Issue: From the Chesapeake Bay Magazine Archives
Destination: Virginia's Northern Neck

A beautiful plan gets blown off the charts, but a 
last-minute detour and a good car heater combine 
to produce a workable Plan B. [March 2007]

By Jeremy McGeary
Photographs by Starke Jett

As newcomers to Virginia's Northern Neck, my wife, Melissa, and I are acquainting ourselves with the region's multifaceted history. I've already convinced myself that our circa 1950s house was built—under a massive oak, with a nearby spring—on a former Indian trail. During the Civil War, the Union Army used Old Farnham Church, just down the road, as a stable. But although we live surrounded by farmland and forest, we're coast dwellers at heart, so we were naturally compelled to explore the past by approaching it from the Chesapeake Bay.

In our immediate area, and reachable by water, are a handful of small museums, each of which focuses on an aspect of life on the Bay. In Reedville, the Fishermen's Museum traces the town's history through its creation by and dependence on the menhaden fishery. The Deltaville Maritime Museum showcases the preeminence of the peninsula between the Rappahannock and Piankatank rivers as a center for the construction of fishing, trading and, more recently, recreational craft. On Smith Island, a modern cultural center puts a close-up lens on a unique community wherein past and present mingle freely but the future is shrouded in doubt.

All of these windows into the workings of our new surroundings are within a circle that an average cruising boat, whether power or sail, can readily explore in a few days. Since my favorite way of wasting time when I'm suppposed to be doing something productive is to pore over maps and charts, I had long been mulling over a couple of itineraries by which we could do this. The most logical began in Deltaville. Depending on the weather of the starting day, the first leg would be a 20-mile sail to Reedville. The second day we'd make another 20-mile hitch to Smith Island, and the third a rather longer run just over 30 miles back to Deltaville. We could also do the route in reverse order if the weather so decreed. It was a beautiful plan.

Only one detail stood in our way: We don't own a boat, at least not one that could service such a cruise. My entire adult—make that postadolescent—life has been devoted to boats and sailing, but I've never owned a boat bigger than a dinghy. From the vintage gaff-rigged beauties of the Ocean Youth Club in my native England to the charter yachts I crewed and skippered in my twenties to my occasional present-day outings, every single vessel I've sailed has been of the class OPB (other people's boats).

Since leaving behind the world in which I lived and worked on boats 24/7, I've let myself be smothered in the kudzu of shore-bound life. I have yet to figure out how to fit all my other commitments around owning a boat and the attendant responsibility of cherishing it. Melissa and I will own a boat one day, a resolution to which she is the key party. To that end, we are slowly sawing at the vines.

Meanwhile, there are ways for people like Melissa and me to get on the water: We charteredOsprey, a Beneteau 352, from East Coast Yacht Management in Deltaville. Because of the better chance for breeze and crisp, clear air, we chose the period after Labor Day for our cruise. We also hoped to include a family celebration on board: Melissa's parents, who live in Reedville, would be married 54 years in September. In the end, what with deadlines, work commitments and boat availability, it was a week in late October that chose us.

In one particular aspect, our life on the Northern Neck resembles closely the one we'd left in Rhode Island: Any journey of consequence involves a bridge. On our way to Deltaville, we crossed the Robert Opie Norris Jr. Bridge, which carries Route 3 over the Rappahannock River. Above us, the sky was that clear, blue crystal so typical of late fall. Below us, whitecaps flecked the water.

"Looks like a nice, brisk sailing breeze down there," I said. And brisk it turned out to be, not just in velocity but in temperature. Not many boats seemed to be taking advantage of it. In fact, the sole traffic on the Rappahannock was the watermen.

I'd been watching the weather prognosis for days, following the progress of a powerful low across the northern states and the gradual spread of high pressure into the Mississippi Valley, pushing westerly winds ahead of it. With four sailing days in store and a printed Sailflow forecast in hand, everything looked good on paper for accomplishing our three-leg itinerary in sunshine and fair winds of moderate strength, leaving a spare day just in case. Everything, that is, except the forecast strength of the wind, which kept rising, and the temperature, which did the opposite.

