Tangier: Timeless Island in the Chesapeake Bay

by Mary Burnham

Boat to Tangier

First visited by Capt. John Smith in 1608 on his circumnavigation of the Chesapeake Bay, life on Tangier remains much as it's been for generations: a devoutly religious lifestyle (alcohol isn't sold anywhere), reliant on the fishing industry. A new ferry service from Onancock on Virginia's Eastern Shore, bring visitors May through September.

In a day you can tour the three-mile-long island by foot, bike, or narrated golf cart tour (there are no cars). You can eat at one of several seafood restaurants, shop the handful of gift shops, walk a deserted, pristine beach, or visit the local history museum. There you can borrow a couple of kayaks to explore a new water trail.

Freddie Wheatley

Eco, sight-seeing and sunset tours can be arranged through the local inns. one of the more interesting is a truly unique watermen's tour of ride-alongs on working crab boats.

From his Chesapeake deadrise, a wooden boat first designed in the 1880s just for this business, Freddie Wheatley pulls up to 500 traps a day in all kinds of weather. The harvest is the famous hardshell blue crabs.

Fortunately, it's a bright summer day in Tangier Sound, 12 miles out in the Chesapeake Bay. The sun casts diamonds off the dark blue water of the deep harbor. About a half mile off, the white buildings of the fishing community of about 600 people glisten in the bright sun.

scraping for peelers

After switching to a different type of boat, Andy Parks demonstrates the painstaking process of scraping the bay bottom for 'peelers', crabs that are about to molt into the softshell delicacy for which the island is famous.

Your day as an 'honorary waterman' ends with a visit to one of the many crab shanties that line Tangier channel.

Nature's miracle

A large sign proclaims "We believe in Jesus" at the crab shanty of the mayor of Tangier.

molting crab

James Eskridge, a quiet man who everyone calls "Ooker," demonstrates the time-consuming process of sorting the crabs into water-filled bins according to how close they are to molting. He picks one up to show the deep red color on the fin and a slit along the side: sure signs of a "buster."

It takes just a few minutes for the crab to shed its hard shell to reveal a fully-formed soft shell, as if giving birth to itself.

Once they molt, the crabs must then be shipped live or flash frozen within a matter of hours before their shells harden. To prepare them, they're typically par-boiled, then breaded, fried and tucked into a sandwich. You eat the whole thing - legs and all.

Family dining and lodging

Local delicacies

At Hilda Crockett's Chesapeake House, you can try them for yourself. The dining is family-style and all-you-can-eat on no-filler crab cakes, clam fritters, Virginia ham, potato salad, homemade rolls and hot corn pudding.

"What's served here is caught here," says proprietor Denny Crockett.

He hopes the watermen's tours will serve dual purposes: to help shore up the local economy with dollars from tourists who stay longer than an afternoon, and perhaps more importantly, preserve the watermen's way of life.

Tangier tours

Tangiermen are praying for the same.

Tangier Island Watermen's tour
Onancock-Tangier Ferry
Visiting Onancock
Kayaking Onancock Creek