The storm left behind a soft, pearly sunset, which I enjoyed from the deck at Waterman's Crab House in Rock Hall. Like the Crab Claw in St. Michaels and Pier Street Restaurant in Oxford, Waterman's is a casual waterfront place with picnic tables. Steamed blue crabs are served on brown paper, not plates, and wooden mallets are provided for busting open the shells. Extracting the meat is a messy business but more fun than a food fight. Nevertheless, that night I had the easier-to-handle crab cakes, filled with huge, succulent lumps.
Capt. Wade is a spry, sunburned showman of about 60 who can steer a boat, net crabs and eat a banana at the same time. From a family of bona fide watermen going back three generations, he claimed to have once taken 78 bushels of blue crabs out of the Chesapeake in a day. Of late, though, he's found catering to tourists more lucrative. On this trip there were four of us, me and three ministers from Ohio, who would come east to attend sailing school in Annapolis.
On our way out of the harbor, the captain explained how crabs reproduce, told jokes and denounced the state of Maryland for its conservation policies, which he believes have done little to increase the dwindling number of oysters and crabs in the bay. Then he laid out a fishing line half a mile long, called a trotline, baited with chicken necks. As he began reeling it in, he used a long-handled net to scoop up the crabs that had latched onto the chicken parts, dumping them into a bushel basket. We all got a chance to try, while Wade encouraged and harangued. If we missed one, he fumed like a Little League dad, "You didn't go deep enough." In the end, we got only one bushel, which the ministers planned to cook at a nearby park.
Later I went out on the bay again with the captain in the Rebecca T. Ruark, the oldest oyster-dredging sailboat left on the Chesapeake. Only about a dozen of these handsome, high-masted vessels, known as skipjacks, still work the bay, which has earned them recognition from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. At the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in nearby St. Michaels, a vintage skipjack called the Lady Katie is being restored.
Wade is justifiably proud of the Rebecca. Built in 1886, it is truly yar, accommodating about 15 passengers who help raise the sails. They squeak and groan as they're hoisted, hang limp for a minute, then catch the breeze and billow. A majestic sight, though mostly I loved the two-hour trip because I had forgotten how clean and healthy sailing makes me feel.
East of Tilghman Island, in St. Michaels, I had oysters on the half-shell at the Crab Claw, apparently a required stop for all tourists but lacking the down-home atmosphere of Waterman's in Rock Hall. I also visited the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum (a complex of boats and buildings at Navy Point) and spent a little time in the town's touristy shops. Bellevue Road is the scenic route from there to Oxford, crossing the wide Tred Avon River on the Oxford-Bellevue ferry, established in 1683. It lets you off at the doorstep of the venerable Robert Morris Inn, with a Colonial-style restaurant and tap room.
Oxford is leafy, quiet and lovely, the sort of place where couples get engaged. It's full of marinas, boat stores and 18th and 19th century buildings, of which the yellow Robert Morris Inn, founded about 1700, is the crown jewel.
I stayed in one of the inn's summer cottages, with waist-high wainscoting, a step-up king bed, a screened porch overlooking the water and a polished white clawfoot tub in which I took bubble baths as often as I could. Or I occupied an Adirondack chair on the lawn, watching sailboats come and go, wondering precisely why we're magnetically drawn to the water.
It was a deep riddle, I decided, that would no doubt require many more visits to the Eastern Shore to solve.