed here from the Little Wicomico River on Virginia's Northern Neck. The western entrance to Tangier's harbor lies about nine miles east-southeast from Smith Point Light, our jumping off point for cruises northbound or across the Bay. We've made this trip several times since movingJessie Welch, our Allied Princess ketch, south from Rock Hall, Md., three years ago. The prevailing summer southwesterly usually gets us here on a relaxing two-hour close reach, and today has been true to form. As always, it's exciting to scan the horizon, anticipating the first sign of land. Watching Tangier gradually rise out of the water reminds me of raising Key West after an overnight passage from Naples, Fla. First Tangier's signal transmission and water towers come into view, piercing the horizon well before you see the island itself. Closing the coast, individual buildings come into focus, and finally the flashing 2.5-second green "1", marking the western entrance channel. All that's missing are palm trees, coral reefs and cruise ships.
Tangier is the last in a string of islands, hummocks, shoals and marshes that stretch south for about 20 miles below South Marsh Island. Anyone with a boat of moderate or deep draft who wants to cross the Bay from the Potomac River to visit places like Crisfield, Md., Onancock, Va., or points between must pick their way through this string, or go around it. The most popular routes pass through Kedges Straits to the north—which separate South Marsh Island from Smith Island and connect the Bay to Tangier Sound—or the harbor thoroughfares and channels of Tangier or Smith islands.
Actually, calling Tangier an island, singular, is a bit of a misnomer. While it's surrounded by water, to be sure, a glance at a large-scale chart reveals that it's really a collection of slightly elevated ridges, separated by marshland and tidal washes. At one time, people lived on as many as six ridges. Today, only three are populated, and on a chart and from the air, they resemble three thick fingers pointing south, separated by creeks and canals. In what would be the palm sits the harbor, which is connected to the Bay on the west and Tangier Sound to the east by a main channel that, despite its hydrographic and geographic significance, is unnamed on the chart. (Milton Parks, who owns Parks' Marina, says the closest thing it has to an official name is Tangier Harbor channel, but most locals don't bother to call it anything.) Oyster Creek ridge and another ridge historically known as Canaan are located on the north side of the harbor, but these areas have not been inhabited for decades.
The center of the only village on the island, also named Tangier, is located on the central ridge, called Main Ridge. The easternmost ridge, known as Canton, was reportedly the home of the island's first settlement. Canton is connected to the Main Ridge by a wooden trestle bridge, which crosses a picturesque tidal creek locally referred to as the East Canal or Rubin's River. The third ridge is West Ridge, which forms the island's western shore and houses the airport. Four trestle bridges span the elegantly named Big Gut Canal, which separates the Main and West ridges. We passed West Ridge and Big Gut Canal on our way into the harbor from the channel's western entrance, which is marked with a 15-foot flashing green marker "1". Motoring down the middle of the channel, we headed straight for Parks' Marina. Located on the channel's south side, Parks' is easy to see as soon as you enter from the west. On the way, we passed the trash terminal and mechanic's shop, also on the south side, and several eclectic crab shanties on the opposite shore.
Parks' is the only private recreational marina on the island and one of the last, best bargains on the Bay. Milton Parks, seventy-something and fit as a fiddle, is the proud proprietor. During the summer, various family members pitch in to help, along with the dock cats. (There are many cats on Tangier. If Salvador Dali had visited here, his famous painting would have featured limp cats, not watches. Everywhere you look, a limp cat is sprawled over something, eyeballing you.) The marina's slips face the dock that rambles along the channel's edge. At the eastern end of the dock, a longer pier juts into the channel, where day-trippers can usually find space to tie up. During the crabbing season, the T-head is frequently occupied by the runboat from Crisfield. (Pop quiz: What's the difference between a "runboat" and a "buyboat"? Read on to find out.)
