Adventures of s/v WILD HAIR


Our land life took on form, solidity, routine. We had mastery of a limited set of skills. We had habitual expectations of others and ourselves. Going sailing, we let go of our attachments to our roles, views, and rituals. We persist because we are growing in this shapeless and dynamic world.

Monday, November 30, 2009


I found our visit to the remote island of Tangier to be simultaneously delightful and unbearable. I fell in love with a people on the brink of extinction.

Tangier, is an inhospitable-looking stretch of land barely breaking the Bay’s surface, It is bisected by a narrow navigable channel, a hub for fishing and recreational boat traffic. The island's unofficial ambassador is 78-year-old Milton Parks. The man is a retired Waterman, a US military veteran, and an ancestor to the island's earliest settlers. Like St. Francis of Assisi, Mr. Parks walks his marina piers with a dog and a half-dozen cats tussling at his feet. Quickly in conversation you learn he is someone who knows the meaning of hard work; crabbing by day and working construction by night, Mr. Parks built the island’s only marina 40 years ago. Remarkably, he and his sons also laid a football field length of heavy boulders to stand steadfast as a breakwater to the marina and channel.

Mr. Parks loves and spoils his guests. At $30 per night, his marina prices were the best value we’d encountered in two years of cruising. Earnestly wanting us to have a good time, Mr. Parks rushed us to dinner in his golf cart at four in the afternoon. Lavern, he explained, keeps “church hours.” Because hers was the only year-round restaurant on the island, we had to leave immediately to try her crab cakes.

In the tiny restaurant, we met other good-natured Tangier residents. Most remarkable was their accent. Tangier was settled in the 1600’s by a group of Cornish pilgrims from England. After 400 years of relative isolation, today's residents carry a rich blend of cockney and Virginia drawl in their speech. To my ear, their private conversations were melodic and undecipherable. Kindly, when they spoke to us, their accent was transformed to that of main-stream America.

Shortly, Mr. Parks returned to the restaurant in his golf cart to give us an unsolicited full-island tour. The island’s central canal had the look of a working waterfront. Rusting crab pots, dilapidated boats, and marine debris were piled haphazardly along shore. But farther in, freshly painted modest homes lined pedestrian and golf cart “streets” made of crushed oyster shells. The pride of ownership was collective. A few houses promised crafts and gifts inside—evidence of a fledgling tourism industry. The homes of newcomers (nearly) blended with the homes of locals. Mr. Parks made it clear that everyone was welcome on the island.

We also witnessed that Tangier was an island of cats. Felines roamed freely and un-spade. Dave and I had been warned by people on the mainland that islanders control the cat population by putting strays onto visiting boats. Consequently, prior to our arrival, we had assigned Dinghy guard duty. Throughout our Tangier visit, Dinghy stood sentinal, alert and yowling her disapproval as others got too close.

The next day we bought groceries and explored the island by foot. At the market, photos of shoppers clutching grocery bags while knee-deep in salt water lined the walls. Flooding we learned was a regular occurrence. The grocer said simply, "when the tide is high and the moon is just so the island floods."

We wandered without direction throught the streets and found ourselves at the local history museum. To enter the museum, a sign on the door instructed us to “walk around back” and “ring the doorbell of the house behind.” Once done, we found ourselves in the living room of a young Artist in Residence. Armed with both Art and History degrees, this energetic fellow joined the community last year to transform an old house into an interpretive center. The young man admitted us into the museum and answered our many questions. His newly crafted displays, writings, and collected photographs were revealing. Professional videos and audio recordings disclosed--in the words of local residents--the community’s stories, memories, and fears. It was in the history museum that we began to learn of the natives’ crisis.

On Tangier Island, the people's shared livelihood is soon-to-be outlawed. Young people are already driven to the mainland for work, the intricate web of generations-old relationships is unraveling, and the charming culture is likely doomed.

The men of Tangier are Watermen. For centuries, Watermen have caught and sold the Chesapeake Bay’s famous Blue Point (soft shelled) crabs. Eighty percent of the world’s Blue Points come from a handful of independent Watermen working the Bay. Six days a week Watermen rise at 4 am to hoist, empty, and re-bait crab pots. The most ambitious manage up to 400 crab pots a day, year round. Largely done by hand, hauling pots through 40 to 70 feet of water is wet, cold, dangerous, exhausting work.