By the time we'd completed our pre-charter briefing aboardOspreyand topped off with provisions, the wind had steadied at the top of the forecast range and every rig in the marina was humming. Melissa's parents, Joe and Catherine, have had lifelong associations with the water, but they aren't well versed in the practicalities of a modern cruising sailboat. I had no desire to initiate them in these weather conditions and in unfamiliar waters, although Joe, a take-charge former construction-management executive, was itching for action.

"Do you want to take her out for a shakedown?" he asked.

"Not really," I said. "I'd feel better doing it if I knew the area better." What I didn't say was that while I was confident we'd getOspreyout of her slip, getting her back in such a crosswind might have been quite ugly.

After a last look at the whitecaps on the river and the anemometer on the boat, we punted on our planned destination for day one—Reedville— jumped in the car, and with the heat turned up, drove the two miles to the Deltaville Maritime Museum, which we'd intended to save for last.

As luck would have it, the museum had just begun its winter season, during which it's open only on weekends. But, between the outdoor exhibits and the boat shop, where members keep their own hours working on sundry projects, we still found plenty to see. An open shed next to the main building houses several examples of locally built craft, in various stages of aging, and the shiny newExplorer, the Deltaville museum's rendition of the vessel—a shallop—in which Captain John Smith voyaged the length of the Chesapeake Bay in 1608. At the dock lies the handsome nine-log fishing boat F.D. Crockett, in the delicate condition of being reinforced to the point it can be hauled out for complete restoration. I could have spent the rest of the afternoon there. Joe, very much the project man himself, was intrigued watching a pair of boatbuilders as they laid off compound bevels on a frame they were cutting for the F.D. Crockett. It was already late, and cold, so the womenfolk chivied us back to the relative warmth of Ospreyfor one of Catherine's inimitable cocktails and her chili.

Lying in the V-berth that night, I tried to convince myself that the wind was creating progressively less noise in our rigging and that of the boats around us. By first light, the wind had indeed dropped, prompting us to plan on as early a departure as we could manage for an attempt on Reedville. Perhaps, if the wind remained manageable, we could go straight to Smith Island instead. That would leave us two days, allowing us to stop in Reedville on the return trip.

Joe and Catherine are retired, and while that doesn't mean they are idle—far from it—they do have their routines. One of them is breakfast, and while watching them adapt to the novelty ofOsprey's compact galley was entertaining, I could feel myself getting ever more "skipperish" as the clock ticked relentlessly on. Melissa kept me in check with looks.

It was long after half past early when we eventually made it out of Broad Creek and into the Rappahannock. The whitecaps were back in droves. We rounded Windmill Point where, instead of the partial lee I had hoped for, we met waves barreling directly down the Bay to join in a boisterous melee with those following us out of the Rappahannock. The wind's eye apparently was set in the Great Wicomico River, as if specifically to protect Reedville from sail-powered incursions.

Reefed down to two scraps of sail,  Osprey struggled to make ground to windward. She seemed bent on a course for the Eastern Shore as she shouldered great lumps of Chesapeake water onto her beamy decks and down Catherine's neck. At this rate, my estimated two hours to the Great Wicomico was looking more like four.

While I saw no sign of surrender in Joe or Catherine, Melissa, who'd recruited them to join us on this endeavor, now had the queasy look of a junior officer leading troops into a losing battle. Her glances in my direction began to smack of mutiny.

Just then, a particularly penetrating gust blew my typed itinerary, listing courses and distances, out of its nook on the binnacle. I took this as an admonishment, a reminder that boats and timetables aren't a good mix. We tacked and retreated to Deltaville, but this time not back to Broad Creek. Instead, I guided Osprey around Stingray Point and into the quieter, albeit still windy, Piankatank River and Jackson Creek, where we had planned to come on day three because it is an easy walk from there to the Deltaville museum. Okay, we had already visited the museum by car the day before, but this spot, at least, was on our itinerary. I was frankly happy, too, for an excuse to about-face and pry my white knuckles off the wheel.