A word to the wise about docking here: Unless you have met your planned arrival time with a degree of accuracy that's too anal to contemplate, or you're just plain lucky, the current will be running strongly at right angles to the slips. The resulting dockside adventures can embarrass the captain and bruise the crew. David Crockett, a native Tangierman who ferries people and freight back and forth to Crisfield from the marina on the motor launchMy Tangier, is a master at threading the needle. He learned how to slide boats in and out of slips crosswise to a current while working in the oil industry in Southwest Pass, La. Here's how it's done, Crockett told me: "Line it up upstream, and when she starts to drift across the slip, give her full power . . . You gotta use your power when the current's running hard, and," he adds, tongue mostly in cheek, "hope the prop stays on when you back her down." Those of us who cruise about in old, low-powered vessels tend to rely more on stout rub rails and the judicious use of spring lines.
There are three other pleasure boats in the marina this afternoon. A Morgan Out Island 52 from North Carolina is catching her breath after being caught at the mouth of the Potomac during last night's violent thunderstorms. Nothing broke, but the Chamber of Commerce isn't going to get any testimonials from her crew about the joys of sailing the southern Chesapeake in midsummer. A big Defever trawler from Cudjoe Key, Fla., occupies the T-head, and a Cape Dory trawler from Portsmouth, N.H., is two slips away. The presence of these distant travelers suggests that Tangier's allure spreads far beyond the Bay region.
We have brought our supporting fleet of small craft: two kayaks piled on either side of the cabin top, and a trusty rubber raft, bagged and ready in the forepeak. On previous visits here, we've followed the tourist routine, but this time we intend to use the fleet to expand our activity envelope. Most visitors arrive here on one of the numerous tour ferries and only have a couple of hours to shop, stare and stuff their faces before the return trip. Strolling up and down Main and West ridges takes a leisurely hour. For those who would rather ride, several islanders offer guided golf cart tours, or you can rent a bicycle. No matter which path you follow, they all lead to the various eateries clustered near the ferry dock.
To get a better feel for life here, and to truly appreciate the island's beauty, you have to be prepared to go out on your own. For this trip, we have planned a kayak expedition to the southern tip of the island, a long, uninhabited hook of marsh and wetland, tantalizingly wreathed in sand.
Legend has it that Tangier, along with Smith and Watts islands, was discovered by our old friend Captain John Smith in 1608. Somewhat shakier legend holds that the island was first settled in 1686 by one John Crockett and his eight sons—though at least one modern Tangier historian says the island wasn't settled till 1778, by a Smith Islander namedJosephCrockett. By 1800, census records report that 79 permanent residents lived on the island. The population gradually grew over the years, but lately it's been in slow decline. About 800 people live here full-time now—though the population expands dramatically during the summer when up to 500 tourists visit the island every day. This is not just a recent phenomenon. During religious camp meetings held in the summertime during the 1800s, as many as 10,000 people flocked to the island. Methodism was, and is, the prominent religious persuasion, although many islanders subscribe to the teachings of the New Testament church, a Methodist offshoot formed on the island in 1946.
Crabbing is the island's principle economic engine. Clams, fish and oysters contribute to the local coffers, but the "beautiful swimmer" is still the king, in either the hard- or soft-shell model. That explains not only the workboats, but the dozens of shanties perched on spindly stakes driven into the muddy bottom on either side of the harbor. Imagine you are in Venice, poling your gondola down a narrow canal between the three- and four-story 14th-century buildings. Now take away the buildings and replace them with wooden sheds on stilts. The front of each shed faces the water, like store fronts on Main Street in Anywhere, U.S.A. At least one small dock is attached to each shanty. It's not unusual for a waterman to have more than one boat—a scrape for soft crabs in the summer and a larger boat for crabbing and oystering later in the year, plus a skiff for the commute back and forth to town.
