WHEN IT COMES to picking crabs, Colleen Sadler knows whereof she picks. The Eastern Shore resident has trounced her main rival -- her sister Kathy Frampton -- to win the crab-picking contest at the Tilghman Island Day festival almost every year for the past dozen or so.
"When you're born and raised in a watermen's community, either you learn how to pick crabs or you don't eat," says Sadler, who spent a year working at a seafood packing plant and still lives near her native island.
On Saturday, the 800 or so residents of tiny Tilghman -- a narrow finger of land in Talbot County, Md., that juts into the Chesapeake Bay west and south of St. Michaels -- will once again invite the rest of the world, as they have for more than 30 years, to sample their seafood and learn the ways of Chesapeake watermen at the Tilghman Island Day celebration.
Residents and visitors can watch as the likes of Sadler, or the reigning oyster-shucking champion, Handy Tilghman (no relation to the island), compete for the $50 prize and bragging rights that come with being the fastest picker or shucker. At Dogwood Harbor and elsewhere on the island, local watermen will show off their nautical prowess as they challenge one another in workboat races, boat docking contests, jigger (anchor) throwing and other maritime pursuits that landlubbers can only marvel at.
The harbor is home to about 75 workboats, whose captains ply the Chesapeake year-round for crabs, oysters and fish, depending on the season. Dogwood also has the bay's largest fleet of skipjacks, a vanishing breed of historic vessels that were the last to work under sail. Hundreds of skipjacks sailed the Chesapeake in the late 1890s, dredging for oysters, but today fewer than a dozen remain. The oldest working authentic skipjack, the Rebecca T. Ruark -- built in 1886 and the oldest U.S. Coast Guard-certified vessel in the nation -- is based in Dogwood Harbor and will be available for charter sails. Captain Wade Murphy is a third-generation skipjack charter waterman and fifth-generation Eastern Shore native who delights in telling sea stories and teaching his passengers about bay ecology and history.
Throughout the day, the tools of the waterman's trade will be demonstrated or on exhibit. Learn about the art of boat building at Maynard Lowery's boat yard on Knapps Narrows, the narrow sliver of water that separates Tilghman Island from the mainland, and the bay from the Choptank River. Volunteers will staff clamming and crabbing exhibits, and visitors can watch experts mend crab nets and make crab pots. Anything to do with oysters -- once the mainstay of the Chesapeake seafood industry but now a dwindling portion of the watermen's catch -- will be demonstrated: oyster dredging, oyster shucking and oyster tonging. You can even try tonging for your own oysters with a pair of long, scissor-like tongs, or "rakes" as the waterman call them. And, of course, there will be oyster eating.
Without a doubt, the highlight of Tilghman Island Day for most festival-goers is the seafood -- fresh, delicious and plentiful. Michael Roe of the Tilghman Island Volunteer Fire Department, the sponsor of the festival and the nonprofit recipient of the proceeds, says that "all the seafood served is local and caught that morning."
At the new firehouse -- completed this summer using money raised at previous Tilghman Island Days -- diners will feast on fresh steamed crabs. Crab lovers can also gorge on soft crabs, crab cakes and crab soup, while oyster fans will have a heyday choosing from the oyster delicacies: raw and steamed oysters, oyster stew and oyster fritters. Fried clams are also served, along with non-seafood fare such as hot dogs and sausages, hamburgers, pit beef, barbeque chicken and french fries. Live entertainment is provided all afternoon by Bird Dog and the Road Kings, the "official band of Tilghman Island," Roe says.
Bud Harrison, president of the fire company and proprietor of Harrison's Chesapeake House restaurant and hotel as well as a large charter fishing fleet and oyster company, says festival organizers want visitors to enjoy and learn from their visit to a working waterman's village.
"Nearly everyone's livelihood is directly or indirectly tied to the water," says Harrison of Tilghman residents. Harrison should know: His family has lived and worked on Tilghman since his great-grandfather, a steamboat captain, and great-grandmother opened a small boarding house on the island in 1868.
TILGHMAN ISLAND DAY -- Saturday from 10 to 6. 410-822-4653 or 410-770-8000. www.tilghmanmd.com. Tilghman Island, Maryland's Eastern Shore. Take U.S. Route 50 over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to Easton. Exit west onto Route 322 to Route 33 to St. Michaels, then continue about 12 miles to Tilghman. Parking will be on the mainland side before you get to Tilghman; shuttle buses will take visitors across Knapps Narrows Bridge to the festival. $5 donation per person, children younger than 12 free. Proceeds benefit the Tilghman Volunteer Fire Department. Food priced separately. Rowboat race at 11, jigger throwing at 11:30, boat docking contest at 12, workboat races at 2. Crab-picking contest at 3:15 and oyster-shucking contest at 3:30. Live auction at 4. Demonstrations and exhibits all day.