On Virginia’s Yeocomico River, the pot of gold is in the kind-hearted locals, the clear, quiet creeks and the silent heft of a storied past.
It occurs to me, as I’m sitting in the cockpit under a lowering sky, noshing a breakfast of farm-fresh fried eggs, that any story I write about cruising on the Yeocomico River is going to sound completely over the top. Miles of white, sandy beaches enveloping dozens of unspoiled anchorages, evoking the Caribbean? Uh huh. Your choice of full-service boatyards, and marina owners who deliver a dozen fresh eggs for breakfast, practically straight from the henhouse? Get a grip. A community’s history revealed every night in a single light burning in the upstairs window of a local home, where it has guided mariners since the 1600s? Right. But while I have been known to embellish a time or two (what sailor hasn’t?), I can say without hesitation, I’m not making any of this up. I had driven by car to the Northern Neck of Virginia before, gazed on the Yeocomico from its shores, and had always come away sighing heavily and scheming ways I could go live there. Now that I’ve seen it from the deck of my boat-explored its maritime roots and found a devoted local passion for history, met total strangers who seemed like best old friends after a handshake and a minute-I can assure you that you won’t want to leave, either. You’ll want to become what they call in these parts a “come here,” someone who recognizes a chunk of heaven when he sees it and anchors there as long as possible.
As the eagle sees it, the Yeocomico River spreads out like a hand on the Virginia side of the Potomac, about nine miles upriver from Point Lookout. Even as early as the 17th century, the river’s fingers of deep protected coves and creeks drew mariners and travelers. The town of Kinsale, about three-and-a-half nautical miles from the Yeocomico’s mouth, was founded in 1706 and quickly became the Potomac’s largest international seaport. Pirates marauded the Yeocomico’s shores briefly in 1782, convoys of merchant ships heading for the West Indies rendezvoused in its creeks, Navy ships stalked its waters during the Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Civil War, and steamboats delivered passengers and left with holds full of tomatoes and timber into the 1920s. But like so many Bay rivers, the Yeocomico’s story was written in another time. Today, the silence is what is left, and it resounds.
The day is lazy and mild as we cruise down the Bay from Solomons, a rare late September afternoon so warm we have to stop in the middle of the Potomac and jump into those flat blue waters for a swim. It’s getting on cocktail hour as we approach the so-called birthday cake-the flashing red 16-footer that marks the Yeocomico’s entrance. (A misnomer, if you ask me. Having heard so much made of this birthday cake thing, I am expecting something festive or at least eye-catching; this is just an ordinary daymarker sprouting from what looks like an overused bushel basket.) The river’s expansive mouth is a little deceptive; it’s knee-knockingly shallow outside the channel-at least for those of us in the fin-keel family-and the stakes and poles jammed into the water all over the place have Johnny muttering unhappily. “There are sticks in the water here,” he grumbles. “It’s not natural, I’m telling you.” (We learn later from locals that the stakes mark oyster beds.) As we head into the West Yeocomico, though, the low shorelines, edged with beaches and tall stands of pine, come closer and the stakes back off. We pull into Port Kinsale Marina in Allen Cove, where Kathy Morse is waiting for us, her young son Romeo in hand. “Anything I can get you, you just let me know,” she says, in what we will learn is a common refrain around here.
Charlie and Kristy Overman, who spent the summer living in the marina aboard their Endeavour 38 Crystal Vision, say the friendliness and pure generosity of the people on the Yeocomico and in Kinsale have been a revelation for them. “In all our years of living aboard, we haven’t found as nice a place as this, south or north. The only thing it’s lacking is a convenient grocery store,” says Charlie, a recent Navy Department retiree.
He and Kristy and their two cats (Tallulah Smudge and Morris Mainsheet) had lived at Capital Yacht Club in Washington, D.C., and when Charlie retired they headed south, stopping en route in the Yeocomico. They dropped the hook in Wilkins Creek, a deep little bay right across from the marina. “That first night here, it was so quiet we actually sat in the cockpit and whispered,” Kristy says. “The cats wouldn’t even come up on deck, and when they did they tiptoed all around.”
I learn what they mean the next morning, which dawns clear and silent, save for birds-squabbling gulls who appear to be holding a board meeting out on the marina’s second T-dock, squawking crows in the pines and chittering swallows everywhere. The clouds that had brought a little rain the night before are banked hard to the northeast, the early sun glinting off their cathedral tops. Off the sandy point that marks the cove’s western boundary, a blue heron steps precisely through the shallows, seeming to walk upon the water as he stalks breakfast.