In the old days, the shallow waters behind the shanties were covered with shedding pens called floats. Watermen kept the crabs in the pens under close watch until they shed their shells and became the prized, delectable soft-shells. These days, most of the floats have been replaced by long elevated catwalks that extend from the rear of the sheds. The pens (still called floats) are built on top of the catwalks. Power lines hang like drooping necklaces from shed to shed, supplying electricity to operate the pumps that provide a continuous supply of water to the floats, and to illuminate the strings of lights that run the length of the walks—facilitating careful observation of the inhabitants during the nighttime hours. Each shanty has additional platforms alongside of varying sizes where the waterman stores his crab pots, oyster dredges, crab scrapes, coils of line, net reels, and all of the other accessories required by a commercial fishing enterprise. The sound of water discharging from floats, like hundreds of faucets left fully open, is the harbor's background music. Buying perfect soft-shells is just a matter of waiting patiently until someone comes along to check the status of crabs in the floats. (Be ready to specify the size you want—hotels, regulars, slabs or whales.)
Hurricane Isabel destroyed or damaged many of the sheds and the supporting infrastructure. Others have simply been abandoned over time as their owners have retired or just gotten too tired. Most of the storm damage has been repaired; many shanties are sporting brand new vinyl siding, decorative shutters on the windows and freshly shingled roofs. This community on stilts, the economic heart of Tangier, covers an area almost as large as the village.
One of our favorite things to do while visiting Tangier is simply to kick back and watch the waterborne commerce. You can choose several vantage points—the public wharf and ferry dock are good, and a skiff or inflatable lets you blend into the scene as you drift up and down the harbor or into one of the alleys between the shanties. Parks' Marina is a prime observation location. During the crabbing season, the runboat from Cris-field ties up at the marina every day. (Quiz answer: A runboat carries the catch from the waterman to the processor, and the processor pays the waterman weekly. A buyboat buys the waterman's catch on the spot). The crabbers start pulling alongside late in the morning. Bushel baskets jammed full of crabs are handed over the rail and stacked on the runboat's deck. When they aren't busy piling up the baskets, the crew is happy to talk about the weather, the price of crabs or anything else that comes to mind. They will also gladly sell you a dozen jimmies right out of the water and ready for the pot. Throughout the day, the watermen hail each other, then carry on indecipherable conversations in the singsong cadence of the island. They are uniformly friendly and approachable.
If you do choose to drift around the harbor, keep an eye out. Besides the constant coming and going of the watermen, there's a steady stream of ferry boats and supply launches, along with the occasional Coast Guard patrol or other government vessel. This is a busy, working place, so be mindful not to get in anyone's way.
The East Canal and Big Gut Canal run north and south roughly parallel to each other, with the Main Ridge between them. East Canal, the wider of the two, opens up just east of the harbor. Shortly after sunrise, Cathy and I lower the kayaks over the side and then perform the delicate kayak-mount-from-stern-ladder maneuver, this time without any misadventure or inadvertent swimming. A timely flood tide propels us on a scenic drift along the main channel. After passing through the harbor, we slip into one of the alleys between rows of crab shanties, gliding over the grass-covered bottom, which is clearly visible a few feet beneath us. We enter East Canal and the marsh grass provides a nice lee from the westerly breeze. The water is flat calm. The canal varies from 30 to 60 feet wide, and narrow mud flats line each bank, where the roots of the marsh grasses are exposed. As the tide continues to rise, these small flats disappear.
Wading birds are the stars of this show. Herons and egrets of all ages dance an intricate stick-figure ballet in search of breakfast minnows and other morsels. The kayaks are perfect for birdwatching, letting us drift quietly along the middle of the canal and slipping by very close to the local flora and fauna. We whisper past old hulks beached halfway up into the marsh. Most of them are made of wood, but every so often we come upon a stripped-down fiberglass or aluminum runabout. The marsh is the waterman's wrecker's yard.
Passing under the wooden trestle bridge that connects Canton to Main Ridge, we leave civilization behind. The bird life becomes more diverse; we see an American oystercatcher, a glossy ibis, a blue heron, a green heron, an egret and a black skimmer, as well as miscellaneous ducks, Canada geese and sandpipers. Next time, we'll bring our bird book, since there are many others we don't immediately recognize. We ex-pected to encounter swarms of mosquitoes but are pleasantly surprised by the almost complete absence of insects. We spot only one greenhead horsefly on the entire trip.
The southern end of the island resembles a huge fishhook bending around to the east and sharply back up to the north. A large marsh sits inside this hook, with beaches on its eastern and western sides. The water along its long shank, facing Tangier Sound and Watts Island to the distant east, is called Cod Harbor. Whale Point marks the southern end of East Canal as it opens onto Cod Harbor, and the bottom shoals dramatically here as we cross a bar guarding the canal's end behind the point. The water is no more than six or seven inches deep. Crabs and minnows skitter away from our shadows as we paddle into Cod Harbor. I can feel the kayak rubbing over grassy bottom. We land the kayaks on the sand beach that stretches all the way around the southern tip of the island, with the marsh like a long lozenge in its center. Beyond the marsh, the Bay waves roll in from the west. Sand dunes covered with sea grapes and other greenery provide a buffer between the beaches and the marsh.
We walk along the beach to the south. It is amazingly clean. I stop looking down for bits of broken glass, kick off my reef shoes, and let my tootsies luxuriate in the cool, coarse sand. The only footprints we see have been made by birds. Some concerned oystercatchers hover noisily around us for a few minutes; we must have unwittingly come near a nest. They calm down as soon as we move a respectful distance down the beach.
This part of the island resembles a miniature Cape Cod, with dunes curling around to the north and then west, almost completely enclosing the picturesque lagoon and marsh. We come to the cut where water is sluicing out of the marsh and find a spot to wade across. The water is knee-deep, clear and cool. The bottom is mostly sand, with only a few steps through rather firm mud required to complete the crossing.
As the marsh tapers down to its end, a sand spit about 40 feet wide separates the Bay from the lagoon. We make another mental note; next time, along with the bird book, we need to bring some towels, a blanket and the picnic basket. Horseshoe crabs cruise along the lagoon's edge, looking for a place to lay their eggs. We sit on the sand for a few minutes. The sounds of the surf, the wind rustling the dune grasses, and the cries of the birds almost convince us that we have been beamed across the Eastern Shore to the Atlantic coast. Reluctantly we slowly stroll back to the kayaks.
We return to the marina via Big Gut Canal, which stretches from Cod Harbor up through the western side of the island. This canal is very narrow in spots but it holds plenty of water. There are a few forks in the road and no signposts, but we quickly find out that you can't go too far in the wrong direction. Our navigational mistakes quickly squeeze down to trickles in the marsh a short distance from the main canal, so it's just a matter of backing out and turning around. West Ridge is now on our port side, and we approach the first of the four trestles that cross the canal to Main Ridge. Two of them aren't elevated, and we just squeak through by stretching out as far as we can on the backs of our kayaks, pulling ourselves hand over hand underneath the roadbed using the bridge supports as handholds. Once we clear the marsh, we are essentially paddling through backyards. Folks on golf carts stop to wave as we cruise by. The canal empties into the harbor channel just west of the marina, so a quick right turn and a two-minute drift brings us back to the boat, just in time for lunch.
We find, though, that we aren't quite done with the southern beaches. They're also easily accessible on foot, which we learn a little later. About a half-mile walk from Parks' Marina, at the end of Hog Ridge Road, the pavement ends. Just a few yards farther on, a rickety wooden footbridge crosses over a tidal stream. On the other side of the bridge, the pathway bends around to the right between the dunes and opens up onto the beautiful wide beach that stretches away to the southeast.
This is a perfect spot for beachcombing. We find driftwood scattered haphazardly from the water's edge to the dunes. We walk along looking for shells and beach glass. An abandoned fiberglass dinghy sits forlornly on top of a grassy dune, waiting to be salvaged. We could easily stroll the rest of the afternoon away, but the sun is beginning its descent, and the breeze is dropping. We pick up our pace going back to the marina, fire up John Henry (Jessie Welch's engine, that is), and chug out of the creek. After settling on our course to Smith Point, we watch as the island slowly drops astern in the fading light, disappearing into the Bay and waiting, until our next visit.
