Tangier Island

Crab Pots on Tangier

To step on the island of Tangier is to step back in time. For on Tangier the people retain a way of life that other parts of the Chesapeake Bay have long forgot. They are watermen, who leave early in the day to make a living from commercial fishing and crabbing. Not an easy life but one borne in tradition and rooted in love of the Bay. What adds to the appeal is the unique dialect one hears on Tangier. The island retains a dialect that is best described as old Elizabethan English. As Shannon would say on the return trip to Crisfield, "I felt like we left the country. That we traveled farther than we did."

This was my third trip to Tangier. Last summer I blogged about the second trip ... “Island Hopping in the Chesapeake Bay.” It was such a fun trip that I couldn’t wait to do it again. So when Shannon said she wanted to do the trip on her birthday I was more than willing to navigate. We started planning the trip way back in the Spring and I invited a few people through the summer. None of the invitees could make it but a few days before the trip I made a last minute invitation to David Moore, who by coincidence shares the same birthday as Shannon, and was looking for a birthday adventure as well. So I had two birthday kayakers on my first solo navigation around Tangier.

Dock at Crisfield

We met at the dock at Crisfield around 11 am Saturday morning for the 12:30 ferry. Many people have kayaked to Tangier. But Shannon had been busy all summer learning to sail, moving into a new house, changing careers and a host of other things unrelated to kayaking. The long open water crossing didn’t appeal to her, so we decided to save our energies for exploring around the islands and take the ferry out and back.

There are several ferries with service to Tangier and Smith Islands and most of them take kayaks as well. We decided to take the mail boat. So we loaded the kayaks on to the mail boat and the bags with all our camping and kayak gear. The cost was $15 per person and $10 per kayak. The sky was blue. The sea was calm. It looked like the start of a perfect weekend. Earlier we had heard reports of rain forecast for the weekend but it didn’t seem serious enough to cancel the trip. And besides I had built in a number of exit plans in the event of bad weather.

The original plan was to launch from Tangier and kayak east to the small uninhabited island of Watts, about 6 miles from Tangier. Have lunch on Watts, then kayak from Watts east to another island where we would camp for the night. Then on Sunday we would kayak back to Tangier, explore the island and camp on the southern tip of Tangier which is a long sandbar. Monday our plan was to kayak from Tangier north to Smith island and take the afternoon ferry back from Smith to Crisfield. But David was looking for a long open water crossing so he planned to stay with us until Sunday and kayak back to Crisfield. I was a little concerned that he would be making the long open water crossing alone, but David is an expert kayaker and loves the challenge of open water crossings.

I had printed out and laminated maps of the crossing, maps of Tangier and Smith and a list of important GPS coordinates for the trip. I had two GPS devices and in one I had programmed the GPS coordinates we would need to navigate around the islands. The second GPS was intended as a backup. Navigation is not a skill I claim to excel in. I get lost just wandering around my house. But I was sufficiently confident that I could navigate the short crossing from Tangier to Watts and out to the other island.

David and Susan lowering the Mirage at Tangier

After eating a hearty lunch of crabcake sandwiches and steamed shrimp at the dockside bar we prepared the kayaks for launching. The first obstacle was finding a way to lower the kayaks from the pier to the water. The pier itself was perhaps five feet from the water. We found two lower launch docks but even at the lower levels we were almost three feet from the water. It was difficult but David was able to lower each packed kayak into the water and secure it to the pier pilings while Shannon and I took turns climbing down from the pier into our kayaks.

Once in the water I realized that the foot brace for my rudder was out of reach. The last person who used my kayak was 5’10”, much taller than me and I had forgotten to reset the foot brace to my setting. Raising the kayak back to the pier was out of the question as was adjusting the foot brace from inside the kayak. So we paddled over to a beach so I could make the adjustments.

Kayak to Watts Island

Six miles later we landed on the south end of Watts. The sea had been like glass and the sky was clear and the humidity low. I told Shannon she couldn’t have asked for better weather. After a short snack at Watts we realized we were running a little behind schedule. It was around 5:30 and we wanted to get to the other island soon enough to set up camp before the sun set. The long lunch on Tangier was probably about a 1/2 hour too long. So I tried to pick up the pace a little for the final four miles. This was easy to do with a wing paddle but Shannon uses a greenland paddle and she started to lag farther behind. Still the weather was so clear I wasn’t too concerned. David must have felt as anxious as I did to get settled on the island because he made a bolt for the shore.

The sun was setting as we arrived at the beach

The sun was setting by the time we pulled all the kayaks up on the beach. I looked around the strip of beach that we had enjoyed so much last year on the Island Hopping Trip. It felt a little lower ... like it had sunk a little. Shannon seemed a little concerned that we didn’t see a really clear high tide mark and so was I.

