A Deltaville Rhapsody
It’s the noisy, smelly, beautiful music of the marine industry that sets Deltaville’s feet a-dancing. Sure it’s got its bands and banjos, but it’s the thrum of an inboard diesel that really gets its economy singing and the thwack of a jib and mains’l catching the wind on a new tack that plays on its heartstrings. Deltaville is boating like Beethoven is music. Everything else is just noise. Yes, Annapolis also dances to the tune of boats, but it hears the call of commerce and the machinery of government as well. In Deltaville, there is nothing but boats. Glorious, simple, complicated, recreational, working, racing, doughty, dazzling boats—and the skills required for working with boats, from canvas, to rigging, caulking, sanding, smoothing, and polishing, marine savvy born of generations that have known only the water.
For the past week, I’ve been doing a slow dance around Deltaville as my husband Rick, apprentice ship’s pup Bindi and I wait for Moment of Zen to go back in the water with a shiny hull, renewed bottom paint, a starboard prop that is both shiny and new, and replacement tachometers for her Volvo diesels. It all takes longer than I’d hoped, of course, and I feel like a player on the sidelines of the big game. Everywhere around me boats come and go like the tide. Only I, it seems, must sit and watch. I have haunted marinas, strolled through boatyards, listening to Deltaville doing its job, making its music and thinking ruefully that it was only a month ago that it was I who was calling the tune, bringing Moment of Zen first into Broad Creek, then Fishing Bay and finally anchoring in Jackson Creek. An odd thing to do, you may be thinking to yourself, not understanding that I am a first-order ditherer. I want to try all three bowls of porridge before settling on the one that’s just right. So when Rick and I decided to come down and do some cruising around this glorious part of the Bay, I couldn’t decide which of Deltaville’s three ports to use as home base. Naturally I decided that we would stay at all of them in turn.
We began with Broad Creek, whose entrance is easy and deceptively rural-looking as you cut across the mouth of the Rappahannock River (coming from the north, as we were). The channel lies two miles west-northwest of the Stingray Point Light (you have to stay well offshore as you enter the Rappahannock to avoid the long shoal off the point) or three miles west-southwest of Windmill Point Light. Soon after you pass the first marker (green “1”) and enter the three-quarter-mile channel, any notion you might have had that this was going to be a rural creek ends. Boatyards, marine railroads, marinas, service specialists and fuel docks jostle for a place along the crowded shoreline. Travelifts are as common as F-150 pickups. Here’s a quick run down (with apologies to anyone I’m overlooking): Immediately inside, just beyond red buoy “6A”, the first of Broad Creek’s two branches, North Branch, opens to port, leading to the Stingray Point Marina, the largest marina in Deltaville, and Stingray Point Boat Works. Back on the main creek, Doziers Regatta Point, with its welcoming floating docks and wide berths comes first. Opposite Doziers lies Walden’s, a working boatyard and marina, followed by the Railway (formerly Cocomos), the town’s only restaurant with water access, followed by Norton’s Yacht Sales, which sprawls elegantly dock after dock along the shoreline. Now back to the other side, the bright red roofs of Norview Marina’s covered slips (also home to Zimmerman Marine’s Deltaville branch) are followed by Coastal Marine, a working yard and marina, and neat and tidy, hard-working Chesapeake Cove at the head of the creek. Hold on, we’re nearly done. On the opposite shore, Norton’s is followed by smaller Rivertime Marina. Wait, we’re not done yet. As Rick stood on the front deck and puppy Bindi chewed yet another hole in the safety netting, I steered Moment of Zen into the creek’s Southern Branch, which appears just beyond Norview Marina. Nestled at the head of this inlet lies Deltaville Yacht Center. Here owner Lew Grimm directed us to the shore-side of two trawlers that lay along the final pier. In its long history, the property has been a schooner captain’s landing, Taylors Marina and Dozier’s Marina before Lew and Onna Grimm bought it in 2001 and undated the facilities, including a repair yard and yacht sales. It’s the kind of origin story you could tell about every marina, up and down the creek.
When I talk with Carolyn Norton Schmalenberger—granddaughter of Ed Norton, who founded Norton Yachts in 1948—during my later ramblings, she characterizes Broad Creek as Deltaville’s industrial park. And there’s no arguing the point. Virtually every inch of the creek is chockablock with marine businesses, and has been since Deltaville was a local center for boatbuilding throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries. But as Rick and I sat in the cockpit that evening, in that tiny cove at the end of the Southern Branch, it seemed to me that the creek looked a lot like a park, with its field, forest and picturesque old farm buildings
In keeping with the “park like” notion, Barbara Kling and her husband Jack stopped by on their way down the dock to say hello and to welcome us to their favorite marina—and, in an unusual twist on Virginia hospitality, warned us to be on the lookout for coyotes. What? Yes, coyotes.
The Klings’ coyote experience happened this way: “We were sitting on the boat late in the afternoon watching the osprey at their nest nearby,” Barbara began. “A little later, we saw a fox going after a goose. They were having quite a battle, but the goose got away in the end.” Soon after, they looked up and saw six fawns on the grass. “It was just the nicest nature day, we told ourselves.” That evening, Jack had gone up to bed in the bow berth while Barbara was still back at the stern. “I heard this commotion and called, ‘Jack, what are you doing?’ ” Finally, he replied grumpily, “Sleeping!” “Then what’s making that noise?” she called back. At that, Jack suddenly realized that there was an animal in the bunk with him. “He jumped out of bed and started shouting at the coyote to get out of his bed,” Barbara continued. When that didn’t work, Jack picked up a broom and started swatting at it. “It was young and frightened and, as soon as it could, it got out of there quick!” It will be a long time before the Klings leave the door of their Bayliner 34 open again. And with bite-sized Bindi on board, we were careful to shut the cockpit door tight that night, too.
A few days later and in a different part of Deltaville, Richard Rodgers gave me a warning of a different kind. We had come around to Fishing Bay from Broad Creek, bucking the wind that seems to swirl around Stingray Point like an uncorked genie, much to the delight of local sailors and the occasional bedevilment of passagemakers. We had planned a detour to Tangier Island in between Deltaville ports, but three or four feet of chop on the beam soon sent us scooting into the Piankatank River instead and around Stove Point. On earlier trips by myself, I had anchored in Fishing Bay’s splendid bathtub of an anchorage. Here you can set your hook nearly anywhere that suits the season, near or far from a north, east or western shore, and still have room to welcome the Queen Mary later that evening. It’s a wonderful anchorage and justly famous the world over, but this time we passed it up in favor of a snug berth along the transient dock at Fishing Bay Harbor Marina, snapping Moment of Zen around to nose into the wind behind a 60-foot sailing vessel of some impressive variety. Fishing Bay Harbor Marina, easily identified by its two-story hexagonal office/ship’s store, is located on Fishing Bay’s western shore. Immediately to its left is Chesapeake Boat Works, which spent most of its 100 years as Deagle’s Marine Railroad—a name still used by nearly everyone in Deltaville—but now owned by the Farenholt brothers. On the other side is little Ruark Marina.
The following afternoon I set out through Fishing Bay Marina’s lovely rolling grounds, admiring the boats, while trying to get young Bindi to walk five steps in a straight line without stopping to eat something despicable or roll in a desiccated frog carcass—a commodity of which the Chesapeake seems too well endowed. I had finally collected her onto the far dock when I spotted a man sitting on the deck of a black-hulled jewel-box of a boat—a little Herreshoff, as it turned out—working industriously on the hull of the good-size power cruiser next to it named Sloopless in Deltaville. Bindi walked out on the finger pier and immediately peed. I followed her and immediately apologized and gave a false name (just kidding). The gentleman, in turn, introduced himself as Richard Rodgers, which sounded like a false name but wasn’t.
He explained that he was cleaning the marks on his hull made when he forgot to untie the little Herreshoff when he and his wife and friends went out, with the result that the taut line of the Herreshoff smacked the larger boat back against the end of the finger pier’s rubrail. “I tie the Herreshoff to my boat,” he explained, “to hold it off the finger pier.”
It was an unusual mistake for a man who has put 20,000 miles on his power cruiser, but proof that we can all dummy up. Rodgers and his wife Neena, a prominent local real estate broker, moved to Deltaville as a second home in 1997 and retired here in 2001. Like most people who started out keeping their boat in Deltaville while living elsewhere, the Rodgers were sailors (hence the boat name, of course), but now own a townhome a few feet from the dock and a powerboat they’ve taken just about everywhere.
There is one other facility on Fishing Bay I haven’t mentioned yet. Fishing Bay Yacht Club, which straddles Stove Point between Fishing Bay and Jackson Creek, comes up often in conversations with Deltaville residents, who are proud of its many youth sailing programs, including Sailing Week and Optikids, both held in June, with youngsters as young as five taking part. The club also has Opti and Laser teams, and, a few years ago, hosted the Opti Nationals. The yacht club’s two and a half acres was purchased in 1948 for $2,500 by far-thinking members of the Urbanna Yacht Club—who immediately changed their name to Fishing Bay Yacht Club. The rest is history, as the club and its sailing programs have turned out some of the nation’s best young sailors. Naturally, there are plenty of races for adults too.
Two days later, we completed the Deltaville three-cornered hat trick when we dropped anchor in Jackson Creek, not far from Deltaville Boatyard and Marina, where I’d stayed in the past. While Fishing Bay is all elbow room and international cruisers, Jackson Creek is all narrow and neighborly. It is also hands down the people’s choice for a sheltered anchorage in a blow—Broad Creek is an official harbor of refuge because of its protected waters and ease of access, it has no room to anchor, and Fishing Bay, lovely as it is, is too open in a big storm. Largely residential Jackson Creek, on the other hand, has good places to anchor on either of its two branches. The northern branch has Deltaville Boatyard and Marina, where you can tie up a dinghy for a small charge, and the southern branch has the town pier and Powell’s, a small marina, where you may get the okay to tie up—not that you can easily walk anywhere in Deltaville without packing a pup tent and a few cans of baked beans to eat along the way. (This is meant as an amusing exaggeration with a grain of truth.)
This is probably a good time to mention downtown Deltaville, which, regrettably for the non-hiking cruiser, is not particularly convenient from any of the town’s three access points because it’s spread out along three or four miles of highway. The happy part of the story, though, is that nearly all of Deltaville’s marinas have either a loaner car or a person who will be willing to give you a lift. In addition, local residents will just as likely stop to give you a ride, especially if you agree to share some of those baked beans you brought along for lunch (just kidding about the beans).
What you’ll find when you do get to the main street, otherwise known as General Puller Highway, is a crackerjack hardware store named Hurd’s, which carries just about everything useful, including a lot of marine supplies. The nearby library welcomes cruisers and the post office is not far away. A bit farther out the highway you’ll find a shiny new jumbo West Marine and a little bit beyond that you’ll find J&W Seafood, with the freshest fish you can dream up, followed by the Deltaville Supermarket, which does a pretty creditable job. Farm markets also dot the landscape in season. (We put together fresh rockfish, fresh corn, green beans and fresh bread on one expedition into town.) In and amongst all that, you will also find a dozen or so what-not shops with names like Nauti Nell’s and The Grumpy Couple that sell antiques, curios, crafts, gizmos and, well, what-nots.
Now back to the waterfront. . . . Jackson Creek is also the people’s choice for visiting Deltaville’s star attraction, the Deltaville Maritime Museum, because you can actually get there from here by dinghy. The museum is located near the head of a small creek at the entrance to Jackson Creek. You’ll spot it as you follow the markers along the great circle route into Jackson (whose channel was dredged in 2011 so you should find about 9 feet. Be sure to follow all of the markers though).
