Crabbing boat sinking adds to Va. island decline
TANGIER, VA. | In the final minutes of Ed Charnock’s life, he and his son clung to each other to conserve body heat in the frigid Chesapeake Bay.
Jason Charnock handed his dad the only life jacket he could grab from their fast-submerging crabbing boat. But the choppy water swept it away.
“The boat sank, and Dad kept on floating away staring at me,” Jason Charnock told the Coast Guard in a statement he provided to The Associated Press.
“I was looking for a helicopter to come,” he said. “I kept looking, and then looked back to see where my dad was, [but] he wasn’t there and must have went under.”
For this dwindling island community in the Chesapeake Bay, Ed Charnock’s drowning in late April struck a rare blow.
Tangier Island doesn’t often lose watermen to the sea — the last death was more than a decade ago. Far more threatening to its shrinking population of about 460 people are sea-level rise and the mainland’s economic pull. The island, which locals claim English explorer John Smith landed on in 1608, is shrinking into the bay. Scientists predict residents may have to abandon Tangier in 25 to 50 years.
More young people are leaving the fishing community for college, the military and betterpaying jobs. Reachable only by plane or an hourlong boat ride, Tangier has half the residents it did 40 years ago.
Ed Charnock, 70, and his 40-year-old son were among those determined to stay, working together for more than 20 years on the same pine-and-fir crabbing boat.
The father and son often hauled pots in rough seas because they needed the money. They knew at least one plank in their boat’s hull was damaged from a wood-boring parasite. But they thought repairs could wait. A diver found the boat with several planks missing, reinforcing Jason Charnock’s belief that the weakened wood cracked in rough seas.
More than a month later, Tangier’s residents are still processing the loss.
“When we’re leaving the harbor or coming in, everybody looks over to where Ed’s boat was always tied up in his slip,” Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge said. “And it’s empty now. It’s just an awful feeling, a sad feeling when you go by there.”
Ed Charnock was a man of few words. But his dry wit put friends into fits of laughter at the island’s fuel dock, particularly when the crab industry struggled. Rarely seen without a baseball cap on the water, he dressed up for church, wearing long sleeves even in the summer.
He had four children with his late wife, Henrietta. He remarried, survived prostate cancer and planned to work into his 80s.
“What else is there to do?” said his widow, Annette Charnock. “To stop work and do nothing, that’s the kiss of death.”