On the tail of an April northeaster, a spring shakedown cruise to the Honga
River--where folks around the waterfront are always happy to chat, rain or
shine--made the bad weather tolerable.
by Jane Meneely
Michael C. Wootton
There's a lot to be said for "pre-season" cruising. First of all, there are no crab pots. Second, there are no bugs (generally speaking). And if it's early enough in the season, there won't be any watermen, either, revving up their boats in the wee hours and motoring out the channel. You'll have caught them between oystering and the start of the crab season, when they're more likely to be working on their boats or readying their traps.
You most certainly will see an osprey though. We did on that drizzly April morning when brother Henry, sister-in-law Pat and I left Shipwright Harbor Marina in Deale, Md., on their Gulf Star 44,
INSSA, bound for the Honga River. As we motored past the daymarker at the mouth of Rockhold Creek, a nesting pair of osprey chewed us out in no uncertain terms--roughly translated, their tirade went something like this: "Don't come closer or I'll slice your face with my razor-sharp beak and feed you to the fishes." We paid them no mind.
INSSA cut into Herring Bay just as the rain that had been dripping incessantly for the last three days let up. Brother Henry and the lovely Miss Pat were planning a summer trip to Canada. This little trip would be the spring shakedown cruise. Henry had been slightly incredulous when I'd first proposed the idea. "The Honga?" he said, eyebrows raised. "Nobody goes to the Honga."
"Sure they do," I told him. "Plenty of people, in fact."
The Honga River lies on the Eastern Shore, across from the mouth of the Patuxent River and Solomons Island, and not all that far north of the Potomac. Protected by the islands Hooper (Upper, Middle and Lower) on the west and long swampy lowlands on the east, the 12-mile long river offers half a dozen watermen's harbors, with a couple of working boatyards and crab packing houses to boot. For boats that can make it into Back Creek, there's also Old Salty's, a longstanding restaurant that occupies the old Hooper Island schoolhouse. But here's the rub: Although a deep channel cuts up the middle of the river from Hooper Strait as far as Fishing Creek, the Honga in most places is pretty shallow. Regardless of skinny water, we were going anyway. I wanted to go on this trip simply to lay eyes on the place where theClaud W. Somers went down, on March 4, 1977.
That's a story I just can't shake. I wrote about it once for this magazine [see "Good Men Down," March 2005], and I've been wanting to write a song about it ever since. Some people capture the Bay in paintings, some with a camera. I try to catch the Bay in music, putting the Bay's history, people and critters into my lyrics. The story of the Claud W. Somers is one of many topics that I've focused on, but for some reason, the muse had thus far been elusive. I thought that perhaps my going to the Honga in early spring and seeing for myself where the boat went down would shake loose some inspiration.
As we moved across the Bay the wind dropped considerably and the whitecapped waves settled into dull pewter ripples. The sun had tucked itself behind a blanket of clouds, and the air was chilly. Far ahead, the lowland of the Eastern Shore hovered on the horizon. We passed the leaning tower of the Sharps Island Lighthouse--it's so hard to imagine the land mass that once was there, complete with churches, houses, farms. It's like the Bay's Atlantis. Then came the long stretch past Barren Island.
We eschewed the Barren Island Gap, which leads between a marshy stretch to the north and what remains of Barren Island to the south through the narrow bridge between the mainland and Upper Hooper Island and into the northern reach of the Honga River and the community of Fishing Creek. We would need local knowledge before we attempted something like that. The watermen use this channel fairly routinely, but the chart said we'd find only three feet of water in one particular leg. With the wind coming from the northeast, we didn't want to go near it. Instead we took the long way: south around the bottom end of what the chart calls Lower Hooper Island and the locals call Applegarth Island. It held a number of farms and families until the Hurricane of 1933 washed it with salt. We looped around the island, headed north into the Honga and slid into Rippons Harbor at Hoopersville, near the south end of Middle Hooper Island. It had been a long day's run and we were pooped, glad to be in the shelter of the island and tied up snug along Rippons's bulkhead.
The late Chan Rippons had built the harbor here, installing a number of commodious slips (though not commodious enough to handle our nearly 15-foot beam) and bulkheading an attractive basin that includes a fuel dock (gas and diesel). Rippons Brothers Seafood, which Chan's father and uncles established in 1947, steams and packs crab during the season, which starts with the warm weather in April and May and runs through November. We were too early to enjoy a mess of fresh steamed crabs, but we lay alongside the basin there and thought about it. We were happy to be out of the wind, but we would be even happier, we decided, if we could find somewhere to eat off the boat. Somewhere warm. Somewhere dry. Somewhere quiet. . . .
