Sunday, September 29, 2013

Tangier Island

[Maryanne] For years we lived and sailed in the Chesapeake, we travelled north and south among the tributaries and cities. For reasons of wind, currents, weather, and time pressures we had (too many times) sailed passed Tangier Island. It was finally time to correct that omission.

[Kyle]We were under-way at first light for the longish trip between Tippity Wichity and Tangier Island, further south and across the bay. Our reward for getting up so early was an amazing fiery sunrise made up of all of the bright colors on the red side of the spectrum. As we rounded the first corner, we passed several rowing crews going the other way, presumably from St. Mary’s College nearby.

A cracking sunset was later followed by the US National anthem blasted across the water by a local Navy station (at least this is where we believe it was coming from!)

We started off ghosting along in winds barely strong enough to feel. As the river widened, the wind picked up gradually. By the time we were in the Potomac, we were zinging past the shore. We cleared Point Lookout and turned to sail as close to the wind as we could. This put us on a course about twenty degrees north of where we wanted to go, but we were hedging against a forecast calling for a slightly unfavorable shift later. We didn’t want to have to beat our way back upwind if we ended up too far to leeward.

Once in the bay out of the protection of the Potomac’s northern shore, we found ourselves beating into two-foot chop until we were close enough to Tangier to feel confident that we could start easing out the sails and turning to a more comfortable course.

Tangier Island has two entrance channels: one to the west and one to the east. We had planned to round the southern tip of the island and beat upwind to enter from the east for a few reasons: The wind forecast was such that we would not be likely to make it to the west entrance without tacking; the east entrance is much wider and deeper, with a deeper approach; and the west entrance has a fifty-foot overhead cable both on our charts and mentioned in the U.S. Coast Pilot.

While we still had a cell phone signal, Maryanne called ahead to Park’s Marina on Tangier to inquire about a slip. There was a slip available for the bargain price of $30. The owner, Milton asked her the usual questions about what kind of boat we were, etc., then started peppering her with so many questions that she ended up handing me the phone at the helm.

“When you gonna be here?” was the first one I was asked.

  “About 3:00.”

“Where are ya? Are ya in the bay?”

  “Yeah, we’re in the bay.’

“Can you see Smith Point?”


“What side’s it on?”

  “It’s to starboard”

“So you’re east of it?”

  “No, we’re north of it.”

“You sailing?”

  “Yes, we are.”

“You goin’ about six knots?”

  “No. More like eight.”

“Eight knots? Can you see the island?”

  “Not yet.”

“Well, you’re only a few miles away. You’ll be here well before 3:00.”

  “Probably not”, I said. “We have to go around to the east channel, tack upwind, get the sails down. It should be right around three.”

He didn’t seem to hear me. “Nah, if you’re in the bay already, you’ll be here in an hour or so. I’ll call you on channel 16 at noon.”

  “I’m pretty sure it’ll be closer to three. We have to come in from the east.”

“Okay, I’ll call you at noon.”

At 12:30, he called and asked where we were.

  “We’re right by the west entrance.” I replied, “We have about two hours to go.”

“I’ll go out and meet you in a minute.”

  “It’ll be a couple of hours. We need to go around to the east.”

“Okay, see you in a minute.”

  “We still have ten more miles to go. We have to come in from the east.”

“I thought you said you were at the west channel.”

  “We are, but we need to go around to the east. It’s going to take a while.”

“If you’re outside, you’re almost here. I’ll go meet you.”

I was trying my best to remain calm. All of this was happening while we were in shallow water trying to dodge pot floats.

  “It’ll be a while. We have to sail around to the east entrance.”

“East!? Why you goin’ that way?”

  “Well, mostly because of the fifty-foot overhead cable. We can’t get under it.”

“Oh, that thing? They took that down years ago. I wish you’d said something. C’mon in the west side. There’s nuthin’ there.”

{Maryanne: Despite our digital chart being less than a year old and the Coast pilot being most current, it was true that no power cable was there to hinder our journey! Local knowledge wins at all times}

So we went in the west side after all. It was around one o’clock, just as Milton had predicted.

When we got to the marina, it started all over again. Milton Shouted at us from the dock, “What’s yer beam?”

  “Twenty-one feet!”



“Hold up yer fingers!”

  Maryanne, who was up at the bow, held up two fingers on her right hand and one on her left. “Twenty-one!”


  “Two, one. Twenty-one!”






  “Twenty! One!”

“Oh, twenty-one! We’ll put you right here, then.” The dock looked identical to the other one.

We had more of the same going through the process of tying up and getting the fenders right. Milton is as nice as can be and he loves to talk, but his hearing is terrible, even if you mouth the words very clearly where he can see your lips move. He has whole conversations between himself and what he expected you to say.

“Where you from?”

  Maryanne: “England”

“Oh, Baltimore.”

