July Aug 2008
In an effort to boost the local economy, Tangier Island watermen are loading their workboats with a new catch: Tourists.
Eskridge, forty-nine, transfers the red-tinged crab to another of his eighteen shedding tanks behind his shanty, located among the dozens suspended on pilings in Tangier Island Harbor. It’s nearly 9 o’clock at night and Eskridge, who doubles as Tangier’s mayor, has been up since 3 a.m. He needs to check his crabs every few hours and pull the ones that have just shed, placing them in a brown cardboard box bound for markets in Crisfield or New York. If he waits too long, the peeler grows its hard shell back and can’t be sold as a soft crab. Eskridge will repeat this process at 3 a.m. before heading out on his boat by 6 tocheck his 210 peeler pots scattered in waters north of the island.
He pulls out a buster, or a crab that’s just emerging from its shell. “Look at that,” he says, seemingly still amazed after decades working the water. “It’s like pulling a size ten out of a size six shoe.”
This rare glimpse inside a waterman’s shanty is part of a new series of “crabbing experience” tours organized by state extension agents, watermen, and local businesses in an attempt to woo more tourists to Tangier and provide an alternative source of income for oft-struggling watermen. Landlubbers, like me, for an hour or two, can go out on a boat and snare peeler crabs or hard shells or visit a crab shanty. Package deals with several of the island’s bed and breakfasts encourage visitors to spend the night—something most visitors who arrive on the daily tourist ferries don’t do. “Most people say it’s the highlight of their visit,” says Eskridge, who last summer hosted actor Dustin Hoffman in his crab shed. (Hoffman told the waterman to call him “Carl.”)
Of course, the waterman’s life is not for everyone. “It’s not a sanitized [trip],” says Dan Kaufman, a seafood business extension specialist at Virginia Tech University who helped organize the tours. “It’s for a certain type of tourist. If you’re expecting Williamsburg or Disneyland, his is not the place to go. It’s not a hot-stones-between-the toes kind of experience.”
Indeed. Tangier Island, 2 ½-miles-long-by-1-mile wide and located in the middle of the Bay, about fifteen miles from Crisfield, is the real deal: a centuries-old working port, with the majority of its male population still making a living from the water. But poverty, poor health, and isolation affect many of its nearly 600 inhabitants, as median household income barely tops $27,000. Ramshackle houses stand next to tidy cottages and front yards are often flooded by storm water and rising tides.
But during my stay on the island, I found the initially reserved islanders to be among the friendliest folks I’ve met. Rarely did I pass anyone without being offered a friendly wave and a “Hey.” I was offered rides on golf carts (the islanders’ chief means of transportation, as there are few automobiles) and advice on how to order my soft crab sandwich. (“Lettuce and tomato will ruin it,” the grill cook at Lorraine’s sandwich shop warned me.) I even visited the legendary Double Six, the island meeting place for watermen who congregate to talk tides and down 75-cent instant coffee and scrapple sandwiches—and didn’t stop conversation when I walked in.
Getting to Tangier Island is half the fun. I arrived on the mail boat, which takes forty-five minutes from Crisfield and carries much more than mail. In addition to seating for twenty passengers or so, the rear deck of the boat was crammed with everything from mattresses to toilet paper to a hot water heater, which belonged to Frank Goodrich, my host at the Bay View Inn Bed and Breakfast, who happened to be on the boat with me.
Goodrich, a native upstate New Yorker visited Tangier with his wife, Gwen, last August, and the couple was so taken by its quirky charms that they agreed to take over management of the B&B two days after their visit. “We fell in love with the island right away,” he says. “It’s like living in the 1950s. The kids all run around and everyone looks out for one another.”
Goodrich doesn’t look like anyone else on the island. His long hair, penchant for flowery shirts, and laid-back demeanor are dead giveaways of his previous job, a resorts manager in the Florida Keys. But he has embraced his new home and is one of several new island residents who are trying to champion the island’s appeal—both to tourists as well as Tangier’s own inhabitants. In just the last year, he’s helped restart the long-dormant blessing of the fleet at the start of crab season, organized a pilot’s fly-in at the island’s small airfield, and is helping launch the upcoming Buy Boat Festival (Aug. 2). He is also working on this fall’s Waterman’s Jubilee, complete with boat races, cook-offs, and crafts.
Two other relative newcomers, Drs. Neil and Susan Kaye, used grant money to establish the Tangier Historical Museum and visitor center—an island first, which officially opened on June 5, the 400th anniversary of the island’s founding by explorer John Smith. They’ve also published a Tangier Island water trails map and allow visitors to take out canoes and kayaks from the visitors center for free. And that’s exactly how I spent the bulk of an afternoon, exploring Tangier’s quiet marsh guts and ending up on its desolate mile-and-half-long beach, home to huge colony of orange-beaked black skimmers.
Famished after my lengthy paddle, I stopped by Hilda Crocket’s Chesapeake House, which has been serving up family-style meals since 1939. Of the island’s four restaurants, this is the one that gets most of the group tours, and I found myself joined by a congregation of nine friendly ladies (many sporting large hats) from a Chincoteague, Va., church. Between platters of crab cakes, clam fritters, corn pudding, and home-baked rolls, I got all the local gossip from Dee, my seventy-something dining companion.
I walked off lunch along the rutted, puddle-filled roads, reading dozens of new historical placards, also organized by the Kayes. My favorite tells of a still-standing tin building that once held the island’s only jail cell. Apparently, an inmate was so perturbed at the jailer for forgetting his lunch he climbed out the window, went home to eat, and then climbed back in. These days, there are no jails left on Tangier and only one policeman—who drives a PT Cruiser with a siren on top.
Along my ramble, I ran into forty-three-year-old Harold Pruitt, who, like most island watermen I met, was more than happy to share with me their opinion of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. The state regulating body recently levied a series of tough restrictions on crab catches, ranging from new minimum size requirements to limits on the number of pots a waterman can fish to the length of the hard-shell season. Most watermen believe that pollution is the real culprit behind diminished harvests—as well as the regulations themselves, which produce a lower catch. “It makes no sense. They’re just trying to put us out of business,” says Pruitt, who notes that many of his neighbors have already left to work tugboats up and down the East Coast. “Needless to say there are a lot of lonely wives.”
In the past five years, the number of licensed watermen on the island has decreased from approximately 140 to seventy. And others aren’t replacing them. In this year’s high school class of ten, not one graduate will likely go into the local fishing industry.
Pruitt says he’s thought of trying another occupation, but is limited by the fact that he dropped out of school after eighth grade. “Still,” he says, “I can’t imagine leaving it. You put us in the middle of New York with a briefcase, you might as well put us in the middle of the ocean. We wouldn’t know what to do.”
At his crab shanty, Eskridge gave me a similar blank look when I asked him if he could ever envision himself doing something else. His grandfather and father were watermen and so is his twenty-seven-year-old son. But the mayor is skeptical when it comes to the industry’s future. “I’d like for my son’s son to be [a waterman], but we’ll see. Who knows what it’ll be like then. We’re not asking for welfare or handouts. We just want to go to work.”
And for now, there is a lot of work to do. By all accounts, it’s been a surprisingly good spring for soft crabbers, with harvests up throughout the Bay. But Eskridge knows—and now I do, as well—that the fortunes of a waterman ebbs and flows with the tides. “You know what the Bible says,” he muses. “Life is like a vapor—see it and then it’s gone.”
For more information on Tangier Island Waterman Tours, see http://www.gotangierisland.com.