Despite our proximity to the museum, I have somehow not managed to get to the museum until we are back in town and up on the hard. While our boat is getting its facelift, we’ve decided to rent a car to get some other business taken care of at the same time. And part of that business is a visit to the museum. I had been to the museum before the 2012 fire destroyed the main building and some of the exhibits, so I am very much looking forward to seeing the new building, miraculously funded and built in what seemed like a matter of months. And the museum’s special exhibit, a collection of works by celebrated Chesapeake artist John Barber, has been mentioned to me by more people in Deltaville than even the yacht club’s youth program. Deltaville is rightly very proud of its museum, and they are particularly tickled to have the Barber retrospective. When I walk through the museum’s front doors on a sunny Thursday afternoon, I immediately see why. The collection stretches impressively down the long gallery walls to the back of the large high-ceilinged main gallery. And then it continues in one of the smaller galleries off the main hall. Amassing this collection, which features works that span 50 years, must have been a Herculean task in itself, since nearly all works were borrowed for the occasion from their current owners, spread over half the world. The gallery is busy with visitors. Bob and Gayle Barber (no relation), who have recently bought a house on nearby Wilton Creek, have brought their granddaughter Cacei Andrew of Richmond especially to see the Barbers. (You can see them too, if you hurry. The exhibit runs through October 12.)
I’m not sure what I was expecting, something grander, I suppose. Without giant boats in it—and there were none that morning—the canal is really just 12 or so nautical miles of straight, deep and thoroughly riprapped river, with more than its share of extraordinarily high bridges. I was at the eastern end before I knew it. Just a mile beyond the last of those extraordinarily high bridges (Reedy Point, Route 9) I turned left up the Delaware River. Up the shoreline on the left I could make out a miniature skyline of what I figured was Delaware City. And off to the right I could see the green smudge of land that was clearly Pea Patch Island, with a distinct gray protrusion on the east side—Fort Delaware, my destination for the day.
The new museum building is bright and airy. Its two-story center section with two small wings is based on the old Stingray Point Hotel. The pale gray building with its bright red roof sits on 30 acres of newly landscaped grounds, with gardens and a lovely nature walk dotted with sculptures. After pouring over the Barbers for an hour or so, I go outside to stroll around for a bit, passing the Tea House and the boat shed before I naturally find myself walking along the dock at the waterfront. There I find John England and Gordon Gibb hard at work, touching up the beautiful nine-log-hulled buyboat F.D. Crockett. The 63-foot vessel was built in 1924 on the Poquoson River and donated to the museum in 2005. England is the project manager for the restoration project. After watching them for a few minutes, I tear myself away and return to my own boat, where I think I’d better do a little work as well.
And so the week on the hard passes, wandering through marinas, talking to a hundred people (okay not that many) in marinas and boatyards, watching other people go out to fish or sail or just cruise. Finally, it is almost time. The following Monday, the boot stripe and the bottom paint go on. On Tuesday, the new prop and zincs. On Wednesday morning, the travelift powers up and hovers over us like a mother hen until we are in the slings.
A few minutes later Moment of Zen is finally back in the water. We start up the motors and head out of Fishing Bay, aiming for Stingray Point and a return trip to Broad Creek for some final engine work at Chesapeake Cove. It’s exhilarating to be back on the water. Near green marker “11”, despite the frog-jumping nature of our trip, we haul up the main and unfurl the jib. Nothing happens. We wait. Finally, Rick points to a telltale ripple of wind spreading out across the water. Two minutes later, a fine southerly wind passes over us like the ghost of Christmas and Zen’s sails snap to attention with a thwack. And with it, the music of Deltaville—that is to say, the music of all boats—sings in our souls.
-Jody Argo Scroath