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Be a Waterman on Tangier Island, VA

Be a Waterman on Tangier Island, VA
by Candyce H. Stapen

Molt your city skin and morph into a Chesapeake Bay waterman for a weekend on Tangier Island, VA, the self-proclaimed soft shell capital of the world. As the sun glints off the bay, go out on a boat with a seasoned fisherman to learn how to snare a peeler, a crab about to shed its hard shell. Then tour the crab shanties to find out how to tell just when the critter is going to crawl out of its “skin.”

Crabbing’s been a way of life on Tangier for generations, probably since the island’s settlement in 1686. It’s a fascinating and hard job, something you’ll find out soon enough by hoisting pots out of the drink to check for crabs.

At one time, most all of Tangier’s families made their living from the bay. Now, only about 70 of the town’s 700-residents work as watermen, a result of the lifestyle’s rigors, dwindling profits and restrictions placed on the haul by the state of Virginia. That’s why some enterprising locals supplement their incomes by catching tourists for crabbing adventures.

What else is there to do on Tangier? The flat terrain and few cars make the place perfect for bicycling and the island’s inlets offer great places to kayak. Trails wind through lagoons, tidal marshes and along the shores of beaches. As you paddle, look for terns, pelicans and osprey as well as snails in the reeds and stingrays in the water.

Most people that visit Tangier Island, whether for the day or for a weekend, enjoy lunch at Hilda Crockett’s Chesapeake House. The restaurant’s been serving tasty meals since 1939. The specialty—crab cakes, of course. Some say the Chesapeake House serves the best crab cakes in Virginia (some say in Maryland too). Along with crab cakes, the family-style lunch, served 11:30am to 5:00pm, is a feast of clam fritters, potato salad, hot corn pudding and home baked bread. My daughter and I loved the home cooking and especially the crab cakes.

In season the ferry from Onancock takes about 90-minutes to reach Tangier, about 18-miles away. Day-trippers enjoy about two hours on the island, enough time for a good walk and a big lunch. The Chesapeake House, along with the Sunset Inn and the Bay View Inn, offer bed and breakfast accommodations too. Another boat operates from Reedville, Virginia.

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