Issue: July 2002
Looking for Deltaville

If you want a town center or a bevy of curio shops, you won’t find them here. But if it’s boats you like, and people, Deltaville, Va., is maritime central-and growing.

 

     From a boat, Deltaville is patently obvious. With 1,192 slips (and counting), three natural harbors and a smorgasbord of marinas, the little town that spreads across the northern tip of Virginia’s Middle Peninsula makes itself perfectly apparent to anyone approaching by water. If you arrive by car, on the other hand, you’ll wind up on the tippy end of Stingray Point wondering if you missed a turn somewhere. If you try to find the part of town with houses set close together and ribboned with sidewalks-the historic district, the place where Washington slept, or at least an old courthouse-you’ll be out of luck. Instead you’ll find a handful of commercial buildings, among them a grocery store, a West Marine and a BoatU.S., a couple of restaurants and a fire hall. You’ll notice houses here and there, sitting on ample lots. You’ll see a few roads snaking off left and right, leading to more houses sitting on more ample lots. And that’s about it.

     The water’s edge is the happenin’ place in these parts: Deltaville is a colossal holding pen for boats, boats and more boats. Which is precisely what Clint and I discovered when we brought our trawler Escort into Jackson Creek last spring and tied up to a friend’s dock.

     Deltaville straddles the neck that ends at Stingray Point and separates the Rappahannock and Piankatank rivers. About 40 miles from Hampton Roads and 50 miles from Solomons, it offers a comfortable layover for boats hiking north or south on the Intracoastal Waterway. They just slip into either river for the night, and are on their way again the next morning. Or not. Lots of people decide to stay put.

     It’s not too hard to see why. The Bay looks downright vast from here. At the light off Stingray Point, you can just barely make out the curve of the Eastern Shore stretched thin as eyeliner between the slate-gray water and the slate-blue sky. Looking west, you see the nub of the point itself, pine covered, with a few houses decorating the curve of riprap and beach.

     To get into Deltaville from the open Bay, you have to make a choice: north to Broad Creek, just inside the mouth of the Rappahannock, or south into the Piankatank-either Jackson Creek at the mouth or Fishing Bay farther upriver, above Stove Point. Both sides offer broad open water at the river mouths, and yes it can be rough when the wind pipes up, as Clint and I discovered the morning we rolled from Jackson Creek to Fishing Bay for a look-see. But if we still owned a sailboat, this would be nirvana: no bridges, no congestion. We could put ourselves on any tack and go for miles. The same could be said for the fishing hereabouts. Popular fishing spots like the “Hole in the Wall” to the south and Windmill Point to the north are within easy distance, and the variety of fish matches any on the Bay.

     On the Rappahannock side of Deltaville, Broad Creek is chock full of docks and slips. Ten marinas offer a mix of clubhouses, swimming pools and service and repair yards. This is where a waterfront restaurant, the Boat House, is slated to open soon-possibly even this month. There’s a lot of coming and going here as boats peel in and out, and the relatively tight quarters make anchoring a less than pleasant prospect. Gunkholers here invariably prefer Jackson Creek or the sheltered but “bigger” water of Fishing Bay, where three more marinas accommodate transients looking for a slip.

     This was our first visit to Deltaville, and it was long overdue. For the last seven years, Deltaville’s yards and services have cropped up in the top 10 of several categories in this magazine’s annual Best of the Bay survey [see page 54]. We came to see for ourselves what the place has to offer, and we found plenty-anything we could possibly need or want, from gear to fancy gewgaws. And, of course, a community of like-minded people-boaters, that is, of every stripe.

     We were visiting our friends the Walkers, whose dock sits right across from the Deltaville Marina, the only commercial establishment on Jackson Creek. We had a lovely little sloop from Sag Harbor, N.Y., anchored off our bow, and a view of the creek’s entrance off our stern. We spent a few days just puttering. Clint touched up the brightwork, while I sashayed into greater Deltaville to check out the amazing variety of boaty enterprises that grease the wheels of maritime commerce hereabouts.

