Monday, June 30, 2014

And So We Sat in Crisfield. The Wrap-up of the Eastern Shore of Chesapeake Bay.

We arrived at Somers Cove Marina in Crisfield, Maryland on Friday, June 20th, with every intention of just hanging out there for a week, which we did. The reason for the lollygagging was that we didn’t need to be in Annapolis until the 1st of July, so there was no need to hurry. And since Somer’s Cove Marina only charged us 50 cents per foot and their internet connectivity was very good, why push it. And, from Crisfield it was only two days to Annapolis.
The story on Crisfield was the same as the other towns and harbors sprayed around the eastern shore, a great marina attached to a run down and struggling town. There really wasn’t anything to do there except stream and watch six seasons of a Canadian television show we got hooked on called Murdoch Mysteries. (Think CSI set in Victorian era Toronto.)
With our visit to Crisfield we have, for all intents and purposes, finished our exploration of the main ports of the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay (south of Annapolis) that we started last summer. The only town we skipped was Oxford, and frankly, we don’t think we’re really missing anything. You see, the eastern shore of the bay was, well, disappointing. Actually it was confusing.
“Confusing?” you may ask. Yes, it has left us with a lot of mixed feelings.
On the positive side of things there were really three main virtues to boating over on the east side instead of just hitting the usual western destinations. First, the boating over there was a lot of fun.  I got to drive my boat instead of just pointing it north or south and hitting the autopilot button. The second, the marinas are great! Most of them are new and the ones that aren’t new are in very good shape. All of the harbors had plenty of depth and room, and their shoreside facilities were all top notch. The third reason was that the people at the marinas went way out of their way to make sure we were welcome and taken care of. Oh, there were some really great restaurants too. (The Shanty in Cape Charles was incredible. Try the friend clams.)
Even with those good things, our overall opinion was that our expectations were not met. We had bought into what I call the Eastern Shore Mythos. That is that the destinations are amazingly charming and quaint villages with lots of shops and things to see and do. Not so. Most of them were run down, with boarded up storefronts and deserted streets. They were trying to put their best feet forward, but they were severely challenged by many years of a declining regional economy and fewer boaters. (St. Michaels was an exception. I’ll talk about it later.)
 They lacked any of the conveniences that cruising boaters are looking for, like nearby grocery stores, convenience stores, pharmacies, or liquor stores – things to see and do. As is typical in America today, most of the shopping in the areas have moved away from the town centers and are located out on the main highway drags. As elsewhere, this business migration sucks the life out of the former business hubs.
So why all the hub bub? Why is there so much hype? I think it’s because that Chesapeake Bay is largely a boating body of water for Virginia and Maryland locals. With only a few exceptions Why Knot was the only boat out there with a transom that had a home port other than Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Deltaville, Solomons, or Annapolis. Loopers are only on the scene for a short time in May and they shoot up the bay to get to points north. They don’t linger. And for the most part, the bay is a highway for mega-yachts to get up to New York and New England. So they all stick to the west side of the bay. And other long range cruising boaters have better places to be, I guess. And I was surprised that I didn’t see boats from states like Florida or Georgia, evading the hurricane season.
I met a man named Bucky, a sailor, who is from Norfolk and had been a coastal and bay boater for thirty years. He said that he had been to every point south of Chesapeake, including the islands, the Keys and the Gulf Coast. When I told him my opinion, he agreed. He said that most of the boaters around there very rarely stray from the bay. In other words, they don’t know any better. They aren’t aware that there are a multitude of wonderful boating locales that, frankly, blow Chesapeake Bay out of the water. (I think that was a pun. If it is, it is not intended.) And they are the ones that are pushing the mythos out into the boating world.
He also told us that the total number of boats from anywhere is way down compared to what it was like in the near past. He said that the bay used to be, “…thick with pleasure boats.” The fact is that while we were in Cape Charles, we were the only people on their boat in the marina for three days! It wasn’t until Thursday that boats started to come in.