We made camp and started battling the bugs. There were biting flies and the little noseeum bugs. Fortunately I’m not that tasty but Shannon was having such a horrible time she had to take refuge in her tent. David wore his tent. He brought this safari like netting that he wore over his hat. It was very entertaining.

Shortly after the sun set the wind started to kick up. The bugs disappeared and we were left with several hours of bug free living. Shannon crawled out of her tent and joined us in the meal preparations. We stayed up until around 10 telling stories or mostly listening to David’s stories. Neither of us had spent much time with him prior to the trip. I won’t spoil all his stories but what we did learn is that David likes to live on the edge ... and tomorrow when the weather would turn stormy we would find out just how close to the edge he was willing to go.

It was hard to sleep that night. The tide had brought the surf in closer to the tents and it was really loud. Several times I woke up and went out to check on the kayaks. They were fine, but just as a precaution I moved them up the beach about six feet. The next morning we awoke to grey skies and a stiff wind. But it was still within our abilities. We decided to kayak over to Watts and assess the weather from there. If we could make it, we’d continue to Tangier but if not, we’d stay on Watts until the weather cleared.

The four mile paddle to Watts was quite different from the paddle over. The swells were 2-3 feet. Shannon said that I often disappeared between the swells. And at times they were breaking over the bow. But it was the wind which was the real challenge. By the time we got to the south end of Watts we were clearly struggling. David and I both race recreationally and we have a racer mentality. When the conditions got worse we dug in deeper and harder. But Shannon is adverse to pain. I glanced back a few times and saw that she was starting to falter. Clearly we were not going to make it to Tangier, at least not without a rest stop.

Shannon stretching on Watts

Shannon and I had also both experienced kayaking in the wind earlier in the season at Assateague. After that fateful trip we had learned to respect the wind. But David is stronger, more confident of his skills and he still thought he could make it to Crisfield. So after discussing the options Shannon and I decided to camp on Watts and proceed to Tangier in the morning. David decided to continue his course to Crisfield.

Hike around Watts Island

I know at this point many people are wondering ... why he left us on the island with a storm approaching. Clearly there is safety in numbers. But we had planned this trip alone and we were both skilled kayakers and we had good tents. We had no fear about staying on the island through the storm. But I was worried about what he was kayaking in to. It would be hard for me to explain what he went through that night so I asked him to write it up. This is David’s story.


David’s Story

Shortly after saying goodbye on Watts Island I began wondering if I was doing the right thing by leaving you and Shannon on the Island, knowing that a storm was coming that evening. I knew both of you were good kayakers and had good tents, but it is always better to have more people if things got ugly. I kept debating about leaving the whole time I was going by the island and wondering if I should just turn around and stay on the Island and go back to Tangier with you guys.

As far as the trip back to Crisfield I knew it was not going to be an easy one. It was going to be slow paddle because the boat was weather-cocking really bad, plus the fact I really did not know where or how far Crisfield was from Watts Island. I figured it was about 12 to 14 miles Northeast. I kept looking at the charts so that seemed about right and hey the Chesapeake is only but so big. I figured the trip would take me between 3 to 4 hours, since I left Watts Island around 1:00 PM or so I figured I would be at Crisfield no later than 5 PM and back home by 7:30 PM. I started to wonder how was I going get the kayak on the dock that is 6 ft above the water. I spotted the ladder at the dock before we left Crisfield and figured I could come up with some way to get the boat on the dock.

Right away I saw this was going to be an ugly paddle, going downwind with the waves to get around the island and on my way towards the northeast was a constant struggle. Every once and awhile I could just ride the waves and gain some speed but most of the time I had to keep using correcting strokes to keep me from turning into the wind, which was coming from the southeast. Normally I would just use body lean to turn my kayak, but with the boat weighted down with camping gear and the waves as rough as they were my leans were not as far as they needed to be nor as effective.

I normally take a lot of pride in the fact that I have a Greenland style kayak and do not have to use a rudder. Anyway I finally got past the island and attempted to maintain a heading between 30 to 60 degrees northeast. The wind was 150 degrees southeast so that is where my boat wanted to go, so the wind and I compromised and I ended up going 90 degrees due east, which was not where I wanted to go.

As I got further and further away from Watts Island the waves were getting bigger and the wind was getting stronger and for every two paddle strokes forward I had to do one back correcting stroke to head 90 degrees. As the waves got bigger and white capping I thought it was kind of cool being out here all alone in this turbulent water with the waves breaking over my head every once in awhile. I thought, well this was kind of fun. It was like doing whitewater. Initially I was not concern about flipping in the boat because my Roll was solid as a Rock. (Kidding) It was always hit or miss especially with gear, but what I was confident about was that I could always get back in my boat if I fell out. I had practiced this a lot. And the other thing I was confident in was that under very rough conditions I had never flipped this boat.

