Adventure On The Half Shell

A pair of college chums en route to Boston oyster hop the Bay looking for locally grown bivalves and the beer to wash them down.

Early on an overcast Tuesday morning a 28-foot Groverbuilt downeast-style powerboat by the name of Grits pulled out of the Tidewater Marina in Portsmouth, Va. A light breeze blew from the southeast and the rippled surface of the Elizabeth River brushed gently but insistently against the forest-green fiberglass hull. Off the starboard bow the two-man crew noticed an eight-foot inflatable dinghy bobbing across their course. The late-aged man at the helm throttled down and waved in the direction of the departing vessel. The crew waved back as the captain put the engine in neutral and the dinghy pulled deftly alongside.

“You guys heading out already?” the well-tanned fellow inquired.

“Yeah—up to Yorktown,” I responded from behind the wheel. “What about you?”

“I’ll probably stay a month,” he laughed. “My son lives around here.”

I looked at my college-buddy-and-first-mate John, and we exchanged a smile in appreciation of whims such as these. “Well, good luck,” the man said, releasing the gunwhale. “Maybe I’ll see you on your way back.”

“Thanks,” said John, with a chuckle. And the bestubbled sailor puttered off towards his 40-foot ketch anchored a few hundred yards away.

It was two nights prior when we had first met this gentleman in the bar at Coinjock Marina, after having demolished many beers and too much prime rib. We had a mere five weeks from Key West under our belt—it wouldn’t be too difficult to believe that he’d been at sea for seemingly our entire lifetimes (30 years). We’re taking our boat north, we told him. “On a delivery?” he assumed. Not quite, we said—when we get up to Boston the boat will have to head back south. “Just looking for an adventure, then?” Something like that.

It had taken us five weeks to get to Coinjock. It seemed almost impossible, but we’d traveled the length of the Intracoastal Waterway in a vessel set up for day-cruising—no head, no galley, and room enough in the tiny cabin for only the captain to sleep. My 6-foot-5-inch first mate had bunked down in the cockpit under a Bimini and mosquito net. Most remarkable of all, we’d done it without major incident—some algae and water in the fuel tanks; a couple of nicks to the attractive but absurd teak rub rails; a diverted course to avoid hurricane Arthur—but all in all not much to complain about for a captain leading his first expedition and a first mate who’d never spent more than one hour at a time on a boat. And now at last we’d come to our most anticipated stretch yet—the Chesapeake Bay.

It probably won’t come as much of a surprise, especially for those who have traveled the ICW before, but for most of those initial 1,250 miles we operated without much of an agenda. We decided where to go as late as possible and decided when to leave just as impulsively. Weather considerations played a part, as did the locations of the various friends we visited along the way, but mostly it was seat-of-the-pants decision making and that was exactly the way we wanted it. The Chesapeake, however, would be different. For the Chesapeake we had goals. For the Chesapeake we had a plan—not a complicated plan, mind you, or even a particularly well thought-out plan—but a plan nonetheless. What we had come up with was this: slow the progress of our northward journey and spend a couple of weeks exploring the towns and waters of the Bay and eat as many Chesapeake oysters as possible.

It sounds bizarre I know—to travel perhaps the most fertile and famous crab country in the world and ignore the crab entirely—but despite growing up with a mother whose two favorite foods are soft-shell crabs and crabcakes, I had never managed to develop a taste for the most celebrated of Bay crustaceans. And though John wasn’t as averse as I, neither was he on a mission to hop from crab shack to crab shack. So we decided that instead of pursuing the ubiquitous blue crab on our Chesapeake journey, it’d be a far better idea to crisscross the Bay searching for something we knew we both loved—oysters on the half shell.

When we arrived in Yorktown it was almost noon. The exit from Norfolk Harbor had proven a tougher test than expected—the southeast wind building waves across the Craney Island Flats, the surface growing heavy and confused as the waves deflected off the Navy piers at Sewells Point, our 28-foot vessel bouncing chaotically like a ball in a child’s corn popper toy—but we survived and found ourselves now seven miles up the York and no worse for wear. We headed into Sarah Creek on the north side of the river and tied up at York River Yacht Haven, then walked happily up the dock to the reason we’d come: The York River Oyster Company.