Bill Mitman and his wife Cathy have been introducing their ketch Jessie Welch to the cruising grounds south of Point Lookout and enjoying their status as part-time "come-heres" on Virginia's Northern Neck.
Cruiser's Digest: Tangier Island, Va.
The approaches to Tangier are straightforward. Arriving from west and northwest, be sure to avoid the shoal areas that extend northwesterly from Tangier's north-ern tip all the way up to Smith Island. The entrance to the harbor's western approach is marked by the 15-foot, flashing green "1"; from there, it's a little over one-half nautical mile to the harbor.
Vessels coming from the south need to avoid the prohibited area and a much larger restricted area surrounding it located south-west just offshore of the island. Vessels coming from the south can easily avoid these areas by sailing northeast, leaving Tangier Sound Light to port and then heading north into Tangier Sound, along the island's east side to the eastern channel entrance mark (which curiously enough is also a 15-foot, flashing 2.5-second green "1"). After rounding the mark, you'll travel about a mile in the narrow dredged channel that runs from the entrance buoy to the turning basin at the harbor's eastern end, passing Port Isobel (the sprawling educational compound maintained by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation), then more crab and fish houses, until reaching the ferry terminal and the fuel dock. (Occasionally, one or two boats will anchor just outside the chan-nel in front of the ferry dock, but they are in tight quarters, surrounded by lots of traffic.) At this point, the main harbor channel bends to the west.
Parks' Marina (757-891-2567) is portside, past the town dock. Mr. Parks charges $5 to tie up for a few hours. The over-night rate is $20 for boats under 30 feet and $25 for boats over 30 feet. Thirty- and 50-amp electric service is available at the slip. Due to the rising cost of electricity, he may have to start charging for the electric service this summer. Showers, rest-rooms and the marina office are located on the pier. Water in the slips is at least 6 feet deep at the channel ends. Full-keel boats likeJessie Welchfit better bow first. The marina has no pump-out or fuel, but it can service engines.
Overnight accommodations can be had at the Sunset Inn (757-891-2535), Shirley's Bay View Inn (757-891-2396), or the venerable Chesapeake House (757-891-2331;email@example.com). Sunset Inn and the Bay View Inn are open year-round. Chesapeake House is open from April 15 through October 15.
Visitors can choose from several restaurants. The Chesapeake House (757-891-2497) is the oldest, and is known far and wide as the place for family-style seafood dinners and hearty breakfasts. Ms. Hilda Crockett was the original proprietress of this institution. Her daughters have now assumed the daily operations. Other choices include Fisherman's Corner (757-891-2900), the Channel Marker (757-891-2220), and the Waterfront Restaurant (757-891-2248). All are seasonal operations and within walking distance of the marina.
Bike rental concessions start up and then disappear on a regular basis. As of last fall, you could ask Mrs. Dise, who lives across from the New Testament Church, or ask in Wanda's gift shop (757-891-2255) or the Waterfront Restaurant (see above). Most other activities require that you bring your own equipment and initiative. There are no kayak, canoe or other boat rental operations, although some local folks think that sounds like a good idea, and someone may try to start a little business along those lines. Guided ecotours, fishing trips and sunset cruises can be arranged on theElizabeth Thomas, a Chesapeake Bay deadrise workboat (757-891-2240). Exploring the southern beaches is great fun, but again, be prepared to strike out on your own. Plenty of water and bug repellent are de rigeur, and—it goes without saying—leave nothing but tracks.
Several excellent websites are available for more information. Among them arewww.northenneck.com/tangier,
www.flyvirginia.com/airport/tgi(this site opens with a spectacular aerial view of the island, which dramatically highlights the three ridges and the waterfront). Gail M. Walczyk has written several informative articles on Tangier's history. Read them at