The marina sits on about 50 acres and includes two B&Bs, covered and uncovered slips, a full-service yard, a campground and a restaurant. Most of its shoreline is fringed with sand and grass, and the whole place feels like summer camp-all pines and white beaches, with neatly roped paths through the woods. Tied up in a slip in front of the work shed we see the skipjack Virginia W. Built in 1904 in Guilford, Va., the 37-foot skipjack was working the oyster beds as late as 1995. Port Kinsale’s owner, Marty Miller, wanted a way to help preserve Bay heritage, says marina manager David Chambers, so he formed the Port Kinsale Foundation and bought the Virginia W. Chambers’s crew has been steadily restoring her over the winters, sailing her in the summers at various festivals and regattas. “This’ll be the fastest boat in this marina when she’s done,” says Chambers. “You lay her on her chine and she just flies.” Toward the end of our visit, Chambers takes us through the fragrant pines to the Skipjack Inn, a restored home on the eastern point of Allen Cove. Once so decrepit that the locals called it the Bates Motel, it’s now an impeccable B&B, clad in traditional white clapboard and black shutters, overlooking the West Yeocomico. Skirted in gardens of rosemary, primroses and bleached oyster shell, the house’s front porch looks like an ideal place to do very, very little for long periods of time.
“I didn’t give myself enough time to spend down here,” I say out loud to the porch and the river. “There’s never enough time,” says Chambers, quite succinctly. An hour later, motoring away, I can still smell the rosemary on my hands.
We cast off and head upstream toward the town of Kinsale, into a northwest breeze that’s riffling the water and blowing the sky into a perfect blue, fluffed with clouds. The river is dotted here and there with homes, most of them unobtrusive and lying low in the trees-a reminder that at other times of the year (summer, that is) it’s damned hot in these parts, and a good shade tree is next to God. As soon as we’re in the river, what the chart and all locals call the Great House becomes quite obvious, an understated but commanding presence on the hill straight ahead, now occupied by Elizabeth Bailey Hedley and her family. Every night Hedley still puts a light in the upstairs middle window to shine down the river, a tradition carried forward since Baileys built the home in the late 1600s. To the right, the sun glints off the silver silos and storage tanks of the Southern States granary at the Kinsale wharf. Right next door is the Kinsale Harbour Marina. We sidle up to the T-dock and tie up, half expecting someone to scurry down and tell us to move (clearly we are not yet in a true Northern Neck state of mind, as no one around here would ever be that worried about it.) No one comes, so we walk up to the office and restaurant. Both are closed. We were hoping for lunch, but the restaurant, a cozy little spot with a nice-looking deck and picnic tables with tall umbrellas, is open only for dinner on weekends. We do find a fellow mowing the grass who stops long enough to tell us that we can hang here all afternoon for free if we like. At the small boat ramp is a box where you put your four bucks if you use the ramp. It’s one of many such “honor boxes” we will see at the establishments around here; that sort of trust seems to come with the clear water and the piney woods.
We walk up the little hill into the town of Kinsale and wander its tree-lined streets, some of them still just wide enough for a buggy. About a block up from the marina is a lovely park with a brand-new gazebo in the center. Trimmed in white gingerbread and
bordered by gardens of impatiens, the gazebo is surrounded with a brick walkway and magnolia trees that would make any good southerner weep, as well as willow oaks, maples, sweetgums and even ginkgoes. It is a beautiful, quiet spot.
As we walk along, a yellow lab approaches and snuffles us thoroughly, sending that mixed message of wagging tail and raised back at once, and a shar-pei and a dalmation walk half a block to see what we are about. Other than its dogs-who are just doing what dogs do, after all, keeping an eye on things-Kinsale on this day is quiet, nearly silent. Though it still can call itself a seaport-tugboats and barges arrive routinely to take on cargo at the granary-many of its buildings stand empty, as if time stopped here in the 1940s or early ‘50s, when tomato canning was a thriving industry and the town had department stores, auto dealerships and a hotel.
