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Peeling Away the Secrets of Tangier Island

Denny Crockett gives a firsthand account of life on the water during a tour of crab shanties at Tangier Island, where he is a tour guide, innkeeper and waterman himself.
Denny Crockett gives a firsthand account of life on the water during a tour of crab shanties at Tangier Island, where he is a tour guide, innkeeper and waterman himself. (By Virginia Myers For The Washington Post)
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By Virginia Myers
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 5, 2009

You'll see the crab shanties of Tangier Island as your ferry approaches the dock, lined up like sentries along the channel. But you can't get there from here.

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Set on pilings hundreds of yards from shore, the little shacks, where watermen monitor crabs as they shed their hard shells to become soft-shells, are like Tangier itself: islands apart. Perched 12 miles from the Eastern Shore of Virginia, Tangier (about three miles long and 1 1/2 miles wide) is accessible only by boat or by plane; most visitors take the ferry. Boats outnumber cars, and almost everyone makes a living from the water.

To get to the shanties, you have to either know one of the island's 525 residents well enough to tag along for a working visit, or sign up for the waterman's tour.

I enjoy a shore town as much as the next tourist, and Tangier Island is particularly charming, a working village with a handful of humble guesthouses, restaurants and gift shops. But having grown up near the water with a father in the shrimping business, I miss feeling the spray from the bow of a boat, and I want to get to know the everyday lives of the fishermen here. So on a recent three-day island vacation, I sign up for the 90-minute tour.

It begins at the gas dock, where I eavesdrop as the watermen, in various stages of sunburned and weathered, banter about a new boat in the harbor and some common history involving a golf cart that evokes a lot of laughter. I can't understand it all, as most of them speak in the thick Southern-cum-Elizabethan-English dialect peculiar to Tangier Island, but this much is clear: These men are the real thing, the watermen who have been declared close to extinction as the fishing industry on the Chesapeake Bay dwindles with the crab and oyster populations.

Around 5 p.m., I board the fishing boat Addison Paige with a couple visiting from Richmond. We lean against the gunwale, the side of the boat; there are no seats, but the deck is so clean it's hard to believe that our captain, Denny Crockett, actually hauled crab pots this morning. He also leases another of his boats, runs the fuel dock and owns the guesthouse where I'm staying, Hilda Crockett's Chesapeake House. You have to scramble to make a living here.

Our first stop is a crab shanty marked with a billboard-size fish symbol and the words "We Believe Jesus" painted on a piece of plywood. Lined up on the narrow dock are open-topped tanks for crabs in various stages of molting. The watermen use a metal-framed net to scrape the mucky bay bottom where these "peelers" hide in protective grasses, haul them to the shanties and wait for them to shed their hard shells the way a snake sheds its skin. Crockett picks up a "buster," showing us how its old shell creeps up its back, like a shirt being peeled off over its head. The exposed strip of new shell is so soft it feels like skin.

In one tank, two crabs swim piggyback. This is a "doubler," Crockett explains. The male, on top, is waiting for the female to shed her shell, at which point she'll be ready to mate. Or, in this case, ready to be refrigerated and shipped to Fulton Fish Market in New York, where Crockett says soft-shells fetch $30 a dozen.

The shanty is all business, with freezers and refrigeration for cardboard trays of soft-shells, and not a whole lot else. Some shanties are cozier: Earlier in the day I'd seen the one that belongs to the town mayor, James Eskridge, in a film at the tiny Tangier History Museum. He sits back in an easy chair and calls his shanty "home away from home."

Motoring past 30 or 40 of these shacks and out the channel, Crockett -- a former teacher and principal at the Tangier Common School (grades K-12) -- patiently answers our questions. Yes, he was out at 5:30 this morning, checking his 200 traps. Full-time watermen have closer to 400. They usually trap hard-shells or work the soft-shells, but some do both. The heaviest season for crabbing is April and May; now it is late June, and only the die-hards are still crabbing. There are a lot of die-hards on Tangier Island.

We motor to the Uppards, the marshy northern portion of Tangier, deserted since 1928. The boat slams across a light chop, and one of the passengers ducks to avoid the spray, but I'm exhilarated by the wind and the sun and the raw beauty of this place. We dodge the floats that mark countless crab pots, then stop to haul one aboard. Each pot is handmade, and Crockett shows us how it's designed so that crabs swim in but cannot swim out. A handful of trapped hard-shells clutch the wire cage.

We are in an area thick with the underwater grasses that protect the crabs as they feed and reproduce. Crockett shifts into teaching mode: It's a delicate environment, he says, susceptible not only to pollution, which destroys crab habitat, but also to storms, which tear up the grasses and erode the shoreline. He says that those who blame the declining crab population on the watermen are wrong. "We're the last ones who want to do anything to the crabs," he asserts. The natural cycle involves an increase in the population of fish, which feed on crabs, he explains, so their numbers naturally decline. Add to that the runoff from the mainland and pollution in general, and you have a decrease in crabs.

We motor a bit farther, slow down to admire a pair of oyster catchers, ternlike water birds with brilliant orange beaks, and beach the boat at a marshy slice of land called Queen's Ridge. An osprey frets overhead. We have arrived at her nest, so close we can peep in to see two downy chicks. Crockett tells us that the mama teaches them to remain absolutely still, hiding from any predator.

On the way back to shore we pass a duck blind. It turns out to be Crockett's; I get the feeling that he owns this island. He speaks the language, not only the Elizabethan English but the language of the bay, of tides and birds and seasons. In an hour and a half I've gotten a glimpse of this world. But unless you live in it, well, you can't really get there from here.

Virginia Myers is a writer living in landlocked Takoma Park.



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