Oysters are to the Bay as grapes are to Napa - Soundings Online

Oysters are to the Bay as grapes are to Napa

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High above Mile Zero of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (well, not that high), I find myself switching the thermostat to cool as the sun pushes the interior temperature toward 80 on this 60-degree day. Though warmer than normal, today is the cool break in a stretch of way-above-normal temperatures, with mid-70s forecast for the coming week. Periodically, I hear an optimistic boat owner fire up a slumbering engine for a harbor cruise, and the liveaboards are asking when the summer water is coming back on.

Residents of Mile Zero get quite close to the atomic Navy.

More than 40 years ago in early spring, when I was handling the rigging and launching of new Hinckley sailboats, one of our customers from the Boston area called after a pleasant day to ask that his new Bermuda 40 be prepared for launch. We advised him to wait a bit. A week later I swept a significant snowfall off his deck, and his ardor for April cruising in Maine cooled with the temperatures. By the time this magazine hits newsstands and mailboxes, we will know whether the pleasant aberration has held and whether we might be on our way to the warmest year on record — yet again. Or perhaps a modern King Canute will hold back the global warming.

Keeping it Simple

At a recent indoor boat show, where I was extolling the many features and benefits aboard the magnificent do-everything, go-anywhere center consoles we represent, I noticed a 20-foot center console that ran counter to the Swiss Army Knife approach. Boats can be like software: Every revision seems to add more features, which may be attractive to some but to others may be costly and irrelevant.

The boat that caught my eye was a Duck Yacht 20-footer, which in its basic form was superbly clean and straightforward: a Carolina-style modified-vee skiff with a lovely sheer and flare, coupled with a smooth, molded interior and little more than a console and seat. A look online revealed Ricky Scarborough DNA in the design (duckyachts.com). The boat is priced with no standard engine, and options to 115 hp are available. Hunt, fish, play. Hose off, repeat. Every day.

Our ‘Holy Trinity’

Its difficult to write about the Chesapeake without some nod to the “holy trinity”: striped bass, oysters and blue crabs. In this respect, most Bay boaters are trinitarians, regardless of religious beliefs. This lesson comes from the Book of Oyster 1:3.

In early February, The Washington Post reported on a new entrant, the White Stone, farmed off Windmill Point near the mouth of the Rappahannock River. While many startup oyster operations work to re-establish traditional areas such as the Lynnhaven River, White Stone Oyster Co.’s owner, Tom Perry, looked at oyster farming like a winemaker searching out the best terroir and method to produce just the taste and presentation he wants. According to the Post, he started with Google Earth and drilled down from there, using his kayak to locate the best spots.

His work paid off, with his oysters now placed in a number of top-end restaurants, to rave reviews. To sample the taste, go to whitestoneoysters.com and order 100 for $140, then get some friends together — with appropriate beverages — and get shucking.

The Traveling Water Purifier

A striking 145-foot steel vessel is tied up about a half-mile south of here. It is another symbol of a maritime dream run aground on the shoals of reality. A planned restoration and subsequent circumnavigation stalled with the vessel 50 to 90 percent complete, depending on whether you’re a half-full or half-empty kind of a person.

A lavish interior is nearly finished, and the engine spaces show the care of professionals. The exterior needs a lot of attention, and the bottom is an ecosystem of its own. A good friend who is trying to broker the vessel told me it had been a couple of years since her last drydock. I was quite sure I could see oysters of market size and thought perhaps the owners could get some sort of a tax break for cleaning up a portion of the Elizabeth River. It is a handsome vessel. Perhaps there is someone out there with a dream and the resources to finish it.

Tale of the Whale

As winter waned, we had seen three dead juvenile humpback whales come ashore in Virginia Beach. Two of the three had propeller injuries, and the third probably died from a collision, as well. Why are they here, and why are they getting run over? I have read local news articles and talked to experienced local fishermen (known as unnamed sources for the purposes of the column). I have tried to piece together a story that ties in some science and some anecdotal evidence with respect to menhaden, the winter striper fishery and dead whales.

The winter food chain for whales and stripers is menhaden. Menhaden are fished hard in the coastal waters off Virginia Beach, to the extent that what remains is more concentrated in the deeper waters near the shipping channels, which are for the most part more than three miles offshore. (It’s illegal for anglers to target striped bass past three miles offshore during the winter.) Plus, there are perhaps 100 large vessels a week entering the Bay. So we have no inshore striper fishery because there aren’t enough menhaden around. The ones that are around are staying deep and away from nets; the whales and stripers are out there with them — as are ships.

Humpbacks are not endangered and, in fact, are quite plentiful. So whales get hit, and the stripers are outside three miles. There is my tale. I may be full of baloney (ask my kids), but I am sticking with it.

So as you read this, use the clarity of hindsight to test my concerns about global warming, menhaden, stripers, whales and the terroir of oysters. It’s never dull at Mile Zero. See you at the bottom of the Bay, the top of the Ditch.

This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue.