Tangier Island Aches for Lost Waterman

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 14, 2005

Not long after James Donald Crockett picked up his gray tabby, Spottie, at the veterinarian Tuesday morning, the barometric pressure over the Chesapeake Bay began to plummet.

By noon, as waves lapped Crockett's 40-foot boat at the dock in Crisfield, Md., the temperature had plunged 23 degrees in seven hours. Icy gusts tore over the bay from the northwest, and the National Weather Service put out a gale warning.

Crockett, 77, had 11 miles to go to reach his home on Tangier Island, Va., a route he'd traveled countless times. His sons had begged him not to make the errand to the mainland that morning because, as they say on Tangier, "it speaks of bad weather." But Spottie needed to be spayed, and, as one friend said of Crockett, "He was a good waterman, and he wasn't afraid of the water."

But on the bay, things got worse. Six-foot swells crashed over the Eldora C., his old box stern workboat that was rigged with an oyster dredge. A lighthouse on Tangier Island clocked 58-mph winds. Crockett, who went by Donnie, could see next to nothing through the swirling snow.

"This is rough, ain't it?" he radioed to Dorsey Crockett, not a relative but a fellow waterman who also was caught in the storm on his boat heading to Tangier. That was about 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, the last time anyone heard from Donnie Crockett or the Eldora C.

Over the past week, helicopters, aircraft and rescue boats from the U.S. Coast Guard, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission and the Maryland State Police have scoured a 450-square-mile area of the bay in search of some sign of the craft. All they have found are a life ring that had been affixed to the top of the cabin and a small streak of oil about one mile southeast of the island. A boat with sonar equipment was set to survey the bay floor near the oil slick Friday, but the equipment failed, so authorities said they will start looking again today.

The loss of Donnie Crockett has hit hard among the 690 residents of Tangier Island, a close-knit community home to crabbers and oystermen for more than two centuries. Here, on this hook-shaped anachronism, the accents still carry the lilt of a lost era. Headstones that dot the front yards repeat the same surnames: Pruitt, Parks, Crockett. Twenty-five years ago, nearly twice as many people lived on Tangier. The population is aging now, as sons and daughters often leave for the mainland rather than scrape out a living on the bay.

The days move to a slow rhythm: A traffic jam Friday consisted of two bicycles and a golf cart waiting for a tractor to get out of the road. With no alcohol allowed, and hence no bars, residents chat over white picket fences or gather on wooden benches to share each other's business. The talk took a dark turn after the Eldora C. went down. It's been a sharp reminder that the sea does more than provide.

"I can't even sleep at night; it's bothering me so much that he's still out there and all," said Tim Marshall, a Tangier resident who is leading the search effort for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. His brother drowned in 1968 after he fell off their crabbing boat. "This has brought back a lot of memories."

Authorities do not know what happened to Crockett's boat during the storm. Marshall's theory is that the oyster dredge might have fallen over the side, tilting the boat far enough that a big wave could have capsized it. He's also heard that the bilge pump wasn't working well, and the boat could have taken on water.

This case is a bit unusual, Marshall said: More debris, such as the lid of the engine box or the buoys and corks on deck, usually float to the surface when a boat sinks. Also, he noted, Crockett didn't send out a Mayday on the radio.

"Whatever happened, she went down quick," Marshall said of the craft.

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