It's a five-mile walk from Rippons Harbor to Old Salty's, which is on Upper Hooper Island, in the village of Fishing Creek. If we had ventured farther up the river and takenINSSA into Back Creek, we could have dinghied into a nearby landing, crossed the road and been there, but given the weather, we weren't so sure that we could even make it safely into Back Creek and out again, so at Rippons we stayed. We knew that Old Salty's was open (today was Sunday) and that it lay alongside the single main road that snakes along the high ground of the islands. Perhaps, we thought, someone would be kind enough to give us a ride if we asked very nicely.
With that in mind I gave Old Salty's a call. A cheerful voice picked up on the first ring. "Let me call you right back," the fellow said, when I told him what we were after. "I just need to check with my boss." Within minutes our phone rang, and the fellow on the line said that yes, he could pick us up in five minutes, but that we had to be ready since he was the cook and he couldn't be gone for long. It was early, but not too early to eat, so we assured our chef-chauffeur that we would not keep him waiting. Sure enough, in the space of time it takes to slip on a pair of street shoes, a big ol' pickup truck was idling on the blacktop next to our slip. Once we were settled, our driver introduced himself as James. He was happy to pick us up, he said, because he'd had no one to cook for as yet, and, given the rainy weather, he was afraid his kitchen was in for a slow night.
In no time we were pulling into Old Salty's parking lot and then seated in the big open schoolroom next to the windows. Looking west, we could see the waters of Tar Bay, with Barren Island off to the right. Whitecaps topped the waves and spray blew up over the riprapped shoreline. We were glad to be ashore, waiting for wine and martinis and perusing a menu full of tempting selections. The crab imperial here is lovely, we'd been told, and we were determined to try it.
Clearly seafood reigns supreme hereabouts, and small wonder, with so many local watermen hauling in crabs and fish. You can get a steak if you want it. Or chicken. Or a burger. But you can also get fresh flounder, fresh rockfish (in season, which it was when we visited), and crab, crab, crab. It was too early for fresh soft crabs; the ones on the menu were fresh frozen. And while the crabcakes sounded tasty, we held our ground and ordered the crab imperial. Henry had one of the daily specials: fresh flounder topped with crab imperial. Pat had the crab imperial platter, served with fresh asparagus and stewed tomatoes. My crab imperial came slathered on top of a plate full of sea scallops, with steamed kale and a baked sweet potato on the side. The vegetables were done perfectly. The asparagus was still crisp. The kale was firm and flavorful (and swathed in butter!). The flounder was moist and flaky, the scallops were tender, and the crab imperial was lovely. It wasn't nearly as rich as many we've had, and the sauce was mild enough to let the flavor of the crab shine through. We finished our helpings--not overwhelming, but certainly ample--without the feeling that we were destined for imminent heart attacks. Crab imperial isn't exactly heart healthy, but the Old Salty's recipe is probably more heart friendly than most. No leftovers for us this time around.
Meanwhile, slow night that it was, a series of diners trooped in and began filling the tables. A congenial looking lady sat by herself at the table next to ours. "You a local?" I asked. She was from Hooper Island, she told me, but she had left and come back again. "I wonder if you recall anything about theClaud W. Somers?" I asked. She looked at me blankly and shook her head. Oh well, I thought. The dining room of Old Salty's is hardly the place to conduct an impromptu interview, so I respectfully went back to my meal.
James had passed word to us that he could give us a lift back to the boat when we were ready, but first Pat absolutely had to check out the gift shop, where she purchased a pair of hand-knitted slippers. James had been busy enough cooking in the end, but not as busy as usual, he said. Sundays were usually hopping. Lucky for us that things were slow or we might not have gotten a ride! Then again, Hooper Island is the kind of place where sticking your thumb out can stop whatever traffic is going your way. A lift up the road is just a neighborly thing to do in these parts. For that matter, Rippons Brothers has a courtesy van they'll loan to visiting boaters, but we had arrived on a rainy cold Sunday when no one was around to give us the keys.
We hadn't really taken in our surroundings the night before, so the next morning we had a clearer look around. It was still raining intermittently, and it had remained cold and raw. Talk (from me) about launching the little boat to go exploring was quickly and decisively squelched by the captain, to the relief of his first mate. I called them weenies and went exploring on foot.
Hurricane Isabel was not kind to the islands Hooper. She flooded just about every house on the middle island and lopped off clumps of shoreline. Among other things, she tore away the screened-in pavilion Chan Rippons's father had built. I could see its cement floor outlined against the asphalt. "They built the pavilion so my grandfather's friends could come down and eat crabs," said Chan's daughter Janet Ruark, who has been running the family business for her mother since her father died. We had settled into her tiny office in the small packing house, and she was telling me that people used to come to the crab house wanting to buy crabs hot out of the steamers. Then they would hunker down at the tables set out in the screened-in area to eat them. The seafood business hasn't yet produced the extra cash needed to rebuild the pavilion, Ruark said, but boaters are more than welcome to eat the crabs aboard their boat or at picnic tables across the street, placed there courtesy of the county parks department. Just beware: Mosquitoes are merciless here at dusk in the summertime, rendering the park area dangerous territory from sundown on.
