Soundings - - Contents - By Gary Re­ich

It was 1977, only a cou­ple of months be­fore the orig­i­nal Star Wars movie was re­leased, when my el­e­men­tary school class­mates and I shuf­fled up the steps of the long, yel­low school bus. We all sat qui­etly and clutched our brown- bag lunches as the hand­writ­ten name badges our teacher made for us swung back and forth across our chests in cadence with the mo­tions of the creaky old bus.

My fa­ther had just pushed me to read William W. Warner’s Beau­ti­ful Swim­mers: Water­men, Crabs, and the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay. The text was a lit­tle ad­vanced for a sec­ond grader, but I soaked it up with aban­don. The water­men char­ac­ters on the pages of that book be­came my child­hood heroes.

We were headed for Tang­ier Is­land, Vir­ginia, an iso­lated Ch­e­sa­peake water­men’s com­mu­nity, to see how the is­lan­ders lived and learn about the crab­bing in­dus­try. For me, it was a chance to get face-to-face with real-life water­men. But the weather had other ideas — we were stuck in­side for most of the day.

To­day Tang­ier Is­land is home to around 450 peo­ple. It’s a hook-shaped piece of marsh and sand, only 3 miles long and a mile wide. The to­tal area of the is­land is only about 1.2 square miles and, thanks to cli­mate change, is slowly dis­ap­pear­ing into the water around it. It lies nearly in the mid­dle of Ch­e­sa­peake Bay, about 12 miles off the East­ern Shore of Vir­ginia. Reach­able only by boat, the is­land is largely cut off from main­land life and cul­ture.

I re­mem­ber telling my fa­ther in 1977 that I wanted to go back, but cir­cum­stances pre­vented my re­turn un­til nearly 40 years later in 2017, when I was given an as­sign­ment to cover the is­land’s fish­eries with Ch­e­sa­peake Bay pho­tog­ra­pher Jay Fleming. I was ex­cited about the trip not only be­cause Fleming has deep con­nec­tions in the wa­ter­man com­mu­nity, but also be­cause he is al­most com­pletely un­afraid of ap­proach­ing a wa­ter­man en­gaged in crab­bing, fish­ing, soft-crab shed­ding — you name it. I knew we’d get to en­gage with some authen­tic old salts on this trip.

Fleming meets me at the ferry land­ing, and soon we are speed­ing past the crab shanties that pep­per the wa­ters around Tang­ier. These stilted, patched-to­gether shacks are where water­men keep their boats, tend to their gear and do busi­ness with other water­men. Some shanty own­ers buy “peeler crabs” (blue crabs about to shed their shell) and then hold them in long hold­ing ta­bles flooded with sea­wa­ter un­til they be­come soft.

One of the shanties stands out from the oth­ers, so we tie up along­side. The white shack has “We Be­lieve Je­sus” and an ichthys painted on its side. As we scramble up the steps, a pack of cats comes to see what’s hap­pen­ing. “That’s Ann Coul­ter,” says shanty owner and Tang­ier Is­land mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge. “Sa­muel Al­ito and Barry Gold­wa­ter are around here some­where.” Each cat is named af­ter a con­ser­va­tive pun­dit or politi­cian. Eskridge, who has lived on the is­land his en­tire life, works at his crab-

shed­ding op­er­a­tion 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “The crabs start hard­en­ing as soon as they’ve cast off their old shell, so we need to fish them out as soon as that hap­pens, whether it’s 1 a.m. or 4 p.m. Then we pack them in wet news­pa­pers and ship them off to all the big cities on the East Coast.”

Eskridge has a tanned, weath­ered face and speaks in a thick di­alect that’s handed down from the Cor­nish­man who first in­hab­ited the is­land. “This is a hard life,” he says. “But those of us who work the water wouldn’t have it any other way. I don’t want no­body telling me how to live my life or do my job. Some years we do re­ally well. Other years it’s a strug­gle. Ain’t noth­ing we can do about it, so we keep pos­i­tive.”

The next morn­ing we’re ex­plor­ing the grassy flats that sur­round the is­land where peeler crabs come to seek shel­ter be­fore they shed and be­come vul­ner­a­ble to pre­da­tion. Water­men work the area in their scrape boats, in­dige­nous is­land craft that pull smooth-lipped dredges be­hind them to catch peeler crabs for the soft-shell mar­ket. It’s back-break­ing work sift­ing through each eel­grass- packed dredge look­ing for peeler crabs, and its of­ten done by the is­land’s old­est water­men. One wa­ter­man we spot that morn­ing among the scrap­ing fleet is Leon McMann, who at age 85 is the old­est work­ing wa­ter­man on Tang­ier.

The is­land’s youngest wa­ter­man, 12-yearold Sam Pruitt Parks, is nearby work­ing some oys­ter aqua­cul­ture floats. It’s one of only a few aqua­cul­ture op­er­a­tions here; most water­men still rely on the wild oys­ter har­vest, which runs op­po­site the crab sea­son. “I’m the youngest wa­ter­man on the is­land,” Sam says. Most young peo­ple are mov­ing off the is­land look­ing for jobs that don’t in­volve crab­bing or oys­ter­ing, but Sam seems com­mit­ted. “This is what I want to do, and I’m not go­ing nowhere.” He later tells me that he’d re­cently saved up enough money to buy his own skiff.

Closer to town that af­ter­noon, an alu­minum dead­rise boat is the cen­ter of ac­tiv­ity on the is­land. Work­boat af­ter work­boat ties up to her star­board side to sell the day’s catch. “Slow day to­day, Johnny,” says one skip­per as a bearded black man with a cig­a­rette hang­ing out of his mouth shuf­fles the heavy bas­kets of crabs. Fleming learns from the gen­tle­man that his name is William Davis. “I come down with the boat six days a week. I won’t re­tire, I’ll work un­til I die,” Davis tells Fleming.

Ris­ing fuel prices, the cost of equip­ment, de­clines in fin­fish and shell­fish pop­u­la­tions and gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tions make life tough on Tang­ier’s water­men, and many of the young peo­ple on Tang­ier are leav­ing for the main­land in search of bet­ter jobs and a cul­ture with less iso­la­tion. “Water­men won’t be around for­ever,” says the owner of a lo­cal take­out seafood restau­rant. “I’m not even sure if the is­land will be here in 20 years,” says a woman in line.

No mat­ter what hap­pens, it’s ob­vi­ous that many of Tang­ier’s res­i­dents have no in­ten­tion of leav­ing. I’d like to think they’re ex­chang­ing the cer­tainty of shore­based life for the in­de­pen­dence they en­joy by liv­ing on this iso­lated, beau­ti­ful is­land. Tang­ier’s water­men? My guess is they’ll be here un­til the last patch of sand slips be­neath the water.

Sam Pruitt Parks, Tang­ier Is­land’s youngest wa­ter­man, works an oys­ter aqua­cul­ture lease with fel­low wa­ter­man Alan Parks.

Two scrape boats work the grass flats off Tang­ier Is­land.

William Davis says he will “work un­til I die.”

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