We tied up to the fuel dock at Deltaville Marina to develop a recovery strategy. While I'd been concerned with getting the boat into a secure haven, Melissa was thinking of her parents. Thus far, they'd shown great spirit, but this wasn't proving to be the quiet little introduction to Chesapeake cruising we'd hoped to give them.Ospreyhad no heat, nor was there any warmth in the weather forecast. Melissa, promising that we'd make it up to them, bundled Joe and Catherine ashore, whence Judith Southerland, a veritable angel who's taken earthly employment as Deltaville Marina's dockmaster, ferried them in the boatyard vehicle across the peninsula to their car. They would be in Reedville before us.

This left the two of us pondering the possibilities both immediate and eventual. Our trip to Smith Island, where we had optimistically—as it turned out—made a reservation at Smith Island Marina, had by now disappeared beyond our event horizon, but Reedville still registered within the realm of possibility. First we had to decide what to do with the rest of the day. We could go out and anchor, but we'd forgone the dinghy option and didn't feel like stranding ourselves. Judith said we could stay put until a boat came for fuel. So we did, and skulked away the sharp, sunny, chilly afternoon among snowbirds doing likewise. A couple of sailboats came into the creek, their crews bundled in foulies and fleece, but they anchored out.

Melissa called Smith Island Marina to let them know we weren't coming. "Maybe that's just as well," said Pauli Eames, who owns and operates it with her husband, Steve. The day before, a boat had come in "sideways, out of control, and hit three docks." Nobody was hurt, she said, but the image was sobering, and a reminder that Smith Island is utterly exposed in northwesterly winds.

Overnight, the wind again died, until by morning it was calm, the occasional puff sweeping down the creek to ruffle its placid surface. We awoke to the sound of engines starting and anchor chains rattling as the snowbirds, at last free of the wind's shackles, or so they thought, joined once more the southward migration.

AboardOspreyit was decision time. The forecast again called for northwesterly winds, but not as strong as the preceding day's. (Oh, where had we heard that before?) For the next day, our last, the wind was supposed to go south, with a chance of rain. So, while getting to Reedville was certainly an option, getting back wasn't looking too hopeful. Reluctantly, we crossed Reedville off our list as well.

Our time onOspreywas running out, and, determined to get in some sailing in better than survival conditions, I proposed a closer destination. A short distance up the Rappahannock, as the fish crow flies, is Irvington. It wasn't part of our plan, but it doesboast a museum—a brand new shiny one, in fact, barely a year old—and, it turned out, a real surprise.

Ospreywas no crow that day. Still deeply reefed, she pursued a jagged course, beating into an obstinately stiff wind that blew directly down the Rappahannock. I had long wondered what sailing this river would be like. From my normal vantage point, driving over the Robert Norris Bridge, it appeared that under most circumstances it could offer ideal conditions of sheltered water, where even strong winds don't have enough fetch to build up an unpleasant chop. And so it turned out. We could have used a few more degrees of warmth, and fewer knots of wind (to get more efficient shapes out of the sails), but otherwise the Rappahannock lived up to my expectations. We needed a bit of sailing to get us back in practice, but we stuck to it and tacked our way from Stingray Point, under the Norris Bridge, and into the sheltered embrace of Carter Creek.

"Welcome to the Tides Inn, sir," said the dockmaster, handing us each a key card. "Your room number is 755." And with that room number came all the privileges of a hotel guest. To me, a dyed-in-the-canvas blow-boater, the whole arrangement smacked of decadence and indulgence—a view apparently shared by snowbirds, who were conspicuously absent. Melissa accepted it as a perfectly logical way for cruising sailors to see the Bay, and a just reward for braving challenging conditions. Before we could avail ourselves of the hotel lounge, though, and thaw out before its huge log fire, we had to pay a call in town.

Although the Chesapeake's weblike tributaries reach deep into its heart, the Northern Neck guards its waters like a secret. We'd driven through Irvington a score of times and never caught a glimpse of the creek that once made the town a vital stage on the Chesapeake trail. Only when we approached from the water, and walked the short half mile to the Steamboat Era Museum, did we see how close is the connection, both figuratively and physically, between Irvington and the Chesapeake Bay. Prominent on the grounds sits the deckhouse of thePotomac, a vessel that called regularly in Irvington. According to museum staff, it's "the largest single remaining relic of the Chesapeake Bay steamboat era." A decision is sought soon on how best to stabilize it and prevent it from becoming the largest collection of relics. Inside, we were fortunate to catch the 2006 special exhibition on the impact the Civil War had on the lives of the populace on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay and its contribution, through the Potomac Squadron, to the accelerated development of steamboat technology. We walked out of the museum into Irvington's nebulous town center with a wholly new perspective on the role the Northern Neck played in the region's evolution. On the way back to Osprey, I wondered if our big oak at home sheltered Confederate musket balls within its vast root system.