However, a couple things started to happen that caused me to think that I better be prepared for a flip in the middle of the bay six miles from the nearest land. First, I was taking in a lot of water every time the wave broke over me. Things were floating around in my cock pit. Second, the boat was really getting heavy riding really low and I was getting a bit tired.

I spotted the water tower that I knew was in Crisfield and it seemed like it was really far away. My GPS told me I had paddled seven miles so far from Watts averaging a very discouraging 3 mph. I then remembered that I marked the starting point in Crisfield on my GPS when we took the ferry ride to Tangier. All I had to do was find the location on the GPS. I did and it was 12 miles due north. So that was really disappointing.

Now the wind was beginning to howl. The waves were moving faster and they were breaking over my head ... and often. So I decided the only way I was going to get there was to start riding the waves since they were heading in the right direction anyway. Riding the waves was not going so well because it seemed like I was riding in the waves not on top and taking in even more water and not having any control. So now my biggest concern was getting the water out of my boat, which I did not want to attempt under these conditions. So I started heading to the nearest piece of land due east, the land turned out not to be so near, but an accommodating beach 12 miles away from Watts Island. I kept thinking who was the idiot who ever invented a kayak without a rudder and why didn’t my boat come with an automatic pump like Susan’s and why did I not use my whitewater skirt? When is that storm coming ... and this was not so fun anymore.

I finally made it to the beach and my GPS told me, Hurray you made progress. You are now only 10.4 miles away from the Crisfield at 330 degrees NW. Ok ... so now I am tired. So I lie down, setting my cell phone to wake me up in one hour. The time is 5:30 PM. Then I start to wonder ... should I just set up camp and head back in the morning so as to avoid the storm or do I push on because I do have that meeting at work the next day? After about a half hour of dreaming of waves breaking over my head the biting flies gave me a wake up call on my exposed ankles. I decided I really needed to make that meeting.

So now with a full belly of peanut butter crackers, chewy Granola bars and some Chocolate pudding I was ready to head out. With all the water out of the boat now I was going to surf the waves all the way with a whitewater state of mind, meaning no correcting strokes. I was just going to brace and lean my way through and surf the waves and make as much speed as I could. It worked for the most part. I was making pretty good progress and I was averaging about 5 mph and coming up to a land mass which my GPS wanted me to paddle right through to get to the starting point. Crap ... now I had to go paddle around the peninsula to get to the channel to get into Crisfield.

It was now completely dark. The storm clouds were blocking all the stars and the moon. It started to have a very eerie feel with my boat light casting an eerie glow. There were no other boats on the water and I thought this was pretty cool except for I couldn’t see anything and I needed to go to the bathroom. I could make out lights in the distance which I knew must be Crisfield so I started to head to the lights and every time I started to head into a channel the lights would disappear meaning that there was land blocking my progress. So much for short cuts. So then I just headed for the boat channel marked by the red and green channel lights, knowing that this was going to take me the long way into Crisfield but at least it would get me there.

Now I am thinking I am not that far away. The waves were dying down a bit so I probably won’t flip and drown and then I starting hearing the thundering and lightning. So now I am thinking, Oh great. Now I am going to get fried by lightning. So I pick up the pace and start down the channel into Crisfield finally arrived at the dock at 9:58 PM.

I did a grand total of 23 miles from Watts Island on top of the 4.5 miles coming from the other island to Watts Island. So I was a little bit worn out. Once I emptied out my kayak it was easy hoisting it out of the water onto the dock 6 ft above, especially with the lightning getting closer and the thunder louder. I finally got everything into my car right before the rain start pouring down. I called you guys to let you know I had made it and then started worrying that I should not have left. I should have stayed and helped out on the paddle back to Tangier and then hopefully had enough sense to take the ferry back to Crisfield.

So now all I had to do was drive two and half hours back in the rainstorm without falling asleep at the wheel. I finally made it back to Annapolis at 1:00 and I made it to my meeting the next day worrying how you guys were making it through the storm.



Well photographed bird on Watts Island

Back on Watts Shannon and I were bored. The island is small. We had hiked it earlier. There was only one bird and I had photographed it enough. It didn’t seem scared of us. It just hung out defiantly on it’s perch. It had no intention of leaving. But we couldn’t either. I’m pretty sure we weren’t supposed to be camping there. But we really couldn’t go any farther.