Kinsale’s name is derived from the Gaelic term cean saile or coinn saile, which means “head of the salt water.” It was established first by Queen Anne in October 1705, with this barely navigable sentence: “That at Yohocomoco to be called Kingsale, and to have Tuesday and Saturday in each week for market days, and the nineteenth day of October and four following days, exclusive of Sundays annually their fair.” The Virginia Assembly made it official on June 22, 1706, requiring that all of the colony’s imports, except for servants, slaves and salt, were to be cleared through Kinsale. The same went for all exports but coal, corn and timber. In no time, the town became a vigorous seaport. Vessels called from the West Indies and Europe, trading tobacco, barrels and timber. “Kinsale became a thriving community with wood cutters, sawyers, coopers and shipwrights,” writes Frederick Tilp in This Was Potomac River. “William Carr established the river’s first cooperage [barrel-making business] here in 1664, one of his by products for export to England being thousands of trunnels (white oak treenails).”
Before the Revolution, fleets of merchant ships commonly anchored off Kinsale to form convoys. Marine railways, ship chandlers, riggers and other trades associated with shipping thrived. The town became the Potomac’s first naval base when it was named the lower river headquarters for the Potomac Navy during the Revolution. Tilp writes that pirates visited Kinsale in July 1782, robbing, pillaging and generally behaving predictably pirate-ish. The War of 1812 left its mark when U.S. Navy Midshipman James B. Sigourney, of the three-gun Navy schooner Asp, died defending the town against the HMS Contest and Mohawk. Only 23 years old and in his first command, Sigourney’s gallant stand so moved the locals that they buried him in the Bailey family graveyard at the Great House. There his stone still rests, surrounded by Solomon’s seal and ivy and guarded by a cannon. Five years ago, Sigourney’s heirs disinterred his remains and took him home to his family cemetery in Boston.
So we are told by Martha Scott, curator of the Kinsale Foundation Museum. Housed in a restored building that has been, at one time or another, a barroom, barbershop, millinery and meat market, the museum is about a block from Kinsale’s waterfront. Next door is an old ice-cream parlor the museum recently purchased and is restoring. Soon it will, again, be serving up ice cream, soup and sandwiches. The museum uses displays, videos, oral histories and a wealth of black-and-white photographs to tell Kinsale’s story. Exhibits include Native American artifacts-arrowheads and grinding stones for crushing grains, for example-and colorful labels and cans from Kinsale’s many canning operations, with names like “Whole Grain Country Gentleman White Sweet Corn” and “Pride of Virginia Tomatoes.”
By 1910, Kinsale was the largest tomato and pulpwood center on the Potomac, Tilp says, and even into the 1950s, Kinsale still had five active canneries. Grainy photos show women wearing long skirts and men’s hip-waders or heavy rubber work boots, peeling tomatoes in open sheds on the wharf. In one of the museum’s videos, Scott takes the viewer on a boat ride around the waterfront with 91-year-old Norris Parks, whose uncles were Kinsale ship captains and who was so fascinated with ships that he attended MIT and became a marine engineer. Through Parks’s sharp memory we travel the waterfront and learn about ships, canning companies and growing up as a Kinsale water rat.
Many of the museum’s photos show homes long lost, though others still stand and are undergoing restoration. “Federal Hill is occupied now,” Scott says, showing us a photo of the home built just before the Civil War. “Not by locals, though, by come-here folks. I’m from the Northern Neck, so I’m not come-here folks.” Right across the street from the museum, board member O.J. Hickox’s house, built around 1880, is getting a new foundation. Hickox says he is neither come-here nor been-here; a native of Georgia with ancestral roots in the Northern Neck, the part-time teacher at Rappahannock Community College says he has developed a new phrase to describe himself: a come-back-here. He’s half-joking, but it’s a subtle reminder of the alliance, sometimes uneasy, between Kinsale’s past and its future. There are other, more obvious signs, like the big one right behind the museum, advertising waterfront lots for sale at “Great House Point.” A developer has purchased about 100 acres around the Great House, Hickox says, arguably an area that comprises much of Kinsale’s historical heart. “We don’t have the resources to keep the whole thing intact, but we hope to keep the two lots behind here [the museum] in what I like to call agricultural repose,” he says.
The distinction between come-heres and been-heres-one we hear often as we travel the river-is a matter of local pride and identity. Some people may come here and see a town so sleepy it’s verging on narcolepsy, with working cornfields still two blocks from the town center. Others see a living history of a once-lively Bay town that needs to be nurtured and protected. In fact, says Hickox, the museum is working toward national historic district designation for Kinsale. How the town frames its future and wrestles with the growing pressure of come-heres is one of its greatest challenges, and we hear that burden articulated every time someone makes a point to note that they are a “been-here.”