John and I were eager to begin our culinary journey. We ordered a beer and looked over the impressive list of oysters available—11 varieties in all. Two of these I knew to be of Atlantic Ocean origin and therefore not worth our time—this was a Chesapeake taste tour, after all—so we ordered the other nine and 10 minutes later our feast arrived. We began tasting and comparing one after the next, excited to be finally devouring the food we’d come all this way to find.

The oysters were universally delicious—some large, some small; some smooth and buttery, some briny with rich mineral notes—and we sipped our beers and wrapped up lunch with a sated feeling of triumph, knowing we had come to the right place and that we had chosen the correct sea creature to pursue.

The next day we were set to continue north, but our quest was put on hold due to a less-than-ideal weather forecast. The nice folks at the marina dropped us off in Yorktown around noon and after exploring the town and the battlefield (and the charming Yorktown Pub), we returned to the York River Oyster Company for dinner, planting ourselves at the same spot at the bar. I took a quick lap through the marina store, and when I returned I found that John had made a surprising discovery.

As it turned out, over half of the oysters we’d eaten the day before hadn’t been from the Chesapeake! All this effort and we’d been eating oysters from Rhode Island and Delaware and as far away as Canada! In our eagerness we had neglected to do the proper research, and we’d been tasting in error. But this was a mistake we were determined not to make again. We requested deeper information from the bartender, who soon produced a list which noted the origins and flavor profiles of each oyster on the menu. And this time we ordered correctly—the five oysters which came from the waters we were presently traveling: Shooting Point, Sewansecott, James River, Mobjack and Nassawadox.

We gulped the oysters down and began to notice a trend: while all of the varieties were delicious and each had its own unique flavor, none of these oysters had the potent brininess of most we’d tasted the day prior. Now we were finally starting to understand the uniqueness of the Bay oyster. Now we’d be better equipped for the weeks ahead. Now we were getting somewhere.

I’d contacted Don Abernathy on a whim. I was hoping that, as an oyster farmer, he might be able to give me a few hints as to where we’d be able to track down some quality local oysters. As it turned out, most of his oysters were reserved for catered events or sold to restaurants farther upriver than we had time to go, but that didn’t stop him from inviting us to check out his farm for a crash-course in the oyster industry and, of course, some oyster sampling.

We arrived in Deltaville after two nights in Yorktown, feeling decidedly optimistic about expanding our Chesapeake oyster expertise. Neither John nor I had ever been to an oyster farm, nor did we know the first thing about how they are grown. We knew we liked the taste, we knew beer and oysters made for a wonderful combination, and that about covered it. So we made our arrangements with Abernathy, and the next day he and his daughter Leslie collected us from our marina and drove us to check out their operation.

The Deltaville Oyster Company is the epitome of a family business. Operated entirely by Don, his wife Ann, and his daughter Leslie, this tiny oyster farm was born from a hobby Don had dabbled with for several years off his dock on Sturgeon Creek. It expanded when he retired and found that, coupled with his newfound free time, there was a growing demand for local oysters. So he decided to get a bit more serious and, after acquiring a lease in the Rappahannock, set about increasing his production.

The first thing Abernathy did when we arrived at his dock was offer us a beer. So with cold beverages in hand, we listened happily as he explained everything we wanted to know about oysters and much, much more. He told us about the history of the Chesapeake oyster industry—how production had collapsed from nearly 20 million bushels per year in the 1880s to 25 thousand in the 1980s. He told us that from this nadir the industry has seen growth of just over 400,000 bushels in 2013 and that demand was now outstripping supply. And he spoke proudly about the potential of oyster farming to help restore the health of the Bay for all those who rely on the water for their livelihoods or just for recreation.

This was great information, and it helped to explain why so much focus nowadays is on the crab and the crab alone. But all of this discussion was making us hungry. To calm us down, Don pulled a basket from the water and began shucking for us the freshest oysters we had ever eaten. We gulped them eagerly down and asked him about what we’d noticed regarding the flavor of the local oysters we’d eaten so far. He sampled a couple himself as he explained how the prime determinant of an oyster’s flavor is the salinity of the water in which they dwell. This salinity, measured in PSU (Practical Salinity Units) is what makes one Chesapeake oyster different from the next, and indeed what differentiates the Chesapeake oysters from those of the North Atlantic that we’d ordered in error a few days earlier.

