Watermen, Pirates and a Taste of the Old South

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Smith Island, Md. and Tangier Island, Va.

Though no longer as isolated from the mainland as they were in the days before television, telephones and the Internet, Smith Island, Md., and Tangier Island, Va., offer a chance to experience Chesapeake Bay’s waterman communities of yesteryear.

Smith and Tangier lie only 11 miles apart in the lower Chesapeake, eight miles west of Crisfield, Md. To visitors their close-knit, dry, crime-free communities seem almost

identical. Most folks work on the water and consider family, friends and church of primary importance. However, since both Smith and Tangier Islanders seek blue crabs but live in separate states with differing fisheries laws, major confrontations and minor skirmishes have erupted over the years.

Both groups of low, marshy islands were discovered by Capt. John Smith in 1608 and settled shortly after by English, Scottish and Welsh farmers. Many residents can trace their ancestors back 13 or 14 generations to those original settlers. You might notice that the older watermen speak in a dialect with strong Elizabethan English roots.

Tangier’s downtown docks are protected by uninhabited marshy islets across the channel to the north and by the main island’s slightly higher ground to the south. Along both banks crab shanties stand on stilts in the marsh. Each shanty is a waterman’s castle, a place away from home for repairing gear and gathering with friends. Young locals use the harbor as a Main Street of sorts, cruising back and forth in their boats after work or school, just as their land-based peers cruise small-town Main Streets in their cars.

Tangier has a small airstrip, but the 600-plus residents have very few vehicles, because the lanes and bridges connecting the island’s three inhabitable ridges are just wide enough for two golf carts to pass. Life proceeds at walking pace or, at most, the speed of a bicycle or golf cart. “Traffic jams” occur at the ferry landing, when tangles of golf carts await the daily mail boat and the seasonal passenger ferries. Day trippers often board trailers pulled by golf carts for a tour, then feast on seafood at Hilda Crockett’s Restaurant before returning to the mainland. Some stay in Tangier’s three bed-and-breakfast inns.

Cruisers will have more time to explore on foot or by rental bicycle or golf cart. The views are serene — over the marshes, down lanes and along the unspoiled sandy beach. Like New Orleans, Tangier is too low to permit dug graves, so each churchyard, and some residences, inter the deceased above ground. The post office, a few shops and restaurants, a small museum, and a crab exhibit comprise downtown.

Behind many homes from May through September watermen tend tanks of crabs ready to molt. Newly shed crabs are quickly packed in moist seaweed and rushed to market in Crisfield, Md., for the lucrative soft-shell trade.

On Tangier’s open-ended harbor, James Parks Marine, (757) 891-2567, has 30 slips and a T-pier to accommodate boats to 100 feet in 6-foot depths. Boaters who anchor in the small basin can dinghy to Parks. Tangier Oil Co. sells fuel. Smith Island Marina, (866) 420-4220, on Ewell’s Big Thoroughfare, has six slips for boats to 60 feet in 7-foot depths and dinghy space for boaters anchored on the bayside of the channel. The Exxon dock sells fuel.

SmithIsland, encompassing 900 inhabitable acres within its 8,000-acre area, sees less tourism and is more dependent upon blue crabs than is Tangier. Some 200 residents live on the main island in Ewell and Rhodes Point. Tylerton, a separate tiny island, supports another 40 and one bed-and-breakfast inn. Each community has its own church, founded generations ago when dissatisfied parishioners broke away from the original congregation. Church members direct community affairs, as there is no government.

Big Thoroughfare forms the approach to SmithIsland and Ewell harbor. Downtown, in addition to Smith Island Marina, you may find a space at Ruke’s Crab Shack (no facilities) or the ferry dock after the cruise boats depart. Most visitors dine on crabs and famous SmithIsland eight-layer cake at Ruke’s or Bayside Inn, then stroll the quiet lanes. Residences surround downtown, where you’ll find a grocery store, post office, two bed-and-breakfasts and three shops offering local handcrafts. Don’t miss the SmithIslandCulturalCenter near the dock. It displays the island’s history and traditions, many of which are being supplanted by mainstream American culture as young people go off-island to school and work. The exhibit that documents and deciphers the island dialect is fascinating.

A mile from Ewell is Rhodes Point. Though the boatyard there has no transient facilities, it’s worth the walk (or rental golf cart ride) to see the traditional local craft hauled. In Tylerton you can tie up at the end of the ferry dock, or 80-year-old waterman Waverly Evans will ferry you over from Ewell. Stroll the tiny island lanes to Evans’ art gallery and the Drum Point Market (for sandwiches, crab cakes and eight-layer cake — a waterman’s lunch staple).

Crabbing supports the economy. Watermen harvest crabs and in season tend the “peelers” around the clock. Women cook and pick crabmeat for sale — no longer in their homes but in a spotless co-op facility. Most Smith Islanders still work from traditional wooden boats — flat-bottom skiffs or the bigger deadrise boats distinctive in their lines, forward cabin and aft steering station. You also may see traditional Chesapeake Bay buyboats at the docks. Traditional craft buffs will enjoy Tylerton’s spring blessing of the fleet, and the Smith Island Crab Skiff Races attract home-built go-fast skiffs and spectators to the all-day July festival.

On Smith and Tangier islands, visitors don’t see the challenges and compromises islanders face in maintaining their lifestyles, but their simple way of life seems a welcome contrast to the mainland. www.smithisland.org ; www.tangierisland-va.com

Isle au Haut, Maine

One of Maine’s outermost Atlantic islands, Isle au Haut, rises like James Michener’s Bali Hai off Stonington on Deer Isle. Though half of the 2-by-9-mile island is part of AcadiaNational Park, Isle au Haut was off the tourist radar until author and swordfishing captain Linda Greenlaw began writing about her remote island home.

Named “HighIsland” by French explorer Samuel de Champlain in 1604, Isle au Haut remains one of Maine’s most rugged and least visited islands. Locals would like to keep their half that way. You can anchor in DuckHarbor on the island’s western shore, then dinghy to the National Park Service float. The daily mail boat from Stonington brings visitors to the park, limited to 90 per day.

Ashore, you’ll find 18 miles of hiking trails through wooded uplands and along marshes and bogs to rocky shores and spectacular mountaintop vistas. A rough road encircles the island. Venture beyond the park to see the 1907 Robinson Point Lighthouse (its Keeper’s House is a bed-and-breakfast inn), town and delightful views of rural Maine — lobster boats, coves, meadows. However, the locals keep to themselves, as they don’t want to feel “on display.”

You can leave your boat in Stonington and take the mail boat over on a day trip, but this remarkable island deserves more time. www.isleauhaut.net

Bath, N.C.

Bath, home of Blackbeard the Pirate and North Carolina’s oldest church, lies 10 miles west of the Intracoastal Waterway through Pamlico Sound. When Edward Teach (aka Blackbeard) lived here with his 14th wife around 1716, Bath was a major Colonial port boasting some 8,000 inhabitants. You’ll find a warm welcome from the present 275 residents.

Boaters in Pamlico Sound cruise up the PamlicoRiver, then follow Bath Creek north two miles. Bath Harbor Marina, on the east bank just south of the fixed highway bridge — (252) 923-5711, www.bath harbor.com — has dockage and anchorage depths to 7 feet. You can also anchor across town in Back Creek off the Quarterdeck Marina, (252) 923-2361, which has a boat ramp and sells gifts and gas (3-foot depths at mean low water).

The National Historic District’s shady streets are permeated with the tantalizing legends of Blackbeard. Before he was killed near OcracokeIsland in 1718, the pirate sold his plunder and bribed important officials in Bath, so they welcomed him. Treasure hunters have uncovered household artifacts at Blackbeard’s alleged home site, but no gold … yet. Some say Bath never sustained its prosperous beginnings because a Methodist revivalist cursed the town in 1762 for its hedonism.

You can walk to the restaurant, grocery store, one inn and HistoricBathVisitorCenter (for maps or historic home tours). That’s it. Nothing spoils the tranquility of North Carolina’s first town and oldest port of entry, incorporated in 1705. www.visitnc.com

McClellanville, S.C.

A taste of the Old South awaits at Intracoastal Waterway green marker 36 in South Carolina. Seven miles up JeremyCreek lies McClellanville, population 350, a charming fishing village nestled beneath ancient moss-draped live oaks.

McClellanville was a summer retreat for wealthy rice planters in the mid-1800s and retains a somnolence reminiscent of the 1930s. You can stroll along quiet lanes past cottages, churches, gardens and a few shops. Carolina Seafood sells seafood fresh from the boats. T.W.GrahamRestaurant (Southern-style lunch and dinner) and The Pinckney Street Café (lunch) are open weekends and some weekdays. Next to town hall, the VillageMuseum traces the economy through rice cultivation, lumbering and farming to the present mainstay: fishing.

The annual Lowcountry Shrimp Festival and Blessing of the Fleet in May is McClellanville’s only tourist happening, and thousands of visitors will spend the day watching decorated shrimp boats parade along the waterfront, enjoying the food, entertainment and arts and crafts.

At Leland Marine Service, (843) 887-3641, boats to 150 feet can tie up in 10-foot depths. Though the facility still shows scars from Hurricane Hugo’s devastating direct hit in 1989, it sells fuel, propane and ice and will arrange for transportation to The Crab Pot Restaurant on U.S. 17. Though McClellanville is only 48 miles north of Charleston, it seems light-years away. www.coastal-sc.com/mcclellanville

Cabbage Key, Fla.