On our last morning, we peered over our coffees at a glassy Carter Creek reflecting a thickening sky. As forecast, a new wind began to fill from the southeast. After a lazy breakfast, we set out to returnOspreyto her home at Stingray Point Marina. Because the fitful wind was on our nose again, and our clock was running out, we motored. Piloting downstream took little effort compared with that of monitoring our zigzag course on the way up. We flicked on the autopilot and reflected on our little cruise.

Given the lateness of the season and the shortness of our cruising window, our original plan had been rather ambitious, though entirely feasible in more benign weather. A more hardened crew on a more weatherly boat could well have taken it in their stride, but still might have wanted a Plan B. We did explore territory that was new to us, and our hastily concocted backup brought us pleasant surprises. Most important, we learned a little more about ourselves and our surroundings.

As for the two destinations we were unable to reach—Reedville and Smith Island—the first was already familiar to us. Joe and Catherine had first brought Melissa and me to the Reedville Fishmen's Museum years before we moved to the Northern Neck. The museum has become a beacon, not just to locals proud of their heritage, but also to a small army of affluent elders who have moved there in their retirement from the bustle of distant cities and suburbia. It has joined the churches and garden clubs in widening their social circle, and it flourishes with the energy, time and resources they bring to it. I can't wait for my retirement so I can spend my days sailing on the museum's skipjack and building boats in the boat shop and trains in the model shop.

We can easily visit Reedville or Deltaville any time we care to simply by getting in the car, but Smith Island is inaccessible save by boat, and from the Northern Neck only in summer and fall on the schedule of Captain Gordon Evans, who runs a tour boat from Sunnybank, on the Little Wicomico River. Not getting to Smith Island in Osprey was a big disappointment. But, I confess, because Smith Island looked scary on the chart, while planning this cruise I took the ferry from Reedville to make a reconnaissance run. That convinced me of two things. First, it was a smart thing to do, and the other was that neither Smith Island nor its people can be fully appreciated in the two hours the ferries leave passengers ashore. Seeing the community through the lens of the Visitor Center only heightens the desire to get a sense of the place and its people outside of its "opening hours," an experience the tour boats don't readily accommodate. So, the story doesn't end here. We will sail there before we, too, become museum pieces.

Jeremy McGeary "grew up" in England and left when he discovered he could make a living sailing, then building boats, then designing them. He now spends much of his time writing about boats and sailing when he'd much rather be on the water. He was an associate editor at Cruising World for eight years before moving to the Northern Neck. 

Deltaville Maritime Museum
Built on land donated to Middlesex County in 1990 by Pette Clark, and opened in 2001, this fresh, young museum is dedicated to the boatbuilding history of Deltaville and neighboring settlements. Displays follow the industry's fortunes from the days when virtually all transportation in the region was by water, and explain both the deadrise-type construction and the multi-log method, which was developed from the techniques the Indians used to make their dugouts. A fine example of a nine-log-bottom fishing boat, the 60-foot F.D. Crockett sits at the museum's dock in the early stages of restoration (part of it anyway, the deckhouse is currently being worked on ashore). Also on display are several deadrise boats.

In 2006, the museum funded the construction on the premises of Explorer, an interpretation, based on research carried out by a museum committee, of the boat Captain John Smith used in his explorations on the Chesapeake Bay.

Every year in August it holds Family Boatbuilding Week, where groups can assemble a John Wright skiff from components produced in the museum's boat shop. A lively contingent of members and volunteers ensures that some activity is always going on.

The museum is in Holly Point Nature Park, which has its own schedule of events. Its walking trails are open daily throughout the season. The museum and park are open daily throughout the summer, but if you visit in the off-season, inquire about opening hours.