  Maryanne: “Do you have a map of the island?”

“Yeah, the bathrooms are around to the left.”

In the end, we realized the best thing to do was just listen to him and smile and nod a lot, Japanese tourist style.

Maryanne had been pushing for days that we needed to make time for the museum so she was thrilled to have arrived well before closing time. There was much to see along the way in this new place, but we had to remain focused and get to the museum.

We’re glad we did. The Museum was very well done and did a good job of depicting life on the island and it’s history. {Maryanne: The museum was small, with a warm welcome and an interesting mix of high tech (touch screens, videos, etc.) and hand written signs and maps; quite charming}. Most interesting to me were the videoed interviews of the watermen. Tangier is a true island, meaning there are no bridges to the mainland and the only access is via boat or airplane/helecopter. They didn’t get electricity until 1948, TV reception arrived only in this century, and there was no Internet until three years ago. The population still lives in a high level of isolation. Most of the original settlers were from Cornwall in England and linguists say the Tangier accent is the closest to Elizabethan English in the world. The Cornish dialect in England today is very thick. The Tangier Accent sounds to me like half Cornwall, half Mississippi. That and all of their peculiar sayings make understanding them require focused concentration. {Maryanne: There was even a painting of our dock master Milton at the museum, and a picture of him some years ago in a suit and on his scooter on his way to church}

The Tangier museum, where our dock master Milton has a space on the wall

Once we had exhausted the museum, we went for a "family style" dinner at Hilda Crockett’s Chesapeake House. The island only has four restaurants, but at least one of our guidebooks suggested Hilda’s was the only one that shouldn’t be optional on an itinerary.

Even though it was only four o’clock (we were advised to get there before five), we seemed to be the last people on the island eating dinner. The large room was completely empty and all of the tables but one were piled high with the un-bussed remains of what was clearly a large feast.

"Family Style" dining at the Crockett's Chesapeake House

We were sat at a corner of the large clean table and bowl after bowl of food was placed before us in portions that were clearly intended for a full table. We had expected family style to be more like a buffet. Instead, we were at the buffet table! It was just then that we realized why some of the other restaurants in town call themselves “menu style”.

The food was good and there was more than plenty of it. Hilda’s felt less like a restaurant and more like thanksgiving dinner at somebody’s Grandma’s house. Except the room was too big. It felt like dinner at a giant church camp. In fact, the whole island felt like a giant church camp. Everyone was really friendly, the roads were travelled mostly with bicycles and golf carts. The place is shut down by 7:00 and there are verses from the scriptures everywhere: on menus, store signs and bumper stickers.

Scenes from Tangier

The island is mostly presided over by the well attended Methodist Church, although they do have another “New Church” for the troublemakers. The island is also completely dry (of alcohol), although it is theorized by some that a lot of the watermen’s man-cave type crab shed hideaways have a stash obtained from off island.

With the intent of walking off our enormous dinner, we decided to use the rest of the daylight to walk every one of the island’s three main roads, which run parallel to each other on ridges barely higher than the rest of the island and are connected by bridges over the marsh in between.

Tangier is one of those places that is almost too pretty. Pretty and quaint and pretty, that’s it. It was hard to walk twenty feet without stopping for more photos. We would have gone through twenty rolls of film in the old days.

{Maryanne: Tangier really is a place with a unique character. Bicycles are left unlocked, relatives are buried in the front yards, pizza is delivered by golf cart, most gardens are adorned with beautiful bird boxes, and the primary means of income is still crabs. According to "Beautiful Swimmers: watermen, crabs and the Chesapeake Bay" by William W Warner, they catch and sell more crabs than any other place in the Chesapeake, and are also king of the soft shell crab industry; quite an achievement for a small community.}

The island has a handful of dogs, but probably has a three to one cat to human ratio. All of the ones we saw looked in good health and most were very friendly. One little guy joined us as we passed his house and stayed right with us as we continued on. We thought he would give up and leave when we got too far away, but he was never more than ten feet away, always wanting to be pet and to rub up against our ankles. When we went past his house on the way back, he stopped and sat down in the middle of the road and calmly watched us leave. He seemed to know exactly where the property line was on that side.

Our route home took us past an ice cream parlor we had wanted not to miss. We had burned off some of our dinner and so decided we could spare the space for one to share. As we were finishing, Maryanne realized we had gone to the wrong one. We were at the ‘70s ice cream place, not the ‘50s one! We walked over there just to see it, but then we got spotted by the proprietor looking in, we felt guilty enough to go in and get our second for the night.

Beaches, crab pounds, and one of the bridges around sunset... Sigh, what a beautiful place.

We got back to the boat when the Sun set. That’s when the island’s watches change from humans to bugs. We hid in the cabin and mocked them on the other side of the Plexiglas as we snuck a glass of wine each.

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