Saturday, April 20, 2013

Smith Island

Smith Island/Ewell. An alternative to Tangier Island (we like Tangier better), Smith Island offers a similar experience, but quieter and with more kayaking possibilities. The history and culture are similar, though the flavor is not quite so pronounced, or perhaps just not as deliberately marketed. There are fewer stores, restaurants, and tourist amenities in general, in spite of the active ferry service. The towns are smaller (Ewell, Tylerton, and Rhodes Point) and the ferry service more recent. There is really only one large restaurant, the Crab Claw, right behind the marina. 

(Edit: Rukes closed in 2015.)
Ruke’s General Store is a few hundred yards further into town; groceries are available and lunch is served, both are limited, yet it is a comfortable local place that visitors remember. Without any reservation, they serve the best crab cakes anywhere, 5-star restaurants included.

Ruke's, inside

Rukes, the view from the porch

            The Smith Island Visitor’s Center (open every day noon to 4:00 PM, April through October—matching the cruise boat schedule) deserves an hour during your first visit. A miniature version of the maritime museums in St. Michaels and Solomons Island, there is an informative slide show, varied exhibits and dioramas, primarily of an earlier time but some present day, and several small restored local craft. And it’s air conditioned.

             We have thoroughly enjoyed our visits, accepting that it is very quiet. Everything closes when the last ferry leaves, and the restaurants are not open for dinner. The ice-cream stand between the Visitor’s Center and the docks rents golf carts and bicycles, though there isn’t far to go and an hour or two is enough; a few antique stores and a few quiet lanes. At first visit we spent most of the afternoon exploring the nearby marsh with a two-person sea kayak borrowed from the Smith Island Marina.
               Like Tangier, the crabbing on the flats and marina pilings is fast and easy in late summer. Somehow they're sweater when you harvested them yourself.

Kayaking. Excellent, both the north (longer distances) and just south of Ewell. If you don't have a kayak, the marina generally has loaners (free), but bring your own. You could paddle for a week and not see it all. Figure on spending a night or two.

Rounding Swan Island to the east. Part of the Smith island complex, this island is next to the west entrance and rounding it makes a nice 2- to 3-hour expedition. You can paddle around the jetty, but crossing it is easy.

Northeast of Swan Island. The water is crystal clear, the result of filtration by extensive grass beds.

Smith Island/Rhodes Point and Tylerton. The other towns of Smith Island are not frequented by tourists and boast no tourist adaptations. That doesn’t mean you won’t be welcome; it means I haven’t been there and I’ve been told the towns are more original. I did approach Ewell by Tyler Creek 2006 and found the depth to be over 6 feet the whole way, except for a 4-foot bar just south of Tylerton. The channel east to Rhodes point is said to be more challenging, because it weaves, not because it is shallow.

Approach. From either the east or west the Thorofare Channel is straight forward. Yield 20 yards south of the markers just east of Ewell (G”15”) to avoid a sand bar that brings even locals to grief, should they be caught wool gathering.
Anchorage. Just west of Ewell and just after the main channel ziggs north there is an extension that continues. You will find 10 feet of water, good holding ground, and little traffic, although there is considerable current.

  • Smith Island Marina, Nice docks; if you draw more than 3 feet you may consider mooring toward the outward end where you should have at least 6 feet. Because the slips are 2-per-slot, they are very wide. 8 feet draft at low tide from the west, 6 feet from the east. A nice air conditioned dock house with toilet and large shower. Free use of a 2-person sea kayak. $1.00/foot overnight + $5 for electricity.

Fuel. Just east of Smith Island Marina. Limited hours.

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