Getting there by water
The closest approach by boat to the Deltaville Maritime Museum is Jackson Creek off the Piankatank River. The entrance channel is crooked and narrow but well marked. Once inside, you'll find room to anchor in depths up to 9 feet. Berths are available at Deltaville Marina, and for a fee, crews of anchored boats can also use the marina's facilities (which include spotless bathrooms and a lounge). The museum is a half-mile walk (or ride on the marina bicycles). Dinghies are welcome at the museum's dock on Mill Creek.

Also on the Piankatank side, but a little farther by both water (Stove Point Neck intervenes) and land are Fishing Bay Harbor 
Marina and Ruark Marina.

Several marinas around Broad Creek, off the Rappahanock, offer transient berths. Even from the Timberneck Road side (Norton's, Walden's), it's only a little over a mile to the museum. Stingray Point Marina, on Route 33, is the farthest.

When entering Broad Creek from the Rappahannock, watch carefully ahead and astern to ensure wind or tide doesn't sweep you out of the narrow channel. The charted depth (April 2003) is 5 feet, but boats of rather deeper draft make it in. Some marinas claim 8 feet at fuel docks and slips.

Deltaville is very centered on boats. Every type of marine service is available. Several gift shops, restaurants, and markets, are strung out along Route 33, which runs through the town and ends at Stingray Point. Marina staff will be happy to give directions.

Chesapeake Cove Marina--Broad Creek, 804-776-6855
Deltaville Marina--Jackson Creek, 804-776-9812
Deltaville Yachting Center--Broad Creek, 804-776-9898
Dozier's Regatta Point--Broad Creek, 804-776-6711
Fishing Bay Harbor Marina--Fishing Bay, 804-776-6800
Norton's Yacht Sales, Inc.--Broad Creek, 804-776-9211
Norview Marina--Broad Creek, 804-776-6463
Ruark Marina--Fishing Bay, 804-776-9776
Stingray Point Marina--Broad Creek, 804-776-7272
Walden's Marina--Broad Creek, 804-776-9440

Deltaville Maritime Museum
287 Jackson Creek Road, Deltaville, VA 23043; 804-776-7200.



Established in 1988, the museum's permanent exhibit presents the history of Reedville as it paralleled the menhaden fishery established by Captain Elijah Reed in 1874.

The boat shop is dedicated to maintaining the knowledge and skills involved in wooden boatbuilding. In 2006, volunteers built Spirit of 2007, the RFM's interpretation of Captain John Smith's exploration barge. This year it will be on display when it's not on the road (the boat was for this purpose built right on a trailer) visiting the Jamestown Quadricentennial celebrations in the region. Given the dearth of information provided on this boat in all the Jamestown writings, it's hardly surprising Spirit of 2007 differs in many details from Deltaville's Explorer and from the "official" replica of the Smith boat, built in Chestertown, Md.

At the docks lie a buyboat, the Elva C., and a skipjack, the Claud W. Somers. Both vessels are in working condition. Adjacent to the museum is the HO Northern Neck Railroad, which models the railroad that was proposed in the 1920s, but never built, to connect Reedville with Fredericksburg. It's open for viewing when the modelers are at work and in conjunction with special events.

Getting there by water
The approach to Reedville via the Great Wicomico River is straightforward and deep. Reedville Marina, which has deep-water slips, transient dockage and a ship's store, is adjacent to the Crazy Crab restaurant, and is the closest marina to town. A short walk up Main Street past mansions built by sea captains in the port's heyday (when Reedville is reported to have had the highest per capita income in the United States) brings you to the Fishermen's Museum. Alternatively, anchor in up to 12 feet of water in the creek east of town, off the water tank, and dinghy to the museum's docks on the western side of the peninsula.

Three other marinas on Cockrell Creek are within a mile of the museum by water, but 5 by land. Jennings Boatyard has a few transient berths and comprehensive services; Fairport Marina has deep water, transient slips, fuel and a restaurant; Buzzards Point Marina has transient slips and fuel but less water. All three are a short dinghy ride from the Fishermen's Museum and Reedville's main street.