The biggest thing missing from the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay were people. The boaters are out mostly only on the weekends and the towns are deserted during the week days.
In the last two and half years Lisa and I have been to some extraordinary places. If we had to rank the Chesapeake Bay experience it would fall somewhere in the middle. It really doesn’t compare to Canada, Lake Michigan, and pretty much all of Florida. (Now, about St. Michaels…it’s a nice town with some nice attractions, like the outstanding maritime museum. But it’s per foot price point is waaaay out of line with the value received.  For that price point, St. Michaels should be extraordinary. It’s not.)
And there are things about the Eastern Shore Mythos that are outright lies. Tangier Island is a good example of that. Before we actually got there (via ferry from Onancock), we bought into the idea that Tangier Island was this kind of strange place that purposefully isolated itself from the outside world with its own kind of exotic culture and English dialect. We thought that we were going to witness natives that were at least suspect of outsiders, if not downright hostile to them; a place somewhat frozen in some period of time where the authentic Chesapeake Bay way of life was still the norm. At least, that is what we read and were told. Well, not so much really. When we were getting off of the boat we were met by happy locals handing out flyers encouraging us to visit this store or that ice cream stand. The homes were all fairly new and the people were about as exotic as my Aunt Delores. Even the dialect was, to my ears, really nothing more than a southern drawl that was slightly thicker than normal.
Another example would be Crisfield. From the image they project you would think that for most of the summer, hundreds, if not thousands of people sat around the waterfront eating crab. Well, that image and the happenings that produce that image, only occurs around Labor Day weekend. Otherwise it’s a sleepy town without much to do.
Now, I’m a marketing guy. I understand the whole thing about creating a brand and an image that is a differentiator so that people are attracted to something versus something else. All commercial, and many non-commercial entities do that. And you know what? I’m all for it. But in my opinion, boaters have more to lose when they make a decision about visiting a destination that turns out to be flat. We don’t have the flexibility that someone in a car has when going someplace. For boaters going someplace takes a greater commitment. We have to plan more and the execution of that plan is more involved than jumping into a car and hitting the road. If we make the effort to go someplace and it turns out to be less than great, we somehow feel like we’ve been taken, especially if it was hyped up big time.
So, the Eastern Shore is hyped up. The mythos about it that has been created is very powerful and resilient. But I’m going to myth-bust the whole thing and boil it down to four sentences. Here’s my bottom line opinion on the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay –
The boating is fun!
The marinas are terrific.
The food is, for the most part, very good.
The towns kind of suck.
So would I recommend that you, a cruising boater, make the effort to spend a summer and explore all of these over-hyped, under served, somewhat isolated places, most without much to show for them?
YES! And here’s how you should do it.
First, there are some totally bang up events throughout the summer at these locales, and I absolutely believe that anyone wanting to explore these places should schedule their visits during these events. These events though, do seem to conflict with a logical cruising itinerary. You may be heading up the bay for one of them, then back down for another, then back up for another.
Second, if you are visiting a town during some other time without an event, you need to have your expectations set low. If you buy into the pictures in the color brochures and websites and think that what those show is what you’ll get when you get to one of these places, you will be disappointed. With the exception of the excellent maritime museum in St. Michaels, there isn’t a whole helluva lot to do in the towns themselves.
And third, the eastern shore would be great for buddy boating, where you have friends around you so you don’t have to rely on the destination itself to amuse you. (btw, Crisfield was the only town on the eastern shore that had a nearby chandlery, if you need to do maintenance on your boat. It is only three blocks from the marina.)

We’re glad that we spent the time and money to visit these places during our two summers in the eastern shore region of Chesapeake Bay, but were, in the end, somewhat disappointed. But we know the truth about them and the truth isn’t bad at all. Your expectations need to be set correctly. We perhaps had ours set too high. 

But then, I might be wrong.

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