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El Niño, oysters and the term ‘Down East’

It was a lovely fall and mild start to winter here at Mile Zero. The cruising rallies to the Caribbean got off pretty much on schedule from Portsmouth and Hampton, Virginia, and I didn’t hear about any catastrophes en route. Hurricane season on the East Coast was quiet, though marred by the tragedy of the freighter El Faro off the Bahamas with the loss of all hands.

Tugs such as the Eileen McAllister must report for work in just about any weather.

With the exception of a few brisk reminders that winter had begun, December provided great weather for the Bay’s fall rockfish season — and a lot of big fish. There seemed to be daily pictures in the newspaper of a smiling angler holding a 40- or 50-pound cow, pleased to have just removed a few million eggs with big-fish genes from the future of the species. In Maine’s lobster fishery, big breeders are protected. Why we don’t apply some of that logic to Morone saxatilis is beyond me.

The weather news is dominated by the effects of the El Niño phenomenon, which in addition to a statistically milder winter in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast should bring more storms (and moisture) to Southern California. In 1983, another big El Niño winter, I traveled on business to Los Angeles and saw in one 24-hour period the collapsed Santa Monica pier, a flooded South Coast Plaza Mall and the corner of the L.A. Convention Center missing from a tornado. To top it all off we parked a few floors underground at the L.A. Merchandise Mart, and the car jumped a foot sideways in an earthquake. I was glad to get back Down East.

Speaking Of Down East

In my world of boat-peddling, the term “Down East” continues to morph and stretch into more and more models, some built many thousands of miles from Southwest Harbor or Jonesport. Most Soundings readers know that the term Down East came from the coasting schooners sailing home downwind to the east toward Maine. It’s part of the exam when you apply for a subscription.

From my perch at Mile Zero, I keep the 10X binoculars — or the “big eyes,” as my retired Navy brother calls them — at the ready to get a good gander at my favorite style of powerboat, whether a Newman 46 lobster yacht or a current-generation Sabre, MJM or Hinckley. This fall and early winter saw an unusual number of these “blue boats” go by. Several Chesapeake builders have made names for themselves exquisitely finishing Maine hulls, most notably Zimmerman and Campbell. In a world of sundeck motoryachts and Sea Ray lookalikes, the profile of a Down Easter is eye candy at the top of the Ditch.

Oyster Wars

If you look at a chart of Virginia Beach you soon realize that there is a lot of navigable water beside the oceanfront. Inland from the beach itself is a maze of salt ponds accessible through Lynnhaven inlet, the north-facing mouth of the Lynnhaven River, roughly halfway between Cape Henry and the southern end of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. The bays, or lakes as some are known, reach east nearly to the oceanfront and south for several miles, much of it marked and navigable.

The shoreline of this inland paradise is prime residential real estate and home to the Beach elite, including the premier yacht and country club that serves them. It is also the historic home to a sought-after oyster that’s bouncing back after years of decline, and conflict is brewing between watermen and residents, tube-towing speedboats and deadrise workboats, and undisturbed views vs. working watercraft near moored yachts.

In a Virginian-Pilot newspaper article, journalist Dave Mayfield profiled the efforts of Chris Ludford, who has been farming his Pleasure House oysters in the Lynnhaven River for several years and has applied for bottom leases in a couple of the more-inland bays. To many, Ludford is a force for good. His operations have played a significant role in improving the water quality of the estuary. His bottom leases are a low-impact way of farming, without the poles and markers that mark the shallow-water cage-growing operations, which he also operates in his current leases.

Anyone who has spent some time in coastal Maine would get a chuckle out of this situation: 5 a.m. on a weekday morning is a symphony of diesels and music playing loud enough to be heard over the engine noise. In Maine we would wait for our friend Reed playing Patsy Cline and then head to the float to buy some lobsters. How Virginia decides to share the resource remains to be seen.

Spring Boat Show Time

We take space at an indoor boat show in Virginia Beach at the end of January to show off our line of high-end, Maine-built center consoles. This year we are taking more space for additional boats, as are some other dealers, which has led to an expansion of the show into another hall at the convention center. Despite the difficulties of the stock market as I write, this is the sort of anecdotal good news I like to hear.

We also have a small group working on a new in-water show for early May in Portsmouth, which has probably the best potential physical space to accommodate a major show between Newport and Florida. Stay tuned.

Today At Mile Zero

The photo with this month’s column (on the previous page) is a sharp reminder that it really is winter, El Niño notwithstanding. After spending Christmas Eve in shorts working at the office, a couple of weeks later I was shooting a picture of the Eileen McAllister on a 22-degree morning with sea smoke and light snow. And as I write today, the grassy areas are holding a light dusting. But I’m ready.

When we moved from Maine the snow shovels came in the van. I’m the only one on my street so equipped. The city may get paralyzed for a few days, but I become the local resource for all things snow. It never gets dull at Mile Zero. See you at the Bottom of the Bay, the top of the Ditch.

This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue.