Tangier Island

Tangier Island

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Tidewater Time Machine

Tangier Island is a remote, rustic and beautifully weathered area occupied by seafaring residents who speak a tongue stained with a dialect from their Old English ancestors and a surprising diversion from more typical and mainstream Chesapeake Bay cruising locales.

Lying nearly in the middle of Virginia’s emerald-green Chesapeake Bay waters, Tangier Island is a tiny sliver of marsh-peppered sand measuring just a mile wide by three miles long. It is so isolated that it can only be reached by boat.

The island’s residents stubbornly cling to every last inch of what’s left, as wind, waves and climate change steadily wash pieces of it away forever. Adversity and rugged beauty have left a charming patina on the island.

Visiting Tangier feels like going back in time. Folks crisscross the island using motorized and electric golf carts and scooters. Sometimes travel by outboard-powered skiff proves far more efficient than any other mode of transportation. You can’t buy liquor here, and the locals are quite conservative about outsiders consuming any bootleg booze they’ve brought along with them, as religious faith plays an important role in islanders’ lives. A doctor visits the local medical clinic once a month by helicopter, when weather permits.

Even electricity is piped in from the mainland. Still, Tangier’s residents relish their individuality and freedom. Visiting the island to soak in their culture and way of life—as well as to experience Tangier’s amazing scenery and wildlife— is well worth the pit stop.

Discovered more than 400 years ago by Captain John Smith, Pocomoke Indians occasionally inhabited the island before it was fully settled around 1686 by a Cornishman named John Crockett. Today, the last names of 450 permanent residents also include Pruitt, Thomas, Parks, and Evans. Many centuries of isolation have left locals with a heavy accent handed down by their Cornish ancestors, a sort of Old English similar to the thick brogue some Downeast North Carolina residents speak. Tangier’s population swells and recedes by a few hundred each day as tourists arrive and depart on ferry boats to get a look at the place and bolster the local economy in the process. Tourism aside, the island’s rhythm from April until November is dictated by crabbing. Today, some 70 watermen continue to work the plentiful waters around Tangier.

There are two limiting factors when it comes to cruising the area: your boat’s draft and your need for supplies. If your boat draws more than about six feet, dock in Crisfield, Maryland, and take the daily ferry to Tangier Island, about 15 miles across Tangier Sound. The Steven Thomas (800-863-2338) leaves Crisfield at 12:30PM daily and returns from Tangier, departing at 4PM sharp. Other ferry services include the Joyce Marie II (757-891-2505) from the eastern shore town of Onancock, Virginia, or the Chesapeake Breeze (804-453- 2628) from the western shore hamlet of Reedville, Virginia.

Other ferry services include the Joyce Marie II (757-891-2505) from the eastern shore town of Onancock, Virginia, or the Chesapeake Breeze (804-453- 2628) from the western shore hamlet of Reedville, Virginia.

Cruisers who want the full Tangier experience stay at Park’s Marina, the island’s sole marina, which has 25 slips and showers for slip holders but no pump-out. Fuel is available from two fuel docks on Tangier’s main watery thoroughfare.

There’s a general store and a few restaurants on Tangier but very little additional supplies, sundries or engine, and mechanical parts. There are, however, two motels and a handful of bed and breakfasts on the island. If you choose to visit by boat, there are two off-ramps from the main Chesapeake Bay channel into Tangier Island proper. The easiest approach is through what is identified as “Tangier Channel” on the chart but called “North Channel” by locals.