The water of the Bay is brackish, and not nearly as salt-rich as the ocean itself, and the result is the sweet, buttery flavor and mild saltiness which characterizes the oysters produced by the Deltaville Oyster Co. Not surprising, we were coming to understand that this mildness of flavor is part of the reason Chesapeake oysters have been growing in popularity. Especially to those not accustomed to eating oysters, a strong briny flavor can be a serious turn-off. It was for me anyway. Most of my youth I looked upon eating oysters as a ridiculous exercise akin to drinking seawater, and though my tastes have changed and the brininess is now merely another flavor characteristic, it is easy to understand why farmers like Don Abernathy continue to see demand for their oysters grow.

From Deltaville we headed east across the Bay. We had guests with us for the weekend—my cousin Cliff and his wife Lindsay down from Boston—and we had tried to come up with a plan that didn’t disappoint. We set out around eight o’clock that morning, hoping for a calm day. We were still newbies to these parts, after all, and we knew that the large size of the Chesapeake coupled with the small size of our vessel could lead to some serious nightmare scenarios. As it turned out, the day was perfect. The water was glass-flat the entire way to Tangier Island, where we stopped briefly for lunch and a little exploring.

Later in the afternoon we continued across the Tangier Sound to Crisfield, Md., then docked in Somers Cove Marina and set about exploring this “Seafood Capital of the World,” optimistic that we’d find many more delicious oysters to consume. The day was hot and our pace was slow. We ambled down Main Street looking for promising establishments, but as we soon came to discover, “seafood” in Crisfield pretty much means “crabs,” and we were forced to accept that we’d have to shelve our oyster quest for at least a day. But this wasn’t such a terrible fate, and we had guests to make happy so we stopped in at the Crisfield Crabhouse and ordered a couple pitchers of light beer to help cool us down. Then we smashed and picked until our appetites and our guests’ crab fantasies were thoroughly sated.

The next morning it was north into the Choptank River and east to Cambridge where Cliff and Lindsay would depart and where our oyster quest would hopefully resume. We arose about 6:30 a.m. to cover the 65 miles by early afternoon. The weather forecast looked promising—not terribly dissimilar to the day before—and we left Crisfield excited at the prospect of another beautiful day on the Bay.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. Almost from the word go the seas were up—the waves 3- to 4-feet high in Tangier Sound and 5- to 6-feet in the Bay proper—and though the conditions were hardly life-threatening, when we finally arrived seven hours later (six of which I spent at the helm), our nerves were shot, and our quest to eat oysters had become suddenly far less important.

From the beginning of our trip six weeks prior, we’d been a bit anxious about reaching the Chesapeake. As much as we hoped it would hold beautiful cruising potential, we feared also what its size could mean. And now we knew. We had felt the Bay’s power and our inability to alter its whims. And it had demonstrated to us far beyond brio or ego that if we did not choose our days carefully—and perhaps even if we did—the Bay could make our time afloat potentially dangerous and at the very least unpleasant and stressful. And though we knew also that our fine lady Grits had performed beautifully, we still had another crossing ahead. I’d slept poorly that night in Cambridge thinking about all the big water we still had to cover—not just the remainder of the Chesapeake, but the Delaware and the Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean, for God’s sake—what in hell had I been thinking when I decided this trip was a good idea?

From Cambridge we headed to Oxford. Cliff and Lindsay had departed as scheduled, and John and I woke up Monday morning without an itinerary. It’d take only an hour to make the 10-mile journey from the Choptank to the Tred Avon. The day was fine with little menacing potential, but all the same, we weren’t exactly eager to get back on the water. We lazed around the marina considering another night in Cambridge but decided ultimately that the weather was calm and we needed to stop being nervous. Everything would be fine. We untied our lines and after a short stop at the fuel dock, we steered out into the river.

The morning was warm and bright with the wind blowing about ten knots. The waters of the Choptank were calm and the minor waves were on our stern instead of quartering our bow and soaking us with spray like the day before. There was no reason to worry, no reason to lose patience. And yet, my endurance for unpleasant conditions was so low that the wake of passing boats was more than enough to cause me grief. On any other day I wouldn’t have given the conditions a second thought. I would have waved to fellow boaters instead of growing incensed by them, but today I was hyper-sensitive and it was not until we anchored for a swim in the Tred Avon an hour later that I was finally able to relax. As I floated in the water and gazed around at the beauty of the land, at the stillness of this waterway meandering through it, I was forced to remember that not all days are like the one prior; that there is a reason I am drawn to boats and the water; that there is splendor and solitude and comfort to be found; and that the risks taken serve also to heighten the rewards.

It was a re-nourishing reminder very much needed, and after our swim we made for Oxford where a friend was generous enough to provide us with a free place to dock. We spent the rest of the day doing some repairs and catching up with various chores. The next day we took the short ferry ride to Bellevue where John’s parents collected us. His folks had come south to check on our progress and visit some friends. Over the next couple days we had a lovely time relaxing with them as we explored the Eastern Shore, but our oyster quest, unfortunately, was destined to suffer.

We returned to Oxford where Grits had been waiting patiently and plotted our next move. The logical choice was Annapolis. An easy day’s journey and dense with seafood establishments, we reasoned that this would be our best bet to get back to our oyster-eating. We had breakfast at the Robert Morris Inn and tried to forget that traveling to Annapolis involved once again venturing out into the heart of the Bay. I’d been checking the weather compulsively for days and though everything looked pleasant, the forecasts did little to alleviate my anxiety.

Nonetheless, we eased out of Oxford and into the Choptank headed for Knapps Narrows. I stared intently at the waters around me. I watched for white caps or any other sign of non-perfect conditions. The sun shone bright. The wind was down. We passed by Poplar Island slicing through only minor surface agitation. And then at last, when we were in the middle of the Bay, I turned to John and said, “It’s not that bad.” He seemed hesitant but nodded just the same. “Thank God,” he exhaled, and we rode up the Severn River excited at what we might discover, but mostly just relieved.

We were stymied by a closed-down oyster bar in Cambridge and another two in Easton that had only non-local product. Tilghman Island was more of the same. We saw crabs aplenty in St. Michaels, but it was only at Foxy’s on the waterfront where we were able to locate the authentic Bay bivalve—some plump and tasty specimens from Hoopers Island, which sated us briefly, but which did little to broaden our horizons. We wondered if it would be this way the rest of the trip, if we would ever again be able to match our York and Rappahannock success. It seemed far from a guarantee, but that certainly wasn’t going to stop us from trying.

This was my second trip to Annapolis but my first by boat, and it didn’t take long to realize that any trip to this town which doesn’t involve a boat or boating has mostly missed the point. The endless array of marinas, the prominence of the Naval Academy, the stunning beauty of countless classic vessels, the sheer volume of boat traffic—it’s a pretty place to walk around for sure, but it is fundamentally a place which exists because of the Chesapeake, for the Chesapeake, and we hoped that with this in mind, we’d finally be able to get back to eating the Bay’s delicious oyster bounty.

We tied up in Eastport at the Annapolis City Marina—our slip a tight squeeze directly in front of a large lunch crowd at Carrol’s Creek Cafe—but we managed to dock safely and incident-free and then set about exploring. John was a first-timer so we walked across the Spa Creek Bridge to see what we could find. We wandered around for a while, peering here, browsing a shop or two there, until the sun and the heat convinced us that refreshment was in order. We’d been observing the city’s restaurants and watering holes closely on our tour, and we struck on a plan: two seemingly venerable establishments within a couple hundred yards of each other claiming to be ‘oyster bars.’ We’d try them both and see what happened.

What happened, unfortunately, was disappointing. Their names apparently a vestige of the Chesapeake’s ancient oyster history, neither ‘oyster bar’ seemed to pay much attention to their supposed raison d’être. They had oysters, of course, but the question of where these oysters had come from was met with arched brows that asked: “There’s a difference?” and answered ultimately with: “Elsewhere.” Perhaps it was as Don Abernathy had told us: that the Chesapeake suppliers were unable to keep up with demand. Or perhaps it was that the eating public never thought to ask, so the restaurants never thought to care. Whatever the reason, John and I were dismayed and a bit confused as we sipped our beers and licked our newly salted oyster-seeking wounds.