     Even with no town center, I found plenty of activity at storefronts old and new along the main drag. Fortunately, I had a car. I wouldn’t have wanted to walk to any of them from any of Deltaville’s marinas-that is, I wouldn’t have wanted to carry much of anything back to my boat. Nothing is “close.” Which is why the marinas all have bikes or courtesy cars or a willingness to ferry people up the road now and then. (The Town and Country Market, the only grocery store, will come fetch you at your marina if you call ahead; so will the restaurants.) One of the things that becomes immediately obvious to anyone who pulls in off the Bay is that Deltaville folks will take care of you.

     Take Heidi and Allan Linder’s experience, for example. I met this intrepid pair of Swedes when I was nosing around the Deltaville Yacht Yard on Broad Creek. The Linders were taking advantage of the spring weather to ready their boat, Ahnri (Lapp for eagle), for launching. They had come into Deltaville last fall after sailing from Sweden to the Caribbean, then working their way north-where they would haul the boat for the winter, buy a Winnebago and tour the North American countryside until spring. Deltaville seemed as good a place as any to stop. They pulled into a slip on a Friday afternoon, just as the boat next to them was pulling out. “I helped the fellow with his docklines and he just flipped me his car keys,” Allan told me. “ ‘In case you need anything,’ he yells. ‘It’s the blue Volvo in the parking lot.’ I didn’t even know his name. He certainly didn’t know mine.” The Linders were pleasantly surprised to say the least. But that wasn’t the half of it. They hauled their boat as planned, found the Winnebago of their dreams and set off on their odyssey-only to realize that they had left their bicycles, with the key still in the bike lock, leaning against their boat. Oh well, they figured, they’d just have to buy new ones when they returned. But no. The key was still in the lock when they got back, rusted in tight; no one had even fiddled with it. “You can’t do that in Stockholm,” Heidi said.

     When I strolled up a pier at Norton’s marina (the dock end of Norton’s Yacht Sales), I met John and Joan Keramis, who were trying to get their boat Pax back to Connecticut after wintering down south. They had come to Deltaville because their VHF radio was on the fritz, and Ken Schmalenberger at Norton’s was the nearest authorized dealer. Schmalenberger couldn’t fix it, but he offered to run it up the road to Marine Electronics of Hartfield-who were also stymied. They were going to have to ship the bloody thing back to the factory for replacement against the warranty, which would take a week at best. The Keramises didn’t have time to wait for it and were afraid they’d have to buy a whole new set before continuing up the waterway. But Schmalenberger swapped them an upgraded radio for the broken one, and when I encountered them they were just waiting on the weather before getting under way again.

     Carolyn and Ken Schmalenberger are a prime example of what Deltaville is all about. Carolyn, who runs Norton’s Yacht Sales, took the business over from her father, Billy Norton, who had taken it over from his father Ed. Ed Norton had been a boatbuilder back in the days when Deltaville yards cranked out workboats for the burgeoning oyster fleet. The town was full of watermen then; farming hereabouts was a marginal business at best, and was dominated by the few families who owned enough land to make a go of it. Though working the water was just as backbreaking and unpredictable as farming, getting started required less capital and considerably less acreage. You could pay off on a workboat in one season and buy a house the next-and be your own boss to boot. But local oysters started to peter out not long after the second World War, and Virginia watermen weren’t exactly welcome in Maryland waters, so the demand for sturdy wooden boats began to slide.

     Billy Norton caught a whiff of fiberglass on the air and saw a whole new breed of waterman on the horizon: the cruising yachtsman. He decided to start selling boats instead of building them, and in the mid-1970s he opened up a Hunter dealership. The Schmalenbergers took over in 1995. Today they sell Tartans as well as Hunters, and run a service yard where Grandpa once built his deadrises.