The Chesapeake Bay resource is struggling. The “glory days” when trainloads of oysters were hauled to New York City have ended. Non-point source pollution chokes oxygen levels thereby killing sport fish. Invasive predators destroy any number of delicate population balances. Influential political forces are fighting to preserve the health of the Chesapeake for future generations. Environmentalists and sport fishers go toe-to-toe with the commercial fishing industry. The science driving their passionate cause is new, untested, and a mystery to the island's Watermen. National politics are vicious. Compassion is nonexistent.

As a result, Watermen’s historic crabbing beds are heavily restricted and the economics of their trade no longer work. As small businesses they own their boats, buy fuel and bait, build and maintain their pots, and—maybe—hire a helper. After 10 hours of labor, they may have 10 bushels of crab that they sell to a middle-man at the going rate of $15 per bushel. With rising fuel prices, $150 cannot cover operational costs and feed families.

Just this year, crabbing was made illegal five months out of the year.

Last spring, for the first time since the 1600’s, not one of the graduates from the island’s school will go on to become a Waterman. Most Watermen are too old to learn a new trade and too young to retire.

It gets worse. There is evidence that the island (actually all the land along the Virginia and Maryland east coast of the Chesapeake Bay) is sinking. It is thought that in geologic history a meteor struck the Sassafras River, opening the river to the ocean, and giving birth to the Chesapeake Bay. Scientists believe the land is still reverberating with shock waves and the eastern shore is in a slow downward thrust. Tangier locals are convinced their flooding woes are aggravated by melting polar ice caps.

By the time Dave and I left the history museum, I could hardly breathe. These kind and simple people are not lobbyists and have no voice in the larger resource decision-making process. But, I am (among other things) a lobbyist. I found myself rapidly calculating how I might live on Tangier, commute (by boat) to Washington DC, and steer the debate to protect their interests and preserve their culture. Old habit energies of running with an environmental cause sprang to the surface. I would challenge and clarify environmental science and bring environmental sustainability to poor and underrepresented people. But, in the midst of my internal tirade, something caught in my head.
I remembered that I’m sailing with my husband. Our time together is sacred for us as a couple and it would be far too easy for either one of us to fill our time with work. Knowing how tempting work is, Dave and I actually promised each other that we would not do that. As I calmed, I realized Tangier was not my fight; the world would have to sort this one out without me.

We returned to the boat and found the “middle man” had arrived. Milton’s son Doug lived on the mainland and traveled to Tangier each day by boat to buy the day’s catch from the Watermen. Boat after boat bellied up alongside Doug’s larger trawler, unloading bushel baskets that overflowed with live critters. Once on the mainland, the company Doug worked for would truck the catch to Canada; the crab would be in Toronto by morning.

Fellow sailboat cruisers Paul and Sheryl Shard were onboard Doug’s boat filming the Watermen's exchange. As TV personalities, this talented cruising couple is in their fifth season producing Distant Shores, an internationally sindicated travel show. Together, Paul and Sheryl participate in whatever activity is at hand, film their experience, and edit footage into a coherant whole. At their urging, Doug taught us all how to hypnotize crabs, how to tell male crabs from female, and how to hold them without getting pinched.
Illogically, there is almost no market for female Blue Point crabs (except in China). Wanting to do a taste test, we bought a dozen males for $15 and a dozen females for $3. Later that night at our private crab boil, we confirmed there is no difference in taste, texture, or ease of picking. We also learned that Dave, Dinghy, and I cannot eat more than 18 crabs at one sitting. The act of steaming two dozen live crabs in WILD HAIR's tiny saucepans is another story.

Just as Doug’s boat departed, three more sailboats approached the marina looking for dockage. We had toyed with the idea of staying another day, but in the moment we decided to cast off to give the newcomers our prime dock space. Deep inside I knew it was time to press southward. If I stayed a moment longer I was at risk of dweling on Tangier Island forever.

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