Cabbage Key, opposite Gulf Intracoastal Waterway marker 60 in southwestern Florida’s Pine Island Sound, offers camaraderie in an Old Florida wilderness setting. Watch for dolphins as you follow the 7-foot-deep channel to Cabbage Key’s well-protected modern marina — (239) 283-2278, www.cabbage key.com — with slips for boats to 85 feet in 6- to 8-foot depths. There’s also a dinghy tie-up for boats anchored out. Cabbage Key is accessible only by boat, and overnight reservations are recommended.

Situated atop the adjacent 38-foot Indian shell mound, the Old House Restaurant and Inn serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, including what it calls the original Cheeseburger in Paradise. The restaurant also will cook your filleted catch to order.

Some $50,000 in signed bills cover the DollarBillBar’s walls and ceiling. Most boaters continue the tradition a fisherman began decades ago to ensure he’d get a cold beer when he returned. It’s a lively place, especially when day trippers arrive on tour boats from Captiva and Pine islands.

Nature trails wind through this unspoiled, subtropical 100-acre island, where you’ll see wading birds, otters, eagles, maybe even alligators. Or you can dinghy through a mangrove tunnel to the eastern shore of adjacent CayoCostaIsland, which boasts six miles of pristine sands on the Gulf of Mexico.

Back on Cabbage Key, climb the water tower erected for the original 1930s Cabbage Key Inn for a 360-degree view. If you’re lucky, you’ll glimpse the green flash at sunset over the Gulf.

Cumberland Island, Ga.

Along the Intracoastal Waterway in southern Georgia, marshes obscure the grandeur of Cumberland Island National Seashore, a must-see destination. Georgia’s largest and southernmost barrier island contains unspoiled forests, wetlands, marshes and 16 miles of pristine beaches, as well as historic Victorian mansions and several private tracts.

The Park Service’s Sea Camp, Dungeness and Plum Orchard docks have minimal facilities and limited space for daytime tie-ups only, but you can anchor overnight (7- to 9-foot tides) and dinghy ashore ($4-per-person fee). Visitors, mostly day trippers and campers on the daily ferry from St. Marys, Ga., are capped at 300 a day.

The IceHouseMuseum near the Ranger Station at Dungeness Dock displays the island’s natural and human history. People have lived here since American Indian encampments 4,000 years ago, but 19th-century steel magnate Thomas Carnegie and his wife, Lucy, left the largest footprint. The couple built a self-sufficient winter estate (Dungeness) and mansions for their children. You can imagine how the tycoons lived by exploring the Dungeness ruins and touring Plum Orchard mansion, built for son George Carnegie. The other remaining mansions are privately owned; one is a luxury inn.

Except on the main road, wilderness prevails. Fifty miles of trails meander east to the Atlantic beach and north to Plum Orchard and “The “Settlement,” founded by freed slaves. While hiking you’ll usually spot a variety of wildlife, especially feral horses, armadillos, turkeys, alligators and some 335 species of birds. www.nps.gov/cuis

Darien, Ga.

Darien lies about six miles up the Darien River, off Intracoastal Waterway marker 184 in Doboy Sound. This unassuming fishing village of 1,700, founded by Scottish Highlanders in 1736, was a prosperous lumbering port 100 years ago. Because Union troops burned Darien to the ground, only the town square layout and a few ruins predate the Civil War. Strolling downtown’s lanes and squares beneath massive live oaks draped with Spanish moss, you’ll pass picturesque churches, imposing homes and simple cottages. A few shops, galleries and bed-and-breakfast inns dot downtown, but it’s fishing, not tourism, that drives the economy. You can walk to three restaurants, including Skipper’s Fish Camp, on the river just across U.S. 17.

Darien Landing, in the waterfront park between the shrimp docks and the U.S. 17 Bridge, has 10 feet of water at low tide. Be aware of the swift current. The deep, winding channel is marked but has shifting shoals. If you’re nervous, follow a shrimp boat.

Be sure to visit Darien during a re-enactment at Fort King George. British soldiers occupied the fort from 1721 to 1728, protecting English colonies in the Carolinas from attacks by the Spanish in Florida. Climb the three-story blockhouse and look out over the timeless marshes to experience the chilling isolation those soldiers must have felt.

Mary R. Drake and her photographer husband, Bob, have been exploring, photographing and writing about East Coast cruising destinations for Soundings for 20 years. In their previous lives, Mary sailed around the world with her then-husband and three children in an engineless replica of Joshua Slocum’s Spray that they built in Noank, Conn. Bob cruised the Caribbean for seven years with his then-wife and four sons in a 43-foot wooden ketch.