For dinner, choose between Tommy's (next door to the Reedville Marine Railway where four generations of the Butler family have built boats for 100 years) and the Crazy Crab, but save dessert for the ice cream parlor, Chitterchats, at the foot of the street. Cockrell's Creek Seafood Deli, across the creek from Tommy's, offers fresh fish, crabs and cooked lunches. Take the dinghy, or even the big boat, as it's a long way by road.

Buzzards Point Marina--804-453-3545
Fairport Marina--804-453-5002
Jennings Boatyard--804-453-7181
Reedville Marina--804-453-6789

Reedville Fishermen's Museum
504 Main Street, Reedville, VA 22539; 804-453-6529.


For a community as small as Smith Island (population about 450 in 2006), this is an excellent micro-museum. Perhaps its most important function is to preserve an understanding of island life, not just as it was, but as it is today.

The Visitor Center in Ewell, the largest settlement, is open from April through October from noon to 4 p.m. daily (the hours that the tour-boat passengers are on shore). A must-see is the video that depicts life on Smith Island through words and images of its inhabitants. The static exhibits trace the island's history from the mid-17th century when it was settled by a group from the Jamestown Colony looking for farmland. Over the centuries the harvest has become one of the sea, and the culture is focused around crabs, oysters, family and the church. Several beautifully made models of island-built boats illustrate the specialization occasioned by their use in sheltered but very shallow waters.

Getting there by water
Ewell is accessible via Big Thorofare, the dredged channel that meanders from the Bay side to the Tangier Sound side of the island and through which all craft deeper than a crab boat must pass. At the Bay side, an anchorage might exist for the daring east of marker "9" where the channel turns south toward Ewell. Berths are available at Smith Island Marina, just before the Verizon tower.

From the current (to December 2004) edition of NOAA Chart 12228, you wouldn't know that Big Thorofare was dredged in 2004.

According to Captain Steve Eames of Smith Island Marina, in most normal tide conditions you can bring 6 feet of draft in from the Bay, though Captain Norman Evans of the Spirit of Chesapeake, the tour boat from Reedville, says to be very cautious any time the wind has been from the north for an extended period.

More berths are available at the Tylerton County Dock, connected to Ewell only by Tyler Ditch, which is shallow.

Entertainment consists of eating in one or another of the local eateries (no directions needed) and listening to the accent peculiar to this island, and walking (or riding a rented bicycle or golfcart) the 2 miles to Rhodes Point. If you're lucky, you'll get to see (and most certainly hear) a demonstration by local Tim Marshall of the punt gun he built, a replica of pieces used in the past to harvest entire flocks of ducks with a single load.

Some supplies are available in the small grocery store, but Smith Island is dry: BYOB.

Smith Island Marina--410-425-4220
Tylerton County Dock--no facilities

Smith Island Visitor Center; 410-425-3351

The Steamboat Era Muse
From the founding of Jamestown until the early 20th century, commerce and communication between settlements in the Chesapeake Bay region were primarily affected by water. The development of the steamboat enabled commerce to operate to a schedule, and the result was rapid expansion of trade between the population centers in Baltimore and Norfolk and the fishing and agricultural communities up and down the Bay. The Steamboat Era Museum, which opened in 2004, traces this history.

Getting there by water
The entrance to Carter Creek off the Rappahannock is well marked and the channel deep. Dead ahead as you enter are Rappahannock Yachts, a full-service boatyard with a couple of transient berths, and Irvington Marina which, with its resident boats under "renovation" and flea-market atmosphere, adds a certain bohemian panache to tony Irvington. A little farther up the creek, the unmistakable Miss Ann advertises The Tides Inn.

The Tides Inn offers everything: restaurants, a pool, golf, room service at your slip. When you tire of the pampered life, a walk of less than a half mile along King Carter Drive brings you to the Steamboat Era Museum (from the other marinas add another half mile). A few more paces on is a cluster of modern shops, among them the Trick Dog Cafe, a speck of metro chic on the otherwise rural-conservative Northern Neck. What remains of the actual steamboat wharf is on Steamboat Road, just south of King Carter Drive.

Irvington Marina--804-438-5113
Rappahannock Yachts--804-438-5353
The Tides Inn--804-438-5000

Steamboat Era Museum
156 King Carter Drive, Irvington, VA 22480; 804-438-6888.