Boating in Oxford, Maryland
From Shipping Hub to Quiet Retreat
Beautiful Oxford was the first port-of-entry on the Eastern Shore, designated so in 1683 by the Maryland General Assembly. Despite its beginnings as a prominent international shipping center, moving among other things the tobacco grown in the nearby plantations, the town's economy has gone up and down like a yo-yo. Following the American Revolution, Oxford lost its luster. Businesses went under, people moved away, and cattle roamed free.
It took almost a century for the hamlet to dawn again, thanks to advances in technology. The railroad boosted commerce, and advances in the food-packing industry made Oxford's oysters a nationwide product. People moved in and built houses, the trains and steamships made their rounds, and the Port of Oxford boomed into the 20th century, when things quieted down once again.
These days, Oxford is a peaceful port whose main business is tourism. Visitors arrive by land and water to recharge in an easygoing atmosphere, grateful to have such a haven for escape.
Things to See and Do
Since tranquility is this town's main appeal, you'll likely be content just to wander the picturesque lanes with their brick sidewalks and admire the old houses, have a picnic in the park, or pedal a bicycle without a speck of haste. To rent a two-wheeler, head for the Oxford Mews Bicycle Boutique (410-820-8222) on South Morris Street. You have a choice of picnic sites in Oxford: there's the village green-a shady, waterside parcel along North Morris Street-and the Strand, a strip of Tred Avon beach. By the town dock you'll find a recreation area with a ball field, jogging path, and basketball and tennis courts.
Board the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry (410-745-9023) and ponder its history of propulsion. Since 1683 it has changed from oar power to sail to steam to gas and finally diesel. Except for a hiatus following the Revolutionary War, it's been in continuous service. For additional historical perspective, poke around the Oxford Museum (410-226-0191) and the Oxford Customs House; call first, as hours are limited.
Restaurants and Provisions
In town, you can grab something quick to munch at the Oxford Market & Deli (410-226-0015), which has all the groceries you'll need, plus ice cream and prepared foods. Tred Avon Confectionery offers meat, groceries, and ice cream cones as well. A few steps away, the Oxford Mews (410-820-8222) general store is a fun place to look around and pick up limited grocery items, souvenirs, and marine supplies. Another fine place to try is the Mill Street Grill (410-226-0400).
Get those lines and fenders ready for a good motor-up meal at The Masthead at Pier Street Marina (410-226-5171) or Schooner's Llanding (410-226-0160), two places where you'll enjoy a feast fit for Neptune with a fine view to boot. Another favorite stop for those in the know is the innovative Latitude 38¡ (410-226-5303), a bistro that provides transportation to and from marinas. The Robert Morris Inn (410-226-5111) stakes claim to having the best crab cakes-and James Michener agreed.
Navigation and Anchorages
Use Maptech ChartKit Region 4 page 30 and Maptech electronic and NOAA paper chart 12266.
You approach Oxford as you would the Choptank River: either travel Knapps Narrows, through the middle of Tilghman Island, or round Tilghman to the south.
Knapps Narrows begins in the Chesapeake at Fl G 4s 15ft 4M "1." The passage is narrow and crossed by a bascule bridge (vertical clearance: 12 feet mhw), but vessels drawing less than 6 feet shouldn't have problems.
Rounding to the south of Tilghman Island, keep G C "9" to your north to avoid the shallows that extend south from Blackwalnut Point on Tilghman.
From either direction, head for Q R "12A" and then toward Fl G 2.5s 15ft 3M "1" southeast of Benoni Point on Ferry Neck. Keep this mark to your north and then west as you head north up the Tred Avon River. Oxford is about 2nm upriver. To the east you'll pass Campbell's Bachelor Point Yacht Company and Pier Street Marina.
Town Creek runs south from Q R 15ft 3M "2" into Oxford. The channel offers 8 to 10 feet, but it shallows at the southern end. Hail a marina for local advice. If you're looking to anchor in Town Creek, there are a few places with good holding off the channel's west side.
On your way in you'll pass several transient facilities. Mears Yacht Haven sells gas and diesel and has a good number of slips. Oxford Boatyard, Hinckley Yacht Services (formerly Crockett Brothers Boatyard), and Oxford Yacht Agency among others perform a full range of services and offer slips as well.
Oyster Vessels on the Chesapeake
Chesapeake Bay plays host to the American oyster. Found at depths between 8 and 25 feet, oyster bars spread across most of the bay and its tributaries, as far upstream as brackish water infiltrates.
There are two traditional ways of harvesting oysters from the bottom: tonging and dredging. Tonging is done with tongs, which are long-handled, two-sided rakes that are scraped across the oyster bar to release and capture the oysters. Watermen stand in low-sided boats and tong in the shallows.
Dredging, the most common method seen today, was introduced to the Chesapeake in the early 19th century and is largely responsible for the decline in the oyster population. A dredge consists of a mesh basket with a toothed metal frame that is lowered to the oyster bar and scraped across the bay floor by a line attached to the boat. After dragging the oyster bar, the dredge is hauled back on board over the gunwales, and its contents-a large number of oysters, the watermen hope-spill across the deck. Crew members separate the precious shells from whatever else comes up in the dredge, and the dredge basket is dumped back into the water for another pass over the bar.
Initially, dredging decimated oyster bars to the extent that the Maryland General Assembly banned the practice in 1820. However, in 1865 dredging was permitted by wind-powered boats only, and suddenly there was a need for powerful sailing vessels.
After the ban was lifted, Chesapeake-built pungy schooners headed out laden with dredges, and both vessels enjoyed some success on the bay. Pungy schooners, outfitted with full keels, were the first boats to ply the Chesapeake waters for oysters following the ban's repeal. The name pungy is thought to stem from the Pungoteague Creek on Maryland's Eastern Shore, where some of the first boats of this type were built in the 1840s.
The limitations of the deep-draft pungies soon became evident. Some watermen attempted to adapt the pungies by replacing their keels with centerboards (called "she pungies"), but the sluggish and relatively expensive boats soon lost popularity. Chesapeake sloops, which were framed and planked like schooners but with a centerboard rather than a full keel, stole the scene in 1865 with their greater speed and maneuverability.
Alas, the age of the oystering sloops was short-lived, as they were rather quickly replaced by the bugeye schooners. These easy-handling, shallow-keeled boats came into popularity at the peak of oyster production in the bay; better still, they were cheap to build and they were durable. The extreme aft-rake (backward angle) of the bugeye's mast made it manageable in most wind conditions, and its beamy deck meant lots of workspace for the crew.
In time, the supply of large trees needed for the bugeye's log-hull construction ran out, and their realm had passed. In came the skipjack, also known as the "two-sail bateau," after the flat-bottomed skiffs that poled up and down the bay's tributaries. Like the bugeye before it, the sloop-rigged skipjack featured an extremely raked mast that lowered the boat's center of effort and increased its ease of use by a small crew in varied wind conditions. Other notable points in this vessel's construction were its centerboard and cross-planked V-hull.
Skipjacks still work the Chesapeake today (although fewer than two dozen remain) and have been distinguished as the official boat of the State of Maryland. They provide an important link to the history of oystering on the bay, and they represent the last commercial, sail-powered fleet in North America. Since 1967 skipjacks have been allowed to dredge under power on certain days, when the modern waterman uses a motorized "push boat" against his craft's stern. But the rest of the time they dredge as their ancestors did-by the whim of the breeze.
The Oxford Library is a great stop on a rainy or sunny day.
Looking northwest over Town Creek and Oxford. Oxford Yacht Agency is at left; Hinckley Yacht Services is in the center.