Sunday, June 19 was a beautiful day for a boat ride on the Rivah. As we zoomed down the Rappahannock with friends, the water sparkled gently as the humidity-free air hovered at a delightful 80 degrees. Overcome with the perfect conditions, our captain TSK mused, why don’t we go to Tangier Island? The rest of us quickly checked our mental calendars and conceded instantly to Carpe Diem.
Visiting Tangier Island has languished on my bucket list. I’ve always been curious about the tiny remote island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay.
We aborted an attempt last fall when the swells on the bay proved too much for us. Knowing the unpredictability of the weather and waters, we knew we had to seize the opportunity and go for it.
Why Visit Tangier Island?
Evidence suggests the Native American Pocomokes vacationed on Tangier Island for centuries. In 1608 John Smith discovered and named it during his explorations of Virginia, claiming it reminded him of Tangier, Morocco on the continent of Africa. In the 1680’s English people from Cornwall settled permanently on the remote island.
It played a significant role in the War of 1812 when the English came aground and used it as a staging area. They built Fort Albion for the failed attack on Fort McHenry in Maryland. You may recall Francis Scott Key wrote our National Anthem during that famous battle. Islanders are also proud of the fact slaves who escaped during that war were liberated by the English and experienced their first taste of freedom on Tangier.
It’s Isolated – Physically and Culturally
Located in the middle of the lower Chesapeake Bay, the world’s second-largest tributary, Tangier Island is 12 miles from the shores of the mainland Virginia and its Eastern Shore. Noticeably absent are bridges and tunnels, reducing access to the island to either boat or air transportation.
photo by Swayne Martin
The physical isolation of the residents creates an insulated community. Only recently did cable television and internet service arrive. The islanders speak with a curious accent which linguists refer to as Elizabethan or Restoration-era. It’s a peculiar dialect mash-up of Old South twang meets English countryside. But the accent is going by the wayside as the next generation of islanders leave Tangier for jobs and education on the mainland, and television and internet influences and normalizes their speech.
Not only is the accent disappearing, so is the island and its population. Whether the island is sinking or the waters are rising is debatable, but the inhabitable land is receding. Fort Albion is gone, and more recently an area called the Uppards, as well. The highest point above sea level is 4 feet. With a total size of only 740 acres, a mere 83 sit on ground high enough to inhabit. The coastline has been shrinking three feet per year.
Most residents make their living on the water: crabbing in the summer, oystering in the winter, or crewing on fishing vessels or tug boats. Seasonal tourism exists but with scant few jobs at gift shops, restaurants, a few B&B’s, and guided tours by boat or golf cart. The population peaked at 1120 in 1920, sat at 727 in 2010, and today has dwindled to 450.
Tangier remains a working-class island. Gentrification has not arrived, so do not expect to find quaint coffee shops, tempting retail boutiques, high-end waterside eateries or chic art galleries. Luxury does not describe anything about this destination, but it does offer a view into an old, authentic and rapidly disappearing way of life, not to mention the best-tasting crab cakes around. Tangiers are busy working the water and supporting each other.
To get to Tangier Island, you must go by ferry, private boat or by air.
The ferry runs year-round from Crisfield, Maryland, and seasonally from Onancock, Virginia and Reedville, Virginia.
If going by private boat, dock at Tangier Harbor at Parks Marina.
From the mouth of the Rappahannock to the island, expect your voyage to take approximately one hour traveling at 26 knots.
Tangier Island has an airport, KTGI, with a 2426′ runway.
photo by Swayne Martin
Posse member aMl arrived by air last May when her son flew her on a surprise Mother’s Day trip. Click this link to see their experience from the air.
Approaching the island,
our captain and first mate LDB navigated the Overruled into Tangier Harbor,
where we docked for a brief stay at Parks Marina.
The village of Tangier is compact. Transportation is limited to pedestrian, golf cart or bicycle.
Cars are too heavy to traverse the small bridges,
so we splurged on a 15-minute golf cart tour.
Our guide, a 2016 graduate of the Tangier Combined School (K-12, graduating class size of 7),
spoke with the thick island brogue. We had more questions than he had answers, but what he lacked in facts he made up for in authenticity. When asked what he was going to do now that he had graduated high school, he said he didn’t know. I might try to scrape up some money for college, but I might stay right here. It’s a good life.
Protestant religion figures prominently in the life of the islanders.
Joshua Thomas, the Parson of the Islands, spread Methodism in the early 1800’s throughout the region.
The island supports two congregations, one being a Methodist Church
on the site of the original church.
Almost as noteworthy, our guide pointed out this charming bungalow,
reputed to have been featured in Southern Living.
Fittingly, islanders have painted onto the omnipresent water tower a cross on one side
and a crab on the other.
The island does not have full-time medical facilities, but the new
David B. Nichols Health Center holds a weekly clinic served by a doctor and nurse who fly from mainland Virginia to provide medical care.
The islanders are a conservative lot. The island is dry, so don’t even think about ordering a cold one with your crab cake sandwich. When our tour ended in front of Lorraine’s, a favorite of the locals,
we indulged in crab cakes, crab soup, crab cake sandwiches and crab bake. And iced tea.
With full stomachs and a waning day, the time had come to return to the mainland. We boarded the Overruled
and puttered out of the harbor
waving to the local boys fishing
and thankful for high-tech GPS navigation
our boat’s location circled in pink
to guide us home.
Much like a visit to Appalachian coal country, the natural beauty of the island will remain strong in our memories, as will the vision of the islanders’ daunting yet picturesque way of life.
June 22, 2016