The Chesapeake in October is a fine place to be

It’s a little more than mid month now and the weather has turned distinctly fall-like with cool mornings that warm up to shorts and T-shirt weather by noonish. It was time, so we crossed over to the western side of the Chesapeake Bay to haul out at Spring Cove Marina. Steve and Sandi of Hilary, an Oyster 41 we met in Summerside way back in July, had recommended this marina in Solomons Island. On our way up the Patuxent River to the marina, a bald eagle cruised over Strathspey, dropped suddenly to the water and rose with a fish (which he immediately dropped). We were in sensory overload because at the same time Blair was excitedly pointing out an Osprey hovering on the other side of Strathspey. No, not the bird, the plane; the one that has engines that tilt, so sort of a combo helicopter/plane, officially known as a tiltrotor aircraft. You don’t see very many Ospreys in flight these days as the American military is still testing this fairly new technology with mixed results. We had a ringside seat as we motored past the Patuxent Naval Air Test Center.

This was a calm little bay surrounded by backyards
Solomons Island

Solomons Island, with a population of less than 2,000, is home to quite a few little creeks, twelve marinas and a gazillion sail and motor boats. This is one busy place! We’d found a great book called Cruising the Chesapeake, A Gunkholer’s Guide by William H. Shellenberger and on more than one occasion, he has directed us to great anchorages known only by locals and, best of all, they’re usually deserted. This time was no exception and we motored up a good-sized creek with boats anchored left and right and turned into a tiny little bay with just enough room for Strathspey to anchor right smack in the middle of it. On the western side of the Chesapeake, the anchorages are usually in built-up areas. This time we were in amongst quiet little back yards, with every house having a dock and a boat or two tied up. The homeowners were not displeased to have us as neighbours and we got some friendly waves as some of them motored past us later that day.

Four months of salt water has eaten this anode
Corrosion at work

We spent two days here, attending to maintenance. Blair changed the oil and replaced the oil and fuel filters. I walked to the West Marine store for supplies (three times) and did way too much laundry – who is wearing all these clothes?!! The 30-Ton travel lift at Spring Cove Marina lifted Strathspey out of the water and none too soon I think. The good news was that there are no barnacles on Strathspey’s hull but the anode on her saildrive was quite corroded (at least 75% gone). Blair worked with their competent mechanic, Chuck, to change the anode and reglue the rubber boot flap that covers the saildrive opening. We’d recommend this well-run marina; its staff is experienced and the rates were very reasonable. We’re glad we didn’t wait any longer for this inspection. In seven years of freshwater Lake Ontario sailing there had been no degradation of the anode, yet it almost disappeared in four months of salt water travel and quite a few marina stays. I know salt water increases the rate of corrosion but stray current at dock can also play a major role. We’ll keep a close watch on this and once in the Bahamas, we’ll be able to frequently inspect it ourselves in the crystal clear water there.

In Solomons Island, we spotted a few of the same boats that were with us in Cape May and Blair even saw one that he recognized from Baddeck, Nova Scotia. Some of these boats are racing down to Norfolk, Virginia to enter the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) at the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay trying to stay one step ahead of the cooler autumn weather. Others are lingering hereabouts waiting for November 1st. For insurance purposes, that’s the date when many boats join the wagon train heading south. We don’t have this restriction but we do have a few more places we want to visit in the Chesapeake region. It’s a toss-up which will arrive first though, November 1st or weather so awful it isn’t fun to be cruising. Either way, we are hoping to get a jump on these boats and leave the area before the end of October.

We left Solomons Island and headed back across the Chesapeake Bay to the eastern side and Crisfield, the self-proclaimed “Crab Capital of the World”. Once across, we turned south down Tangier Sound and we saw one brown pelican after another soaring around us and landing in the water behind Strathspey with a heavy kerplunk. Our bird book tells us that these ungainly looking birds have a history dating back 30 million years. Tangier Sound is surrounded by low-lying islands around which the watermen do most of their crabbing. These islands show green on our charts, indicating low marshy areas with no profile; no houses, no trees, just marsh and crabs. The way through these islands was marked by numerous red and green buoys which we paid close attention to so as not to stray too close to shallow water.

The blue crab reigns in Crisfield

We were excited to pull into Crisfield. We’d both read William Warner’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Beautiful Swimmers, in which he unlocks the mystery of the blue crab and the Chesapeake watermen that fish for them. Crisfield was featured prominently in this book and although the story was written back in the 1970’s, much of the waterman’s lifestyle and his processing of crabs remains the same. We loved the new and intriguing vocabulary in Beautiful Swimmers; Jimmys (male crabs), Sooks (females), Softs (ones just molted) and Blair’s favourite, Snots (crabs just about to molt). In Crisfield, we were definitely in the heart of blue crab country. Throughout the summer here, there are back-to-back crab festivals devoted to crab catching, crab meat picking, crab eating and even crab racing. They have a Miss Crustacean every year and one restaurant we dined in had unique washroom door labels; instead of Gentlemen and Ladies, the doors proclaimed Jimmys and Sooks.

Steamed blue crabs are on the menu most everywhere we go

Our first night in Crisfield we stuck our heads in the door of the Side Street restaurant and couldn’t resist the daily special; a dozen steamed crabs and a pitcher of beer for $19.95 – even if our dollar wasn’t almost equal, that would be good value. After we ordered it though, our waitress removed our placemats and covered the table with a big swatch of brown wrapping paper; get ready to be messy we figured! They were served the standard way – cooked with Old Bay Seasoning, served in a flat basket without plates and they were delicious.