     Next door to Norton’s is Willis Wilson’s place, where octogenarian “Uncle Willie” holds sway [see “Time Stands Still at Willis Wilson’s Wharf,” January 1997]. A weathered sign nailed to a tree on the roadside reads 4 Boats for Sale. Follow the dirt lane through a clump of pine trees and you’ll find an old boatyard-and I mean an old boatyard (don’t even think about using the bathroom). Not so much as a potted geranium or smooth piece of gravel drive to be found. A wooden shed sits haphazardly next to the water, a bit of a dock reaches into the creek and a jumble of debris takes the place of any bulkhead that might have been there once. A classic wooden sportfishing boat, the Frances G, was sitting on the rust-covered railway when I visited, and Captain Richard Wormley was sprucing her up for the spring fishing season. He was at Uncle Willie’s because the rates are cheap and he could do the work himself in whatever time it took him. No one was rushing him-certainly not Uncle Willie, who likes the come and go of people in his yard.

     Uncle Willie is a Deltaville fixture. He grew up here and for years worked the water, hauling in crabs and oysters in their season and selling them off to the buyboats or trucking them up the road to nearby packing houses. About 20 years ago, he sold his dredgeboat and settled his business permanently on the little patch of land he and a partner had bought back in the 1940s (so they’d have a place to tie up their boats). Now he’s thinking about moving on-maybe this summer-and turning the yard over to Billy Norton who bought it years ago with the proviso that the older man could stay on as long as he wanted. “I’m not giving up the work,” Uncle Willie said. “I’m going mobile. I’m going to drive around to where your boat is and help you out if you need something.”

“How are people supposed to keep track of you then?” I asked, eyeing his feisty red pickup truck.

     “My wife says I’ll just have to get a cell phone,” Uncle Willie chuckled-with delight or bewilderment, I couldn’t tell. But it was hard to imagine him punching those little cell phone buttons with his big work-gnarled fingers.

     Uncle Willie’s place may offer a glimpse of the old days, but the other marinas and boatyards on Broad Creek have planted themselves squarely in the present, with an eye to the future. And collectively they’ve got something few marinas on the Bay can boast: space. In Solomons, where the marine industry eclipses all other commercial activity, Zahniser’s Yachting Center (one of the larger facilities) operates a full-service yard with 275 slips on about five acres. By contrast, many of Broad Creek’s marinas occupy huge chunks of waterfront land: Norview, with 110 slips, sits on 42 acres; Stingray Yacht Harbor, with 250 slips, sits on 33 acres.  

     All that elbowroom reminded me of the explosion of mega-marinas on the Bay in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. My brother John had been involved in the development of Port Annapolis, the first of the big marina properties to come on line in Annapolis. I remember wondering how in the world a working boatyard could use all that acreage, yet take a look at it now, filled to the brim with boats in dry storage, stocked with amenities and bristling with office space. In Deltaville, I had a serious case of deja vu. Those huge, relatively empty marina lots (there were plenty of boats, and room for so many more!) were starting to sprout fancy new clubhouse buildings and swimming pools along with spiffed up brokerage offices and work sheds-even paved parking lots! Did I see this in a movie somewhere? Build it and the boaters will come, just like they came to Annapolis and Baltimore and Solomons and Rock Hall and. . . .

     Clint and I took the boat for a joyride over to Fishing Bay. The day was clear, the water sparkling, the wind fresh . . . and, unfortunately, out of the north. Big rollers were coasting into the Piankatank from the Bay and we did a lot of up-down. Clint of course thought this was a terrific way to travel. I opted out of lunch. We had to round the flashing red mark (“8”) that marks the top of the shoal off Stove Point before we could ease into the shelter of Fishing Bay. To port was the long green stretch of Gwynn Island (the locals are very insistent: it’s Gwynn’s Island, with an apostrophe and an s; this magazine goes by the way it’s spelled on the chart). They shoot fireworks off the island to celebrate the Fourth of July (this year’s show is slated for July 6), and there’s plenty of room for lots of boats to watch. 

