SMITH ISLAND, MD (Delmarva Now) -- At 6 a.m., the ice-frosted dock at Somers Cove Marina in Crisfield sparkled in pale floodlights under a nearly full moon.
The J. Millard Tawes, an icebreaker owned and operated by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, waited at the dock, although it was difficult to see the ship in the early morning blackness.
“Be careful not to slip on the ice while boarding,” warned a face peering out of the warmth of a snug hat, jacket, scarf and gloves.
On board the J. Millard Tawes, deckhands were busy preparing for the morning trip across Tangier Sound. Today's mission: Maintain a channel cleared of the ice that would impede vital transportation of people and goods between Smith Island and the mainland.
“Make a trip around the deck every 20 minutes during this run,” Capt. Eddie Somers, a 27-year veteran, was telling his deckhands.
Smith Island is home to around 220 year-round residents, many of them watermen who harvest the bounties of the surrounding waters of the Chesapeake Bay and Tangier Sound. The tiny island with its three separate but intertwined villages — Ewell,Tylerton and Rhodes Point — is located nearly 10 miles from mainland Crisfield.
In good weather, the trip takes around 45 minutes by boat.
The ice has been running around 5 inches thick for the past week. Although it doesn't cover the entire Tangier Sound, it tends to freeze near land, where the water is less salty and more shallow. That means boats at both harbors (Crisfield and Ewell) get iced in overnight during below-freezing weather.
The icebreaker's job is to keep crucial supplies and people moving by ensuring a clear channel is maintained on a daily basis.
The importance of maintaining that clear channel cannot be overstated.
Nothing gets there or back except by boat — or in extreme circumstances, by airlift. That includes mail, medicines, groceries, schoolkids, fuel oil and just about everything the islanders need in daily life. Except seafood, which is the island's main export.