Small Town Hopping

Oct. 10

Two days’ cruise from Colonial Beach—with a delightful night on the hook at Mill Creek near the Great Wicomico River on the western shore—landed us in Cape Charles, VA, a town with War of 1812 history near the southern tip of the Eastern Shore. The crossing was choppy and not very pleasant, requiring us to take a less direct course in search of protection from northeasterly winds, and we were grateful, at last, for the shelter of dockage. During our stay there, we watched the docking “show” of a number of motor and sail boats, all challenged by the high winds, one of which made unfortunate contact with others in the harbor and sustained some damage. 

Cape Charles is a cute town, and it was a good place to sit out the big 5-day blow. We rode our bikes and enjoyed dinner at The Oyster Farm Seafood Eatery, where the black beans and rice accompanying the grouper were the star of the evening. Knowing we were staying a while, we took our time perusing the town, more than once having plans upended by unpredictable hours of business due to lack of help, end of the season, and broken water mains. The pancakes at Cape Charles Coffee House were deliciously memorable, and additionally so for being served with the longest fingernails we’ve seen in action. 😂 Brown Dog Ice Cream is open only on week ends these days, but it’s worth the wait. There was a jewelry store specializing in

“fish leather,” bracelets and earrings made from leathery hand-painted fish skin, and a photographer’s studio filled with crisp, artistic, local shots all taken from a small plane. If we were not at the end of our cruising, I might have provisioned for docktails at the gourmet market. On a particularly blustery and rainy day, we walked out to the end of the fishing pier and watched the action, seeing Ribbon Fish being hauled in, one after the other. These beautiful long flat silvery fish with wavy fins like curling ribbon have teeth, mind you! Wikipedia says that, although Americans don’t know what to do with Ribbon Fish, it is an excellent eating fish which the Japanese prize; hence, our observation that the fishingpeople were Asian. 

Above: My, it was rough out there! Below: Ribbon Fish, slim, silver fish with wavy dorsal fins, were the catch of the day.

Once high winds abated, we cruised north to Onancock, a tiny town which undoubtedly oozes charm during high season. However, it not being high season, welcome mats were all but rolled up. We enjoyed docktails and dinner with lovely folks from Victoria, BC, Judy and Greg Waller on Rumabout, who we had met in Cape Charles. 

Cutting back west 16 miles is the soft shell crab capital of the world, Tangier Island, population 450 with a town the altitude of 3 feet and an area of one square mile. Two-thirds of its land mass has been lost since 1850 due to sea level rise and erosion and continuing at an accelerating rate. According to an article in New Yorker, this Island is one storm away from being wiped out; and yet, the mayor is no believer in climate change. One steps back 75 years in time on Tangier, and James Michener fans go back even further in their imaginations, recognizing Tangier as an important setting in his novel, Chesapeake. The channel through which boats approach Tangier Island is lined on both sides by fishing “bungalows” —shanties, really—the man caves of the watermen who make their living trapping blue crab, sorting them to market those with intact hard shells from ones that have molted their outgrown shells, and throwing back those that have begun to grow a new one. We walked the single road into town and found residents congregated and chatting from their golf carts, awaiting the tourists disembarking the final ferry of the season, to escort them around the loop for a small fee and a big tip. Two churches, a grocery which is restocked every Thursday, a post office bearing evidence of Amazon shipments, a K-12 school with 50 students and a football team(?!), a part-time medical clinic for which a doctor flies in once a month, a quaint museum, a T-shirt shop, and a few restaurants—Lorraine’s being the only one still open this late in the season. The main transport on the island is golf cart or scooter, but some residents keep a car on the mainland. There is no cellphone service. We had heard about the dialect spoken by the locals, a sort of “Elizabethan English meets Waterman,” and as we were preparing to push off in the morning, we could hear a unique cadence among watermen across the water as they prepared for the day. The museum listed a lot of fun local vernacular: “Nippity cut” means a close call and “old whackems” are long-time buddies. We couldn’t resist purchasing the 3-page list of unique phrases of the dialect for coffee table reading. We chatted with 90-year-old Milton Parks, owner of Parks Marina, who was born on the island and raised here. “There are only three names on the island—Crocker, Pruitt and Parks,” he told us. (A little simplified—the internet say there are 6 family names.) They have no police—everyone knows everyone, and if you misbehave, your mom’ll hear about it! Dinner at Lorraine’s, with its oil cloth table cloths and a white board listing the desserts so that you’d be sure to save room, was delicious. We splurged on crab dip and shared a crab cake dinner, at “market price,” currently $31/pound, according to our server. We had read at the museum that government regulation has shortened the crabbing season by 5 months due to over fishing. But watermen dispute this and attribute the poor return this season to pollutants in the water. We suspect the crab shortage in the crab capital of the world to be a more nuanced issue—perhaps both, and some others reasons, as well. 

Shanties called ”bungalows” line the channel, convenient for the watermen to store their traps and boats, sort their catch, and enjoy male company.
Mr. Parks is the 90-year-old owner of the marina. He was quite a character, full of stories, and a little hobbled after an accident which cracked some ribs and injured his arm. He had just returned from the grocery—even though it was the weekly delivery day for provisions to the island, only gallon jugs of skim milk were to be had. He shrugged.
While it might be said that Parks Marina could use a young owner’s touch, Mr. Parks’ friends and other boaters come around, and the marina is as happenin’ as any other place in town.

The dock master at Onancock told Steve, “If you don’t go to Tangier once, shame on you. If you go more than once, shame on you, too.” That’s just about right. 

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