We leave Kinsale toward evening and motor downriver toward the South Yeocomico. Our destination is Lodge Creek and Olverson’s Lodge Creek Marina. Much to Johnny’s chagrin, we’re back in stakes territory again, though the river has plenty of depth in the middle. Passing the Boatyard at Harryhogan and Krentz’s Marine Railway on our right, we curve left into Lodge Creek and find Olverson’s just around a spit of sand on which a heron perches like a statue atop an empty osprey platform. Fred Olverson, who has lived on this point since he was about 12, welcomes us with what we know by now is typical Northern Neck hospitality-an invitation to tie up where the sunset is best, a promise of some fresh eggs from the chickens that live at the farm behind the marina, and a suggestion to grab one of the marina’s six courtesy cars to drive the couple of miles to R.W.’s Sport Shop. We have a reel that needs some attention, and Olverson says R.W.’s will be open until 8 tonight, a Friday. After settling the boat in, we roll the marina’s Buick past miles of soybeans yellowing in the late-day light and cornfields shaved bare for the coming winter.
R.W.’s is on the main drag into Callao (pronounced CAL-ee-oh), and it’s clearly a happening fishing-hunting establishment. Ricky Thomas grew up in nearby Lewisetta on the Coan River and was a charterboat captain. In 1991 he started the store with his father Bill, who has since retired. “I opened a tackle shop for something to do on the days I wasn’t fishing, and now it’s turned around,” he says. “I like it here. The floor doesn’t move. It’s climate-controlled. It’s got its advantages.”
Thomas is a thin man who seems bent into an ambulating letter C. He answers most questions in clipped sentences but laughs easily and can’t help smiling when a youngster needs help setting up his rod for some striper fishing. Thomas’s specialty is saltwater fishing, and several racks hold his rods, hand-made for the task. One end of the long counter at the shop’s rear is his workspace, covered with reels and tools and line and two small machines that resemble tiny lathes. On one, a rod under construction is mounted and is turning ever so slowly, awaiting Thomas’s return to the delicate job at hand.
The shop caters to hunters as well; a rack of rifles and shotguns is mounted on the back wall, and along with the fat rockfish hanging over the doorway into the back room, two plump turkeys stand watch over the Pepsi cooler. While Johnny consults with Thomas about his reel problem, I go shopping; this place has all kinds of cool toys for the sportsman, serious and frivolous. I deliberate long and hard over the Christmas lights in the shape of largemouth bass and settle on a wooden toilet paper holder that’s modeled as a fishing reel-a perfect birthday present for one of my brothers.
By the time we head back to Olverson’s it’s getting dark, and in the covered boat slips, slipholders are turning on the dangling colored lights that adorn their piers. There seems to be a kind of competition in this-there are tiny tiki lights, tulip lights, Christmas ornament lights, even gin bottle lights (those largemouth bass lights would look right at home here)-and the result is a perpetually festive atmosphere. Olverson’s really seems more like a neighborhood than anything as ordinary as a marina. Each pier throws a party for the others throughout the year, and Fred and his wife Cas seem like the informal pied pipers of the whole little community. The office sits at the head of one of the piers. “Please keep the smelly dog out,” pleads a sign posted on the door, “no matter how pathetic he looks.” The unofficial office is here too; a square patch of covered dock bordered by ice machines and what I would swear are old church pews, with a couple of plastic chairs and a wire spool table holding the week’s newspapers, a stack of magazines and a bowl of Halloween candy. I reach for a Tootsie Roll and a plastic green hand emerges from the bowl to grab me. I nearly jump off the dock, much to the great amusement of the regulars who have gathered here to kibitz, have a few beers and see who else goes for the goodies. Trick or treat. . . .
Next morning, as I’m getting ready to fry up some of the fresh eggs he brought us, Olverson bids me listen to the weather report. It’s going to be blowing hard from the north all weekend, and Johnny and I plan to make Solomons today and Annapolis tomorrow. “I don’t like the idea of you heading out today,” he says. “I’m a boatman, and I wouldn’t go into it.” He makes me another one of those overwhelming Northern Neck offers; why don’t we leave the boat safe here, he says, and take a marina car home for the week. We can bring it back next weekend and leave then, when the weather has improved. I thank him and decline, dumbfounded once again by the generosity of the people around here.
But I don’t really want to leave, and it’s not because of the weather. As we head out to the birthday cake, passing two bald eagles on the wing and a tugboat pushing an empty barge upriver to the Kinsale wharf, I look to the lowering sky that’s sprinkling a little rain, and I wonder if this place can pull me any harder than it already has. Behind us, a rainbow stretches right over the mouth of the Yeocomico in a kind of answer. And I am not making that up, either.