Tiny Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay is Maryland’s last remaining offshore inhabited island, and the home of Maryland’s state dessert, the magnificently multi-layered Smith Island Cake. So I got it in my head to sail there on our friend’s boat and taste this baked extravaganza at the source. There are easier ways to do it (i.e., by ferry), but not as fun. It’s a ten-hour sail from the town of Oxford, which is where the sailboat lives, and the folks at Smith Island Marina advised us to come on a rising tide to avoid getting stuck in sand. That meant sailing at night, which I love, and arriving at 2 a.m.
My family was up for the challenge, and our neighbor and his friend as well, so we set off on a warm Friday afternoon, after momentarily forgetting one of our teenagers on the dock. As we entered the bay, a trio of ospreys flew around the boat, and one of them landed on the mast and hitched a ride for a while, which we deemed a good sign. The kids grilled hamburgers on the barbecue cantilevered over the stern, and after dinner the stars came out and bioluminescent dinoflagellates sparkled in the waves as we zipped along. The kids were sleeping when we entered the channel and slowly motored through the hazards, using spotlights and flashlights to illuminate the navigational aids in the dark, tricky channel, and we tied up at the marina with relief.
There’s not a lot to do on Smith Island. Just about all of the 200 or so residents trap blue crabs for a living, as Smith Islanders have been doing for the past 300 years, and there’s much activity before dawn as the watermen head out in their boats to check their traps. There are a few old cars on the island that have seen better days, but most people use boats, golf carts, and bicycles to get around. Ewell, the main town, has the marina, two restaurants, a few gift shops and B&Bs, the post office, a Methodist church, an elementary school, and the excellent Smith Island museum, which offers a vivid intro to the life and history of the island.
The kids took the Zodiac and went exploring, visiting the goats on Goat Island, and I went for a walk on the road through the salt marsh to the next town, Rhodes Point (which changed its name from the earlier pirate-influenced version, Rogues Point). Egrets and herons silently pursued their prey in the marsh grass, heat radiated from the asphalt, and when a car occasionally passed by, the driver always waved. My Crocs were rubbing a blister on my foot, so I stopped to ask an older woman for a Band-aid. She invited me into her spotless, cheerful house and her granddaughters eyed me shyly. “Don’t forget the softball game tonight!” she urged, as I went out the door with my bandaged foot. “Everyone’s invited.”
On the way back to Ewell, I heard thunder and walked faster. An old car pulled up and the driver kindly offered me a ride. We chatted on the way, and he had that wonderful Smith Island accent, which some linguists say is a remnant of Elizabethan speech, from the original English settlers being isolated for so long.
To me it sounds like they add extra vowels in their words and roll them around in their mouths before letting them go (you can listen to it here).When I expressed my admiration for the marsh, he told me about the pair of bald eagles that often hang out on the sign in the water that indicates the Maryland/Virginia state line: One eagle sits on the Maryland side, and his mate in Virginia.
We had reserved two dozen steamed crabs in advance through Pauli Eades at the marina, but when we couldn’t find her in the late afternoon and our stomachs were growling, we headed over to Rukes General Store, which I heard was the best place to eat. Out on the screened porch under ceiling fans, a motherly waitress brought us pitchers of iced tea as storm clouds gathered. The crab cakes I ordered arrived piping hot, packed with fresh crab and bursting with flavor, with no filler and no little stray bits of shell. Our friend Rainer the chef had softshell crabs, which he pronounced the best he’d ever had. Rain pounded down on the corrugated metal roof and leaked a bit onto our picnic table, making the meal cozier as we shoved together. We enjoyed the after-dinner rainbow, with no room for dessert.
The softball field was ablaze with lights as we wandered back to the boat, so we stopped to watch, and two of our kids were recruited to play. Julia was the only outfielder in a dress, and she distinguished herself at bat by running out of her flip-flops, then trying to steal second. “Can she DO that?” wailed the pitcher, as the opposing team howled approval. Next, in his eagerness to get an RBI, our son accidentally knocked down the girl guarding second base, and apologized profusely. “Way to make friends, Owen!” we yelled from the stands. But everyone was amazingly friendly, and the game concluded in laughter, with everyone mobbing the snack bar, which was raising funds for island medical expenses.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
At 3 a.m. we headed out, to take advantage of the tide, then moored outside the harbor until daybreak. Sailing home in a steady breeze on a sunny afternoon, we cracked and ate crabs, jumped overboard, ate cold watermelon, jumped overboard again, fired the potato cannon, and finally had our delicious ten-layer Smith Island cake and ate it, too.