Indeed the seafood business has been tough for quite some time here. Local watermen will run their boats as far as Cape Charles to get the first crabs of the season. Last year, they didn't start hauling them in until late May. But Ruark is hopeful for a better season this year. "My grandfathers--both of them--said everything runs in cycles," she said. "They talked about how the hardheads (croakers) ran so strong back in 1947 they made enough cash to start this business. Then the hardheads fell off and they didn't see them again until the 1990s. The old-timers say the crabs are the same way." Oysters are a different story, though. They're just gone, she said, hauled away and shipped to stew pots and raw bars all over the country. "The [local watermen] used to work the bar off Windmill Point," Ruark recalled, nodding her head toward the lowland on the other side of the river. "That was an incredibly productive oyster bar. It's why my grandfather and his brothers picked a windmill as their trademark for this business. But then the state came and hauled the bar away. Dredged the old shell out one winter and hauled it somewhere up the Bay," presumably as part of early efforts to shore up oyster bars elsewhere. "My grandfather said, 'Mark my words, there won't be any oysters there next year.' Tongers went out next season and there was nothing left. But no one compensated them for the loss of their livelihood. The state pays farmers not to plant; the watermen don't get anything."
Now everyone was waiting to see what the state would decide about the new crab regulations. The watermen expected new limitations on catching females. "We're just not sure if they'll set a size limit or a bushel limit, or cut the season off in October," said Ruark. "It'll be hard on the watermen either way." (Not long after our visit, Maryland did both things: shortening the season for female crabs by nearly two months and imposing bushel limits for females in September and October, basing the limits on each crabber's "average historic daily catch" of females for those months. The state also made it flatly illegal for recreational crabbers to catch females, with the exception of soft crabs. Virginia, meanwhile, took the unprecedented step of completely outlawing winter dredging, another move aimed mostly at reducing the female harvest.)
The crabs run best in the fall, from September through November, after they've fattened up over the summer and are headed back to the Bay's mouth to winter over in the mud. That's when crabbers make the bulk of their money and hope it will tide them over the winter, Ruark continued. To lop one of the most productive months out of their season would be a major hardship. Having to cull through the crabs to check for females adds a degree of scrutiny that will be hard to comply with at that time of year. Crabbers are busy enough running their boats, hauling up and emptying pots. As Ruark put it, culling out undersize crabs is easy enough, but having to determine what's male and what's female isn't so swiftly done by a person who's also having to watch where he's going. In summer crabbers can bring along their kids or hire someone to do all that sorting. Help is harder to find in the fall, when the kids are back in school and the summer help has gone home. Many of the helpers on the Hooper Island boats are workers from Mexico, who come to pick crabs or work on the boats for a six-month stay. Then their permits expire and they head back home.
A smattering of Spanish drifted in from the steamer room, where two men were already busy readying the equipment for the coming season. More guest workers would arrive in a few weeks to work on the boats and steam and pick the crabs. Most island residents these days are either retired or have year-round jobs off island, leaving Ruark and other local packing houses strapped for seasonal labor. "The guest worker program has been a godsend, but even that's getting harder for us. I fill out the paperwork over the winter and hope the immigration office hasn't reached their cut-off by the time I can file it," Ruark told me. These workers have returned several years in a row, they know how to pick the crabs and they've gotten pretty good at it. "I want the same people back," she said.
I bent against the wind as I left Ruark's office and headed back to the boat. Since the weather didn't seem likely to get a whole lot better, brother Henry offered a compromise to launching the small boat so we could get as up close and personal with the river as I had hoped. Instead, he offered to head INSSA upriver to see the sights and try to get into Back Creek. It was still pretty raw, but at least it was no longer raining. Still, from our vantage point on the open water everything looked gray: the water, the land, the sky. Very little distinguished the horizon, just the broad slash of darker gray to denote the high tide line and the hedge of stumpy trees rising above it. Even that seemed to encircle us; we couldn't really see the cuts between the long thin points of land, so it looked as if we were in a broad but shallow lake. It reminded me of Susquehanna Flats in that way. We could follow the channel easily enough, but there was mighty thin water everywhere else. A single waterman tended his eel pots just off Wroten Island. He waved as we passed.
We went as far as the "15" marker, nearly the end of the channel, and looped back. In a shallower draft boat we could have gotten up to Golden Hill, where Goottee's Marine maintains a narrow channel. If we'd been able to round Wroten Island, we could have made our way to the town of Crapo. Instead we tucked up into Back Creek, a sheltered harbor, but without much room for us there. Phillips Seafood operates a crab packing plant in a big red building at the mouth of the creek, and sturdy old houses line the waterfront. Turning north, P. L. Jones Boatyard is up and on the right. Old Salty's is beyond that, across the main road on the left. A crew was at work dredging out Jones' slips; beyond that there was little activity today. We gingerly turned around and headed back down the river.