Our luck had been distressing of late. We knew from the outset it would be difficult to overcome the Cult of the Blue Crab, but this was getting ridiculous. Was there nowhere left to find this harvest of the sea so ubiquitous in the Bay’s prosperous past? Surely there must be some place in this town serving delicious Bay oysters; it was merely a matter of finding it. And so as we wandered the streets we thought back to a place we’d passed in Eastport just a block from our marina; a place which looked lively and promising; a place called the Boatyard. We didn’t know what to expect on the oyster front but we knew they served cold beer, and we knew that if nothing else, it was at least on our way back home.

This was a Friday night and despite its considerable size, the place was jam-packed. We hesitated in the doorway wondering if there was any chance for us to sit or if our quest was to remain star-crossed forever. And then in a last-ditch effort we wandered down to the lower bar where, to our complete surprise, we found two open seats with a great view of the raw seafood display. All at once everything seemed encouraging, even Providential. We knew this had to be the place we were looking for, and sure enough, they had two Chesapeake varieties: Skinny Dippers and Hackett Points. We ordered a half dozen of each, sipped our beers and watched the bustling crowd. We felt triumphant and redeemed, and when at last we retired that evening to our boat, we fell asleep confident that our luck had returned.

From one Chesapeake hub we’d head to another, up the Bay and the Patapsco River to Baltimore. John had done his first Master’s program there and was eager to return to some of his favorite spots. I had a cousin who was living there for the summer. We’d have a day of catching up, exploring and hopefully delicious oyster eating.

We docked in Fells Point and I sent my cousin a message. Where to meet? The Thames Street Oyster House of course—right up the road from our marina and doubtless the best possible place to start our day. We arrived first and found spots at the bar (as usual). We were handed a brunch menu and a raw bar list. I decided first upon a beer and then turned my attentions to food. I picked up the square raw bar menu printed with today’s date and discovered 14 (!) varieties of oyster listed. My initial joy was tempered when I looked closer and found that only three were from the Bay, but three was good—three was enough—three dozen would start our day off nicely.

Our beers arrived and so did my cousin, and after a few minutes our Chesapeake bounty was presented to us, perfectly arranged and shucked, and we knew then that if we achieved nothing else on this day, it would still be victorious. And victorious it was. There were oysters consumed, city exploring and bar crawling, quality time with family and friends—all of our goals for the Chesapeake wrapped nicely into one long and satisfying day which ended as entertainingly as it began.

It was nearing midnight and I was in a taxi heading back to the boat. John had gone to meet a friend earlier in the evening, and I was alone in the back. The driver struck up a conversation. He asked me what I was doing in Baltimore, and I told him about our trip: That we’d started in Key West and still had a long way to go; that the boat was tiny and not designed for this sort of journey at all. That our head was a bucket and that my one-man crew slept every night in a bug tent under the stars. He started giggling uncontrollably. “Why you doing this?” he asked. “I don’t know,” I told him. “Seemed like a good idea at the time.”

It was getting on two weeks since we first rode a following sea down the Elizabeth River into the Chesapeake Bay. We sat at the bar at Schaefer’s on the C&D Canal—a brief lunch stop before the long jump down the Delaware to Cape May. I noticed oysters on the menu and asked the bartender where they came from. She wasn’t sure, she said, but a man stocking the cooler next to her looked up and mumbled: “New Jersey.”

I turned to John. He smiled. We knew it was over.

I sipped my beer and watched the boats in the canal and thought back on the trip we’d just made—this journey within a journey. I thought about the beauty we’d seen from the water and the charm we’d found ashore. I thought about the oyster bars we’d been to, our successes and our failures. I thought about Stingrays and Skinny Dippers, Olde Salts and Choptank Sweets, Rappahannocks, Pungoteague Creeks, and Hackett Points. And I thought about how we’d not only traveled the length of the Chesapeake, but tasted it as well.