Smith Island Cruise
The visitor to Smith Island always arrives by boat, a reminder that the residents of its townships — Ewell, Rhodes Point, and Tylerton — live as close to the water as the people of Venice or the tiny fishing villages of the Cyclades. That point wasn’t lost on me or Dawn when we visited the island just before Labor Day.
For many years, we owned an old sailboat, a Westsail 32, that we cruised up and down the Bay and even as far as Bermuda. But because of the boat’s deep, full keel, the shallow waters surrounding Smith Island and the other islands along the Eastern Shore always scared us off.
The only ferry we knew of left from Crisfield, two-thirds of the way down the Delmarva. That meant a six-hour round trip drive from D.C. or Baltimore; which, combined with the complication of the ferry schedule, made a visit to Smith Island or Tangier Island a two-day affair. Somehow, we just never fit that into our schedule.
But flipping through the St. Mary’s County Times in late August, Dawn saw an ad for a ferry service offering daytrips to Smith Island. Most importantly, the boat departs from Point Lookout State Park at the mouth of the Potomac, just a half-hour from our home on the Western Shore. We promptly bought tickets.
It was a beautiful, calm day when we boarded the ferry. Twister is a passenger ferry, so no cars are permitted. However, for a small fee, you can bring a bike or a kayak, both of which are better alternatives for tiny Smith Island. Twister is a bright yellow boat with what appears to be the head of a vicious terrapin painted on the bow.
Despite the zippy look, though, she’s not especially fast. It takes about an hour and a half to make the 18-mile trip.
There’s indoor seating available, but most passengers take advantage of fair weather to sit outdoors, either in the bow or on the cabintop. That’s certainly the best way to experience your first arrival on Smith Island.
As Twister lumbers along, the low, marshy island emerges from the Bay in front of you. Gradually, a long breakwater comes into view, behind which you can just make out the Big Thoroughfare, the shallow, canal-like waterway that leads into Ewell and arcs through the marshes to Tylerton.
Once in the shelter of the breakwater, Twister slows right down, careful to stick to the narrow channel. This is the best vantage from which to view the charming little town of Ewell. A row of tidy houses — homes that wouldn’t look out of place in a New England fishing village — stretches along the low shoreline.
But the Smith Island economy is dominated by watermen, so the waterfront bristles with docks and boats and crab shanties.
The Smith Islanders have also made some accommodation for the few tourists that come over on the ferry.
There are a couple restaurants, a fine little waterman’s museum, and one or two shops to buy mementos. It’s also possible to rent golf carts or, better still, bicycles to tour the island. On either a bike or a golf cart, you can quickly see all there is to Ewell. But if you want to take the road across the marsh to the Rhodes Point community, only a bike is allowed.
Tylerton, across the Big Thoroughfare, can only be reached by boat.
Of course, you only have a couple hours on Smith Island before the Twister makes the return trip to Point Lookout. That leaves you just enough time for a quick run through the museum, a tour around the island, a crab cake or two, and maybe a piece of that famous Smith Island nine-layer cake.
Alternatively, you can opt to stay the night at one of the island’s B&Bs. That opens up the opportunity for a more thorough exploration of the island. Most of the B&Bs have kayaks available for guests, which allows you to see these low islands from the water, as they should be seen. Paddle over to Goat Island, just across from Ewell, to see the eponymous goats. Better still, make your way down Big Thouroughfare and stroll through Tylerton.
That’s what we plan to do when we return next spring.
Dennis is a travel, science, and business writer who has traveled all his life. The son of an Air Force pilot, he was born in England and lived in ten states growing up. Much of his youth was spent in Hawaii and Southeast Asia, where he traveled widely, including extended visits to New Delhi, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vientiane, and old Rangoon.