October 6, 2019
Our Day Trip to Tangier Island
We made reservations a few weeks ago for the last public ferry this season that takes visitors from Onancock to Tangier Island. The Tangier Ferry, operated by Captain Mark Crockett, runs the first weekend in May until the first week of October. After that time only a private ferry for Tangier residents, supplies, UPS packages and USPS mail will visit the island. I didn't want to wait until May to be able to discover what was listed in 2016 as one of the top 20 places to visit by National Geographic Magazine (out of 34,000 submissions). There are three other ways to access the island as well, the "Steven Thomas" charter from Crisfield, MD, the "Chesapeake Breeze" from Reedville, VA, or via plane by Hummel Aviation out of Topping VA.
We left from the Onancock Wharf on the Tangier Island Ferry, aka the Joyce Marie II, Captain Mark's 25-person lobster boat. It was $25/person cash for the round trip which left at 10 am and returned for Onancock at 3:30 pm (arriving at 4:30 pm). Considering Captain Mark lives on Tangier and has to drive his boat to Onancock, take us to Tangier (which is about 15 miles away), take us back to Onancock, and then return home to Tangier; that's 4 hours on the water. There were 10 of us total on this trip. That's $250 for four hours of work. Doesn't sound too bad until you realize he has to pay his slip at the Onancock Wharf, fuel for the boat for those four trips, maintenance, repairs, upkeep of safety equipment, liability insurance, business permits, boating licenses, sales income taxes, and any number of other things I can't comprehend as a waterman. Not to mention that he just has to sit idly by waiting to bring us back during the 4 hours we were on the island. Any way you slice it, $25 was so well worth this trip. (We gave him a $5 tip at the end of our trip, realizing all of his costs and wanting him to know he is appreciated. I mean, if not for him, our only other option to visit the island is by private plane, and that certainly wouldn't be $25).
Two women brought on their bicycles on to the ferry while the rest of us planned to either hire locals to take us on a golf cart historical tour of the island ($5/person); or walk, rent bicycles or golf carts from Four Brothers Crab House. The water wasn't too choppy (on our way there) and as we left the channel Captain Mark was kind enough to point out an eagle perched on a channel marker. Of course we all were too slow and too in awe to snag a photo but it was wonderful to see, and he said that eagle perches there every single morning.
It was about an hour boat ride and we passed one other island on our way to Tangier. It was called Watts Island and from the map seems to be about 1/5 of the size of Tangier, with no inhabitants. There were some crazy biting flies that hitched a ride with us the entire way there, though I have no idea how they hung in there with the winds and speed of the boat on the water.
Once on the island, we were greeted by some Trump-supporter flags and several locals with golf carts (known as "Tangier Taxis") who offered us a tour of the island for $5/person. We knew that a big part of what we were there to experience was what the people do on the island, how they've survived, isolated on this one and a half to two-mile-around piece of land culture and history of the island, and to find out the most significant buildings on the island. We, along with two other ferry riders, got onto the golf cart of local resident, Michelle. I had already heard the distinctive dialect of a Tangier native when I called to make our ferry reservation, which I would describe as a British variation of English, also known as a Shakespearean English. However, our tour guide's accent was different, a slow, deliberate script which reminded me of something you'd hear on a double-decker NYC tour bus, "on your left we have, and on the right you'll find, and up ahead you'll see." (At some points, I even felt slightly ridiculous, like we were on the Jurassic Park ride, hoping to catch a glimpse of a raptor enjoying its afternoon goat snack. I chuckled to myself at how, after we leave the island, the locals must laugh about these silly tourists paying to come all this way just to peer into their seemingly normal lives.)
The road we started on is considered Main Street and it circles the entire Island. We passed Lorraine's Restaurant, one of the few restaurants open year-round, obviously to locals during the off-season. We were told to grab lunch as soon as our tour was over, as the bigger tour boats will arrive and I suppose, "run out" of food for the day. Fisherman's Corner and Spanky’s Place are also places to get food, but aren't open off-season. There is only one grocery store on the island, called Daley's, and their supplies also, obviously arrive by boat. The house with blue shutters on the main street, was featured in Southern Living magazine, and was built 85 years ago. The Methodist church is the oldest church on the island at 119 years. She said it was open if we wanted to take a look around. Mail is delivered 6 days a week (by boat) but is not delivered to each home. The residents have their own boxes at the post office that they have to go and pick up themselves. The Tangier History Museum is $3 to enter, has a lot of great historical information, as well as a video of interest and would open "at about 12 or 12:30 pm," which totally reminded of "Mason Avenue/Cape Charles-time." Hilda Crockett's Chesapeake House is a bed and breakfast and family-style restaurant offering a $25 all-you-can-eat meal. You can also get a variety of to-go food at Four Brothers Crab House.
There are 2 registered nurses, an EMT, and a doctor's practitioner that live on the Island. There is a Health Center and a doctor flies in once a week. There is a volunteer fire department, rescue squad and an ambulance on the island. Those in need of a hospital will have to take a helicopter which takes about 14 minutes to arrive from Salisbury MD.
There is a Mayor and 6 members of the Town Council. There is one policeman but no jail, so anyone getting into serious trouble "gets a free ride," according to Michelle, to Accomack County, across the water.
Besides the Methodist church, there is a non-denominational one as well, built in 1946. Tangier Island is actually only 5 feet above sea level, and the island's dead are buried three feet underground with a cement block lid on top of the vault, which can be buried underground or above, which seemed to be the case of a lot of burial spots and even more interesting is how many were in people's front yards.
Michelle pointed out a small white house on the outskirts of the island, known as a crab shanty. We learned later that all of the little houses attached to their own wooden piers as we come into the Island are also crab shanties, which waterman access via a dingy and then they can take their larger boat out into the Bay.
The first bridge we crossed over is the highest point on the island, and at the end of it is a fork in the road, where you can choose right to continue in the circle (you're now on the West side of the Island, known as West Ridge, or left to access the beach and the newest year-round bed and breakfast, known as the Brigadune Beachside Getaway. There is an airstrip on this side of the island where privately-owned planes fly in. The center of the island is all marshland, making the entire island 1/3 marsh.
After our very informative tour, Michelle dropped us back off in front of Lorraine's and we decided to go ahead and have lunch before renting a golf cart from Four Brother's. I was absolutely shocked by the variety in the menu, and being a vegetarian more than thrilled to have as many options as I did. I ended up getting sweet potato waffle fries with cinnamon and sugar on top as an appetizer, a small cheese, sweet pepper and onion pizza and a side salad as my meal. The waffle fries were fried to perfection and were wonderful with the cinnamon sugar topping. My side salad was beautiful and filling; and while they offered two very unique vinaigrette options, I chose their homemade ranch, which was perfect. The pizza was the only thing I wasn't pleased with, as it was pretty clear it was a frozen crust, with a very tomatoey sauce, cheese and veggies added after the fact. Everything slid right off the crust, which actually worked in my favor because I could scrape off the sauce, eat just the cheese and veggies and the outer crispy crust ring, eliminating the rest of the cardboard-like crust. Joy had chicken fingers and fries, and while they definitely didn't seem like hand battered tenders, she said it was pretty good.
We then rented a golf cart from Four Brothers for 2 hours for $40 (could have had a full day for $50, but I knew we'd still have to make time for the museum and to return the golf cart. The cart itself seemed like it had seen better days and often we questioned if it was going to die on us. I will say renting a cart on Tangier is about the most simple thing I've ever done. Sign the checkout log (no disclaimers, waivers, or contracts of any kind), and they pulled the cart around and away we went (no checking all sides of the vehicle and documenting any previous damage).
We circled the island, stopping every so often to take photos of abandoned boats, run down houses, bridges over marshlands, and interesting home and yard decor. We parked the cart and walked over a small pedestrian bridge onto the isolated beach. A plane flew over as we strolled the empty shore, and we left with only two small pieces of driftwood. I was hoping we would happen upon some amazing treasures since it was the only piece of land for miles and miles.
There was an entire part of the island, that we had seen when we were arriving on Tangier, that wasn't accessible by golf cart. I learned online this is considered the seahorse tail of the island. I was so curious to explore that part and was surprised our tour guide didn't mention anything about it. Looked like some kind of a "state park;" either that or some very wealthy home owners had this whole private section of the island to themselves.
We stopped off at the Tangier Island Museum only 20 minutes before our golf cart was due back. The ladies inside were nice enough to let us explore without paying since we didn't have much time. We ended up putting $3 in their donation jar as a thank you for allowing us a quick walk through. There was a video playing that I really wished we had had time to watch.