The crabs are steamed in giant pressure cookers
Crab Steamer

Before we found the Side Street restaurant, we wandered into MeTompkin’s crab processing plant right on the waterfront and were just in time to see huge pots of crabs, one after another, lowered into giant pressure cookers. “Come back early tomorrow morning”, we were told, “ …and you’ll see them being picked”. The crab picking shift starts at 4 a.m. We didn’t get there at 4 but we did manage to be there by 8 am and were allowed to poke about both the crab picking and oyster shucking rooms.

These ladies started work at 4 am every morning, finished by 11 am
Crab pickers

The crab picking room was filled with metal tables each holding one or two older women (no men) seated in front of a huge pile of steamed crabs that had been cooked the afternoon before. Now, for me to pick an entire crab, legs and all, it’s easily a good five minutes (and that doesn’t include the eating or whining over the slices in my fingers from the sharp shell). These women were fast! They had foot-long metal trays on their laps holding packing tins and the time it took to reach for a crab, scrape the meat into the tins and reach for another was no more than 10 seconds. They worked quickly and quietly. We weren’t allowed into the crab picking area because of health regulations so we stood at the door, snapped photos and marveled at their speed.

These guys were shucking to excellent R&B music
Oyster shuckers

Right next door was the oyster shucking house which, in contrast, was full of men (only two women) and 70’s R&B music blaring from a ghetto blaster while the men stood in front of their shucking stations. These guys sang along to the music and occasionally shared cigarettes (someone would clean their hands off, light up a smoke and pass it around; either holding it up to the lips of their fellow slimy-handed shuckers or just leave it there and go on to light another one for the next shucker). There was definitely a method to their shucking and they were fast. They’d position a gnarly-looking oyster on the sharp edge of a six-inch square metal block, whale on it once with either a metal mallet or pipe and then once the shell was open, scrape the oyster into a metal pail that held about six pounds of plump oysters. Once the pails were full, they’d be weighed and that amount tallied against the shucker’s name. The shells were sent outdoors via conveyor belt to be piled high behind the plant and removed shortly thereafter.

The seagulls perched atop the conveyor belt and walked it like a treadmill
Oyster Hills

We arrived in Crisfield in time for the last festival of the season, The Waterman’s Festival, an all-you-can eat (steamed crabs, clams, oysters and sea trout) and drink (beer and wine) event with oyster shucking contests, great music and dancing. The Waterman’s Festival was small-town America at its finest; friendly, generous and uninhibited. The price was $35, which in Ottawa barely buys you two dozen oysters and a glass of wine at Big Daddy’s. A few of the oyster shuckers we’d met at MeTompkin’s entered the oyster shucking contest so we had someone to root for. The oyster shucking contest rules were pretty exacting. Each shucker had to make their way through 25 oysters, their times recorded by stopwatch. But speed wasn’t everything as deductions were made for mistakes; 1 second deductions for a sliced oyster, a not quite detached oyster or a shell left in the oyster and a whopping 20 seconds deducted for a missing oyster (presumably on the floor or somewhere else but not in the shell). The winner of the oyster shucking contest, Sam, shucked 25 oysters in 1:54 minutes. The next fastest time was 3:12. As I said… these guys are fast! The prizes were not shabby either; $300 for first place. Sam’s next venue is the National Oyster Shucking contest to compete for a prize of $1800.

Eight master shuckers competed and Sam in the blue apron won
The Contest

We stayed in Crisfield for a few days waiting out a bit of rainy, windy weather. It was comfortable here, the people were friendly, there were lots of blue crabs to eat and when we motored over to pumpout our holding tank, the marina operator said the pumpout service was free. Obviously, they love this bay and want to encourage good environmental practices and we follow suit (being from Canada and used to this in our freshwater Great Lakes). The only frustration here is that we could see lots of wifi connections but EVERY SINGLE ONE had encryption on it. What is this all about! We thought it just a little odd that the people in Crisfield, a friendly, out of the way little fishing village, would have such restricted internet access. This is the first time we’ve encountered this problem as usually, with our wifi booster antenna, we’ve been able to quickly connect to a hotspot and get our emails directly from the boat.

When we finally left Crisfield, we made our way down the eastern shore and crossed from Maryland into Virginia. Normally the water borders between states are invisible except on our charts but between these two states there is a well-marked set of yellow buoys which serve as a reminder to the watermen to stay in their own crabbing and oystering grounds. Maryland and Virginia have very different fishing practices as far as the crabs and oysters are concerned and these differences often lead to major battles between the Governors of these two states. Once into Virginia, we wound our way up the Onancock River to the town of Onancock, the second largest on this side of the Chesapeake. It was by far the prettiest river we’ve explored this month.

The Chesapeake in October is a fine place to be. We loved Maryland and Virginia and everyone’s slow-down-honey manner of speech which matches these warm, sunny days of relaxed sailing. It’s hard to tear ourselves away from this area but now we’ve dug out our down duvet and each morning we see mist rising from the waters so we know it’s almost time we were headed further south. Today, we cross back over to the western side and start heading further down the bay to Norfolk and Mile 0 of the ICW.