Coast Guard breaks icy grip on islands DEEP FREEZE '94

January 21, 1994|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

TANGIER, VA — TANGIER, Va. -- For the 700 or so residents of this icebound island in the lower Chesapeake Bay, yesterday was when their boat finally came in.

Loaded with milk, bread, diapers, cat food, mail and other essentials, the 90-foot cruise vessel Steven Thomas inched into the harbor for the first time since freezing temperatures turned much of Tangier Sound into a vast ice pack.

Cut off since the weekend, Tangier and Smith Island, its Maryland neighbor to the north, were reconnected temporarily to the mainland thanks to steel-hulled ice breakers.

Carving a path for the Steven Thomas was the 65-foot U.S. Coast Guard cutter Tackle. As they approached Tangier Island about mid-afternoon, 100 residents gathered on the shoreline to welcome the boats and help unload cargo.

The 12-mile journey from Crisfield on the Somerset County mainland to Tangier Island took 3 1/2 hours as the Tackle cut a 19-foot swath through the ice. Under normal conditions, the trip takes about an hour.

Ice was most plentiful along the outer edges of Tangier Sound, where some sections were nearly 10 inches thick. Closer to land, ice ranged from 5 to 8 inches.

Within an hour after the cutter had crunched a path across the sound, floating ice began to clog the open water, forcing the Steven Thomas to follow the Tackle back to Crisfield.

Tangier Islanders, who had not seen a supply boat since last Friday, said the sight of the cutter and the cruise vessel was welcome. "It brought me a paycheck and you can't buy groceries without that," said Henrietta Charnock.

Islanders missed their mail more than anything, she said. "The stores were well prepared and most people keep a loaf of bread in their freezer. We look out for each other."

Nick Dize, 14, said island youngsters are enjoying the cold weather because it has given them the first opportunity to ice skate in five years.

Islanders said the freeze-up caused few problems and homes were kept warm with an ample supply of heating oil on hand before the cold snap hit. One island woman was taken to a Salisbury hospital by helicopter Wednesday after she fell ice skating and cut her neck.

Because Virginia has no ice breakers stationed near Tangier Island, which is located just below the Maryland-Virginia border, the Coast Guard in Crisfield takes care of the island's ice-breaking needs with the Tackle.

The J. Millard Tawes, an ice cutter owned by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, attends to Smith Island in state waters. Smith has about 500 residents, in three waterfront villages.

Until Wednesday, when the Tackle and the J. Millard Tawes made exploratory outings into the ice around Crisfield, there had been no significant cutter activity in the area since the winter of 1968. Bosun's Mate Chief Frank Applegate, skipper of the Tackle, said this week's experience on the water was good for his crew of five.

In the Chesapeake Bay, he said, a Coast Guardsman assigned to an ice breaker can complete a full three-year tour of duty without ever cutting ice.

Chief Applegate, who has been stationed on the Delmarva Peninsula since 1977, said the speed at which Tangier Sound froze this week was surprising.

"Since I've been here, I've never seen the sound like this," he said. "There's always some ice, but never like this."

En route to Tangier Island with the Steven Thomas trailing a quarter-mile behind, the Tackle encountered two fiberglass-hulled Smith Island boats that had tried -- and failed -- to cross the sound on their own.

The cutter, nosing up to the Island Belle II and the Capt. Jason, gingerly broke a path through the ice and freed the boats, which normally make the run to Crisfield every day. They continued to the mainland.

Even with the ice, yesterday's run to Tangier Island was routine for Terry Daley, owner of the Daley and Son grocery store in Tangier. Each week, Mr. Daley oversees a shipment of eight pallets of food to his family's business.

"We're down on milk and stuff like that," he said. "Otherwise, we're OK."

"People knew [the freeze] was coming and they stocked up," said Ozzie Hill, manager of one of the two Meatland stores in Crisfield. Some islanders ordered twice the normal amount of food and household supplies.

"They're used to this," he said. "They've learned to place their orders well in advance."

Charles Evans, owner of a small store in Ewell on Smith Island, said most pantries still had some food stocked, though the supply of milk was running low.

Islanders pay for their groceries by sending blank checks to the two food markets in Crisfield. Market employees fill in the checks for the amount of the purchase and send cash register tapes back to the islands with the food.

Mr. Hill said he expected orders from Smith Islanders to flood his market today. "We bend over backward for them," he said. "We

know it's tough sometimes for them out there."

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