     The water in Fishing Bay was much easier on my stomach. Stove Point stretches out like a natural seawall to buffer any weather from the north or east, leaving a spacious anchorage with plenty of swing room in its lee. There are marinas here, too, older establishments that tuck into the hillside around the water’s edge. Such high ground comes as a surprise in such flat country, and it stunts the size of the marine facilities on this end of town. But the yards here are no less popular for it. Deagle’s Boatyard has long attracted magnificent wooden vessels in need of maintenance or restoration. A handsome Trumpy is currently undergoing restoration, as is the Solomons-built Manitou, once sailed by John F. Kennedy.

     Next door, Fishing Bay Harbor Marina (with a fuel dock) caters to the needs of transient boaters. And then comes Ruark’s Marina, a facility for seasonal boaters. Its owner Gene Ruark is a local boy who went to Richmond, struck it rich and returned. “Something has happened in Deltaville,” he told me. “It has just exploded in the last four [now five] years. People have been moving in-waterfront property has gone through the roof.”

     Like Annapolis? I asked. (The deja vu thing was happening again. Annapolis began to boom in the late 1960s, when folks from the Washington and Baltimore suburbs decided that commuting wasn’t such a bad thing. Many of the people moving to Deltaville drive an hour-plus to Richmond for their paychecks. Or beat a retreat from Richmond every weekend, landing in a cockpit or on a patch of azalea-studded lawn.) No, Ruark said. “It’s been good growth; it’s been controlled growth. Nothing’s gotten out of hand.” Basically, that means there is neither public water nor a sewage treatment plant serving the Middle Peninsula-the lack thereof can put a damper on any rural growth potential and explains why there is no cluster of tightly knit homes, since lot sizes are dependent on the septic field.

     Still, Deltaville does seem like Annapolis South-it just lacks the crowded streets and the crowded river. We were chugging around in early spring, when only a handful of snowbirds dogged up the channel, but it was still hard to imagine the waterway here getting really toot-your-horn crowded. And that’s probably why it has so much appeal to boaters, whether they’re transients or permanent settlers.

     Area business owners have certainly seen the potential of the marine industry and they’re bringing it on strong. Out of 19 categories in the Best of the Bay survey, five Deltaville businesses ranked in the top 10, with three taking high honors (including nearby Hartfield’s). They have the labor, and they have the space, and both are less expensive than, say, the middle Bay: in the $1–$1.50/foot range for slips; $50–$55/hour for labor. They also have the social magnet: the Fishing Bay Yacht Club, which is the core of a passionate sailing community-and the first rung on the maritime enterprise ladder. Remember when Annapolis Yacht Club docks bristled with masts?

     Remote or not, the Fishing Bay Yacht Club, with a spanking new clubhouse, attracts its share of regattas. Club property sits on a strip of land between Fishing Bay and the Piankatank River. From either side, boats can reach broad water within minutes-and within view, often, of the spectators watching from the clubhouse decks. The J/29 Invitational was getting under way when we were there, with boats arriving from as far away as New York. Jay McArdle, local host and president of the J/29 class, told me that he moved his boat to Fishing Bay from Wisconsin-permanently. He could have moved anywhere on the Bay. He settled in Deltaville. Hmmm.

     In July the Fishing Bay Yacht Club hosts the annual Southern Chesapeake Volvo Leukemia Cup Regatta, which raises thousands of dollars for cancer research. Last year’s event eclipsed the original Annapolis regatta in fundraising, and fundraising co-chair Carolyn Schmalenberger is looking to better the take this year. She expects a fleet of 130 boats to cross the starting line, putting the race squarely on the map as a premier sailing event on the Bay.

     But Deltaville isn’t racing to get its name on the map or to build its reputation. It’s just moving and shaking with the times, and brimming with enthusiasm in the process. The maritime trades have staked their claims along Route 33: North and Quantum service lofts, the West Marine and BoatU.S. stores, hot-and-cold running brokerages and repair shops-you need it for your boat? You’ll find it. And, of course, the waterfront itself, burgeoning with boats.

     You may not be able to pinpoint “downtown” Deltaville, but keep looking and you’ll discover an uptown community easily enough, poised to take its place next to boating venues like Annapolis, and with plenty of parking-for boats and cars.