A lifeline through the ice

Ship: When winter cuts Smith Island off from the rest of the world, Capt. Eddie Somers and the crew of the Tawes come to the rescue.

January 30, 2000|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

ABOARD THE J. MILLARD TAWES -- The dull roar of a trio of 500-horsepower diesel engines, the shooshing and occasional thump of ice against steel hull, are the only sounds as the J. Millard Tawes glides slowly through Crisfield's harbor and out into the pre-dawn blackness of Tangier Sound.

Capt. Eddie Somers steers the 100-foot vessel through a series of familiar channel markers, using the weight of the 167-ton boat to punch a snaking 12-mile swath in the ice blocking the watery highway that links 400 inhabitants of Smith Island to the rest of the world.

Yesterday, calm except for a northerly 10-mph wind and warmer than expected at about 20 degrees, the mission for the Tawes was simple: Clear a path and open the supply line to Maryland's only inhabited offshore island.

Watermen have been hunkered down for nearly a week, their wood-hulled work boats trapped in thick ice in the harbors of Ewell, Tylerton and Rhodes Point, the island's three fishing villages.

Now, not even the owners of the three boats that ferry everything from food, mail and passengers to snow boots, hardware and furniture can make it out through the ice that ranges from a few inches to nearly a foot thick.

At the island's two small grocery stores, nobody's in a panic. Steve Eades, who owns the Driftwood General Store in Ewell, says he ran out of milk Friday, but he has most other staples on hand.

In Tylerton, Duke Marshall says his staff freezes as much of the food stock as possible at his Drum Point Market. Most of his customers also are prone to stockpiling the basics during the winter months.

"Everybody around here keeps a full cupboard," Marshall says. "Now if this goes on for another week or so, we'll have a problem."

All day Thursday, the Tawes' crew, which spends the warm weather months tending navigational buoys, struggled to free a tug and barge loaded with fuel oil that got stuck in thick ice on the Wicomico River. Once that was done, the tug captain asked Somers to clear a path upriver almost to Salisbury.

"What you'll see as time goes on is rafting of ice, where one layer starts piling up on another and another, and pretty soon you'll have a mountain of it," says sailor Ron Castaneda. "One thing we have to worry about is that it'll pull up old submerged docks and tree stumps, and then you've got a navigational hazard."

Somers, an island native and former waterman, says he has vivid boyhood memories of the Tawes, which was then operated by the Coast Guard, coming to the rescue during bad winters. "She looked awful big to me back then," he says. "I never dreamed I'd wind up as captain."

The worst he's seen was in 1977 when a fuel oil barge got stuck in the ice, and islanders had to pump the fuel into 50-gallon drums that were airlifted to Smith Island by National Guard helicopters. The ice was so thick, the choppers landed on it, Somers said.

"A couple years ago, I saw ice pick up a buoy with a 10,000-pound rock attached to it and move it two or three miles," Somers says.

As the sun rises pink and orange in the eastern sky, the Tawes is halfway to the island. Somers, who has lived in Crisfield for nearly 20 years and has been skipper of the state Department of Natural Resources boat since 1995, says he would have made the run even without being called by islanders. Worrying about the possibility of another winter storm, he figures he will need to punch through the channel another time or two before the day is over.

Besides, medicine needs to be delivered to a cancer patient in Rhodes Point.

The small brown bag from a Crisfield pharmacy is his only cargo this time, but if the ice gets worse, the Coast Guard will restrict area waters to large vessels with steel hulls. Then Somers and his three-man crew will take the place of the island's 40- to 45-foot mail and cargo boats.

"If it gets bad enough, it'll just be us handling everything they need," Somers says. "But this isn't as bad as I expected; it's the first serious ice we've seen since 1996. I have seen it so thick it would take us three hours [just getting into the harbor at Ewell]."

As it is, the Tawes chugs along for two hours, twice the time the trip from Crisfield would normally take, at 3 1/2 to 5 knots, or roughly 6 to 10 mph. The wide roll of its wake ripples off either side under layer upon layer of ice as Somers carefully steers clear of a newly formed shoal at the mouth of Big Thorofare that leads into the harbor at Ewell.

Gingerly maneuvering into Ewell, Somers angles up beside the Island Belle, the mail boat owned by Capt. Otis Tyler. As the Tawes moves close, mate Wardell Fennell deftly hands off the medicine to a neighbor of the sick man.

On the dock, 78-year-old Gene Somers stands watching his son handle the vessel. The older man frequently joins friends at the Driftwood store, listening in on marine radio frequencies to the comings and goings of the Tawes.

Maneuvering the boat in the tight confines of the harbor, Captain Somers reverses direction and heads back toward Crisfield, the Island Belle trailing behind so that Tyler can pick up the mail and other supplies. He is also carrying half a dozen passengers who are intent on grocery shopping at the Meatland supermarket a few blocks from the Crisfield Depot, the town's public wharf.

Somers decides against detouring the Tawes up the channel to Tylerton, instead staying with the Island Belle all the way to the dock in Crisfield and promising to lead the way back to the island later in the afternoon. Tyler supports the choice wholeheartedly over the marine radio.

"It looks like the tide and wind have pushed more ice over what we had cleared," Somers says. "A lot of ice is getting pushed out of the Manokin and the other rivers. If we don't get some rain with this next storm, we'll be back up to Tylerton on Monday. If it stays cold, we'll be doing this a lot."

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