After we returned our golf cart, I got a soft serve ice cream cone and we went to the dock where the larger cruise ships come in to dock. We got to listen to a few locals chatting about life: a woman who was working the dock-side souvenir shop, her husband who might have been a waterman, and another man who just seemed to plan to spend his afternoon conversing with his friends (or family members, I'm not sure). Before we left the woman showed us a whale skull that her son and his father had found on one of the islands to the North. She said they waited until the remains had "gone back to the earth," and then they hauled it onto their boat and over to Tangier. We also saw the bones of an entire dolphin next to the whale skull.
We grabbed some boxed candy and a soda from Lorraine's on our way back to the boat. The ride home was completely different than our ride to Tangier. The boat was now full of weekend island visitors heading back home; residents heading off to the mainland to work for the week, and even a HVAC serviceman who had spent 36 hours on the island repairing more than a dozen heating units that are no longer serviced elsewhere and require someone with specialized knowledge to repair them. He factors in transportation, lodging, golf cart rental and more into his repair costs, dividing it among the dozen residents. I'm sure it's something the residents are used to, given that many forms of service and parts are not available on Tangier.
Our ride back to Onancock had much rougher waters. One of the boat riders said this was the worst he had seen it, and hurricane weather was the only thing that would have made it worse. Three of the women riding back got violently ill and filled up multiple "boat barf bags" which made for a very awkward ride back; trying to keep from looking to avoid getting sick ourselves and trying to keep from laughing at the "movieness" of this experience.
While there is much debate between scientists and the residents of Tangier about the cause, what is clear is that Tangier Island will be completely underwater in the next 40 years, with the most populated portions submerged well before that. While that reality may be tough to imagine, the island is, without a doubt, losing 15-16 feet per year.
While we don't have any immediate need or desire to return to Tangier, we are so very grateful to have had this experience; to try to understand for just a moment what it might be like to live on Tangier, to be so sheltered from so much going on "out there," to be so close knit that laws are followed based more on not upsetting your family than on fear of legal consequences, to be so in fear of what your life and the life of your children will be as the island continues to be submerged. It's hard to imagine, but I'm glad our horizons were broadened. It's been hard not to type this blog using the dialect I heard while we were there, nor to not see the faces of the kids playing ball with literal wood sticks. That life is so foreign, that even having experienced it for one day, I can't wrap my brain around it. But I'm so grateful to have gone, to be able to have seen the place that will surely be talked about for the rest of my life.
Don't wait to go visit. Well you will have to until the first weekend in May 2020. That's when Tangier Island "reopens" to tourists, or what I now will probably refer to as "the lookie loos."
Until our next adventure,
Below is some more history and general information on what it's like to live on the island.
Captain John Smith “discovered” Tangier in 1608. It is believed that the island was settled by a John Crockett in 1686, but there is nothing to verify that. What is known is that the first Crockett of record on Tangier was Joseph Crockett, who settled in 1778, apparently trading the land from the Pokomoke Indians for 2 overcoats (according to our tour guide).,
Today the island population is mainly Crockett and descendants of Crocketts. Remember that our ferry captain's name is Mark Crockett. And it seemed like every other burial plot we saw had Crockett engraved. Thomas is another very common name on the island and we saw two boats and a building labeled with Thomas.
The population of the island is about 450 people, and about 250 homes. There are two main forms of income for the men, all of it on the water. They either go out daily to crab, fish, clam and oyster; or they are gone for 2 weeks at a time on tug boats. There are five modes of transportation on the island: bicycles, scooters/motorcycles, golf carts, cars and walking. You can walk pretty much anywhere on the island in 30 minutes and there are about 20 automobiles on the entire island. Most people keep their cars in Crisfield, MD and take the island's resident ferry boat (for $40 round trip) to the mainland and then use their vehicle for their needs.
Children on the island attend the last remaining combined, grades K-12, school in Virginia. There are 13 teachers and about 50 students. There were 4 graduates this year, all female. Most of the grown women on the island are homemakers, though some have jobs in the tourism field, such as our tour guide, a few souvenir shops, the museum, and restaurants. Almost everyone is related and have last names of Crockett, Pruitt, Parks, Thomas, Dise, Shores, Wheatley and Marshall. I'm sure dating is tricky!
There are 7 artesan wells on the island that feed into a central water system. The water flows from West Virginia. There are underground cables stretched from the Eastern Shore which gives the island its power. Phones are transmitted by microwaves. Everyone on the island has Wifi.
Tangier is considered dry and has been since its conversion to Methodism in the early 1800s. No alcoholic beverages or lottery tickets are sold legally on Tangier, though I read online in my searches that illegal drugs and some bootleggers do sell alcohol, and some waterman hide liquor on their boats or go over to Crisfield and drink in the bars.