Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Smith Island, Onancock and Tangier

BTW, Pictures. Yes, I have been taking pictures along the way but we have not had decent bandwidth over here on the east side of the bay at all. I have every intention of getting the pics link back up and running but have not been able to do so. When I do I will let you know.

Smith Island is one of the fabled east bay islands on the Chesapeake. The other is Tangier Island just south of Smith Island. Tangier Island's claim to fame is that it has been isolated and insolated for a great part of its existence to the point where the natives speak with a decidedly British accent. Smith Island, though just a few miles north of Tangier does not have that same inclination. But it is isolated. It's flat with normal vegetation around and it is pretty shoaly. The village of Ewell is the only really occupied area and while it tries to bill itself as a boater's holiday paradise of some kind it really isn't. But they are trying hard to make ends meet. From what we can tell from Ewell's little harbor it used to be a commercial fishing port but like much of that business on Chesapeake Bay it is, at best, struggling. I'm guessing that the townfolks try to make their living on the tour boats that come from Crisfield, Onancock or other mainland towns. We also learned that the State of Maryland has been trying to close the town and relocate the inhabitants as the cost of providing services is too much.

The town is small to say the least. We arrived at 11:30 am on Sunday and very shortly after we tied up one of the excursion boats pulled into the harbor. All of a sudden the two restaurants opened up for business. In addition to a meal visitors could rent bicycles and golf carts to explore the island. The boat's captain announced that they had two and half hours to do so and that they would be leaving at 2:30 pm. Well apparently two and half hours is more than enough time to check things out. Most of the visitors were back way before then, just milling around the harbor front. But God bless the Ewellians (Ewellites?). They are trying to make the best of their situation. We give them our best wishes. (For you boaters out there...The entrance channel is a bit shoaly/scary but not so bad. The current through the harbor is very pronounced. Sailboats need to avoid this place. As we entered there was a sailboat shoaled waiting for the tide to rise. It did and he got out. And if you do come here its a one night stop; no more than that.)

Our next stop was Onancock, Virginia. It is a fair sized town near the end of Onancock Creek on the eastern mainland across Tangier Sound from Tangier Island. The marina is small but they are working hard to make it a nice place. They are building what will be a small but high end marina office and washrooms building. There are slips but some are narrow with very short finger docks - stern in only. There are about eight or so much wider slips. But there are two very nice sizable facing piers right down in front that can easily accomadate three good sized boats. The wall that we were at is maybe eighty feet long with good power and plenty of strong new pilings to tie up to. There is another wall just behind that in front of the new office. The two are separated by a boat ramp. All in all very nice. The town of Onancock is typical. Nice but not too nice, with a few stores and restaurants and some offices, all very clean and nicely kept up. As is also typical for most cities this size the major shopping has moved to the outskirts of the town. Getting back to the marina, there is a waterside restaurant named Mallard's which was quite good. This would be a great place for several buddy boaters to pick as a destination to hang out for a few days and take the convenient ferry to Tangier Island for a day. And that is exactly what we did.

Tangier Island was a bit of an enigma to me. I remember in the early days of our cruising life hearing that this was an island lost in time, isolated and insulated from modernity, and that by visiting there you would be seeing life how it was, and, most oddly, that there was some kind of British brogue still spoken because of the prolonged isolation from the American speaking world. We boarded a deadrise ferry boat (Google "deadrise boat") for the sixty minute ride to Tangier. Upon learning that we were boaters Captain Mark Crockett had us sit in the pilot house with him. We were surprised that this style of fishing boat actually got up on plane and we made sixteen knots for the bumpy and rolly trip. Entering Tangier's harbor you are surrounded by crabbing docks and shacks used by the local fishermen. There were a lot of them but many of them had become broken down as the number of fishermen working out of Tangier has died down over the last couple of decades. As we disembarked at a long pier our group of tourists walked smack dab into the enigma, but with a twist. I am not sure what I was expecting (maybe some suspicious glares from suspicious locals) but what we got was a surprise. There was a small troop of smiling, happy locals handing out leaflets promoting their own particular restaurant, or store, or golf cart rental facility. We were, for all intents and purposes, ushered down the small and narrow main street that was all open for business waiting for patronage. The town itself is small but there were a few retail opportunities to be had. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. We came away from the experience with a degree of respect for the people of Tangier. They are very happy people that we believe are proud of their town and their way of life and are working hard to adapt to the changes thrust upon them by the loss of their fishing livelihoods. And they are doing a fine job of it. The town is clean with a full assortment of houses in differnt conditions. We were surprised that there was so much home construction and remodeling being done. All of the new homes were very modest things much in keeping with the flavor of the island, but new it is.

Now, about the British broque thing. Nope, didn't hear any of it. What we did hear was a sort of a confused southern accent. Remember this is in Virginia. No doubt there is an accent but it didn't sound like British English to us.

Here is our take on visiting Tangier Island. First of all don't take you own boat there. The current is very strong and would make it tricky to get into and out of the marinas, which didn't look to hot to us. Instead go to Onancock or Crisfield, park your boat there and take a ferry over. To be frank it would be an incorrect assumption to think that Tangier Island is a multi-day destination. It is not - a few hours max. Seriously. But we enjoyed our daytrip there and highly recommend it to everyone.

Onancock is the last stop of our excursion on the east side of Chesapeake Bay. Here is the score of the hits and misses:

Hits -
San Domingo Creek as the back door to St. Michaels. Awesome.
St. Michaels
Chesapeake Bay museum in St. Michaels. Top notch.
Cambridge free wall (harbor watching at its finest)
Snappers Restaurant in Cambridge, MD
Onancock
Tangier via ferry

Misses -
Cambridge, MD itself.
Smith Island

So, all in all, a good score and a very good adventure. We are sure we have missed some good places, like Crisfield, so we'll hit them the next time we head up the bay.

Next stop, back over to the west side to Deltaville for one night, then to Yorktown for the Labor Day weekend. After that to Hampton and then we begin the trek back down the ICW.

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