Having come down the Bay in a wet blow, I had new insight into what it had to have been like for the men aboard the Claud W. Somers before she went down in a gale. The Bay had frozen solid the winter of 1976–1977, and the watermen hadn't been able to work for months. When the ice finally broke, the dredge fleet from Deal Island was happy to get to work again. But Captain Thompson Wallace aboard the
Somers was one of only two skipjacks that headed out on the morning of March 4, into the teeth of what would become a full-tilt gale later in the day. The other skipjack captain did a few licks and headed home. Captain Wallace hung on. When he finally turned back to the harbor, his push-boat engine stalled, leaving him wallowing in heavy seas and buffeted by winds that were too strong for his sails. A passing waterman tried to tow the
Somers behind his deadrise, but after an hour or so, the wind and waves were so powerful the cleats tore out of the tow boat and the good Samaritan had to leave the
Somer sadrift. He offered to take everyone aboard his boat, but Captain Wallace was sure he could get the skipjack back in under sail. That's the last time anyone saw him and his crew alive. Cold and raw, with the wind howling around their ears, it had to be tough and terrifying.
The Honga is wide open to the south. As near as anybody can reckon, the Somers drove into the river from Hooper Strait before swamping off Norman Cove. All hands were lost: Captain Wallace, his older brother, his older son, a cousin, a nephew and a family friend. When the boat went missing, men from the headwaters of the Honga all the way south to Deal Island went looking for her, hoping at least to rescue the men, if not the skipjack. Not long after midnight, one of the would-be rescuers spotted the top of the mast jutting out of the water. The boat had gone down in 12 feet of water; there was no sign of Captain Wallace or his crew. They fished the men off the bottom the next day, raised the boat and went on with their lives. The boat continued dredging for a few years, then lay idle and deteriorating until the Reedville Fishermen's Museum found her, restored her and put her under sail again out of their facility on Cockrell Creek, off the Great Wicomico River on Virginia's western shore.
As we motored past the spot where she went down, there was no wind to speak of--but I shivered in spite of myself as INSSA left Norman Cove to port and edged past Applegarth Island on the west. Headed home, we were hoping to cross the Bay before the wind piped up again. Ahead of us, Hooper Strait seemed placid enough though dreary and cold. We'd not had a lick of sun this whole trip. I pictured a lone skipjack, struggling and overpowered by the wind, awash in water from her leaking seams and the torrent of waves splashing over the sides. It would have been getting dark when the
Somers went down, and darker still by the time the storm had abated enough for search boats to venture out. A few days later, when the boat was pulled up from the mud, she had 33 bushels of oysters still on her decks.
I picked up my pen and began to write:Down on the Honga the waters run wide with the land lying thin as a rug, and working the water is all you can do, and pray for another day's run. . . . It took me a month to finish, but I had my song.
The Honga River is wide and shallow, protected to the west by the Hooper islands. The only sizeable community is Fishing Creek, accessible by way of Back Creek or through the narrow cut above Upper Hooper Island; this latter, though, is blocked by a fixed bridge (24-foot clearance). Entering the Honga from the south, you can pass on either side of Bloodsworth Island, and follow Hooper Strait. Once past Lower Hooper Island, known locally as Applegarth Island, you can bear west and head into the manmade harbor at Hoopersville. You'll see a church steeple to the left of a clump of houses; the markers leading in are to the left of that. This is Rippons Harbor, with fuel and overnight slips, but no facilities to speak of. On the plus side, there's fresh-picked crab meat, soft crabs or red hot crabs straight from the steamer of Rippons Brothers Seafood, which also oversees the fuel dock. Rippons generally charges $20–$30 a night, depending on traffic; you can try calling ahead: 410-397-3200 to reserve space (and put in an order for crabs). If you continue north on the main stem of the river, you'll see the markers for Back Creek and a fairly heavy concentration of houses. The Phillips Seafood Company building--tan with a red roof--is easy to spot. We carried four feet of water as far as P. L. Jones Boatyard, at the head of the creek and to the right. Old Salty's is within walking distance from the left side of the creek (410-397-3752); dinghy in and head north.
Cruiser's Digest: Honga River
This is waterman country, now slowly turning into a retirement community. Hunting and fishing are the primary recreational outlets beyond boating in general. The waterfront is largely undeveloped and inaccessible except by kayak. A walk along the main roadway will lead past marshy lawns and above-ground graveyards. Signs of erosion are everywhere, but perhaps most clearly evident by the heavily riprapped shoreline along the western edge of Hooper Island, which, in most places, is a stone's throw from the island's eastern edge.