It was a struggle just to set up the tents. I started to wonder why I had skimped on the tent stakes. I had only bought 4 of the big sand stakes and two more of the cheaper sand stakes. Clearly if you need sand stakes you need the big ones. So I had saved a few cents. It didn’t seem worth it as a I was trying to secure the tent in the wind.

I had a book to read but Shannon had not brought anything. So she decided to go for a swim. I was a little concerned because the waves were getting higher and the tide was coming in. But she promised she wouldn’t go far from shore.

Back in my tent I tried to read but it was hot and muggy. And my hair wouldn’t dry which was annoying. The combination of sweat, dirt and saltwater had created a condition where my head seemed terminally wet. I turned on the VHF radio to the weather alert channel and listened to the forecasts. They have to run through every forecast in the area and that was tedious. So I decided to call David Shames, who always seems to be close to a computer and ask him to look up a forecast online. Fortunately my cell phone had excellent coverage. I got hold of David and explained our situation. Between the laughter he went online and found a forecast for Crisfield. The wind which was southeast would change to northeast by morning. Scattered thundershowers were forecast for the evening. I thanked him for the information and went to find Shannon.

Shannon was body surfing in the waves ... in the buff. I promised her I wouldn’t look but she had to come out of the surf so we could discuss the forecast. Lying on the sand with the waves crashing around her I told her what David had said. I suggested we aim for an early morning paddle to Tangier because the weather is usually calmer first thing in the morning. She agreed and like a seal slid back into the Bay.

Eating soup ... again

I used the rest of my fuel to heat a can of soup then I went back to the tent to read. The sun set and the wind continued to pick up. The tent was holding steady but the sides were bowed inward by the force of the wind. Around 8 I tried to called David Moore on the cell. No answer. I tried again a half hour later. Still no answer. I was a little concerned but remembered that David is like a cat. He always seems to land on his feet. So I drifted off to sleep.

It was probably around 10 when the storm approached the island. I could hear the thunder from afar. Then the sky lit up with lightning. It was coming so quick that it seemed like someone had just turned the lights on outside and left them on. I could hear the waves crashing on the shore and wondered if the dune I had chosen was high enough. Then it hit. The force of the wind was incredible. The sides of tent were pushed inward and I could feel the tent lifting off the sand. The wind had shifted and was coming from the north. The tent stakes on the north end had come loose and the tent was being pushed upwards. I stood up and braced my feet to secure the bottom of the tent and used my arms to secure the sides of the tent. I wondered how long I could stand this way. I must have stayed in that position for 15 minutes or so battling the wind and hoping I could hold the tent steady. Then as quickly as it came it ended. The wind died down to a slow roar. Cautiously I climbed out of the tent to inspect the damage. Four of the six tent stakes had come lose. I looked over at the kayaks. They were still secure on the dune. I walked over the sand dune to Shannon’s tent and yelled into her tent to make sure she was ok. I checked her tents stakes and hers were fine.

The wind picked up and continued to blow throughout the night but that was the only thunderstorm which hit us directly. I could hear thunder in the distance. Somehow I got back to sleep and awoke the next morning to a steady rain. I waited about an hour for the rain to let up then ventured outside. The sky was grey and heavy but there was the hint of blue peaking around the clouds. The water was almost dead calm. I yelled over to Shannon’s tent to get ready to leave. A half hour later we had the tent and gear packed in the kayaks and we were on the water.

Walking the kayaks to the Tangier Dock

The GPS was helpful in keeping us on course but it wasn’t hard to navigate to Tangier. We could see the island from Watts. The waves were a little choppy as we got further away from Watts and out in the unprotected waters. But it was manageable. An hour and half later we paddled close to shore where the crab houses are situated. The channel was past the crab houses. But now we had another problem. The tide was low and we were running out of water. We tried pushing the boats forward with our hands in the sand but that would only take us so far. We had to get out of the kayaks and walk pulling the kayaks behind us.

Eventually we made it to the channel, got back in the kayaks and paddled up to the dock which was now about six feet from the water. Hoisting the kayaks to the dock was out of the question. Fortunately the water was low enough that a small beach had formed next to one of the sea walls and there was a break in the wall. So we were able to empty the kayaks from the beach and lift them over the sea wall.

Shannon talking to Rob the biker

I went back to the crabhouse / bar that we had eaten at on Saturday and asked if there was any place where we could shower. They directed us down the street to the marina where we found an open door and a hot shower ... waiting for us. Clean and refreshed we had lunch at one of the restaurants and called David Moore to let him know we were ok. We took the 4 pm ferry back to Crisfield and called it a day. To see the photo albums, CLICK HERE.