In the final minutes of Ed Charnock’s life, he and his son clung to each other to conserve body heat in the frigid Chesapeake Bay.
Jason Charnock handed his dad the only lifejacket he could grab from their fast-submerging crabbing boat. But the choppy water swept it away.
“The boat sank, and Dad kept on floating away staring at me,” Jason Charnock told the Coast Guard in a statement he provided to The Associated Press.
“I was looking for a helicopter to come,” he said. “I kept looking, and then looked back to see where my dad was, he wasn’t there and must have went under.”
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For this dwindling island community in the Chesapeake Bay, Ed Charnock’s drowning in late April struck a rare blow.
Tangier Island doesn’t often lose watermen to the sea – the last death was more than a decade ago. Far more threatening to its shrinking population of about 460 people are sea-level rise and the mainland’s economic pull.
The island, which locals claim English explorer John Smith landed on in 1608, is shrinking into the bay. Scientists predict residents may have to abandon Tangier in 25 to 50 years.
More young people are leaving the fishing community for college, the military and better-paying jobs. Reachable only by plane or an hour-long boat ride, Tangier has half the residents it did 40 years ago.
Ed Charnock, 70, and his 40-year-old son were among those determined to stay, working together for more than 20 years on the same pine-and-fir crabbing boat.
The father and son often hauled pots in rough seas because they needed the money. They knew at least one plank in their boat’s hull was damaged from a wood-boring parasite. But they thought repairs could wait.
A diver found the boat with several planks missing, reinforcing Jason Charnock’s belief that the weakened wood cracked in rough seas.
More than a month later, Tangier’s residents are still processing the loss.
“When we’re leaving the harbor or coming in, everybody looks over to where Ed’s boat was always tied up in his slip,” Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge said. “And it’s empty now. It’s just an awful feeling, a sad feeling when you go by there.”
Ed Charnock was a man of few words. But his dry wit put friends into fits of laughter at the island’s fuel dock, particularly when the crab industry struggled. Rarely seen without a baseball cap on the water, he dressed up for church, wearing long sleeves even in the summer.
He had four children with his late wife, Henrietta. He remarried, survived prostate cancer and planned to work into his 80s.
“What else is there to do?” said his widow, Annette Charnock. “To stop work and do nothing, that’s the kiss of death.”
Father and son complemented each other on the boat, named the Henrietta C, especially as Ed Charnock got older. He steered and sorted while his tall, broad-shouldered son lifted the heavy pots.
“You had Ed who was the old timer, so to speak, who knew more about the actual job,” Annette Charnock said. “And then you got the young one coming up who wanted to try newer things. Sometimes it was the battle of the wills.”
The men left Tangier around 5 a.m. April 24 as a storm blew in with wind gusts up to 30 mph (50 kph).
They hauled more than 200 pots a few miles off the island. Then they headed for home in the storm.
“We’ve been in worse,” Jason Charnock told The AP. “It was nothing out of the ordinary.”
Crabbing boats, with small cabins and long exposed decks, often take on water. But Jason Charnock said he knew something was wrong when it drained too slowly from the 43-foot boat.
Then the bilge pumps died, presumably as the water rose and cut off the batteries, he said. The men turned their boat away from the wind – and home – to use the bailer, a 2-inch pipe that sucks water out of the boat.
Ed Charnock was clearing crab-basket splinters from the bailer when he told his son to radio for help.
The first call drew silence. The second found Billy Brown, another Tangier fisherman about 15 miles away.
“I don’t know how he heard me,” Jason Charnock said.
There was only time to say they were sinking – but not exactly where.
Father and son clung to the outside of the sinking boat, and each other, for 45 minutes until it went under. Ed Charnock said he couldn’t make it much longer and slipped away.
Alone, Jason Charnock treaded water for another hour.
Eventually a helicopter flew over. A boat passed nearby. Rain fell again.
About 20 boats from Tangier searched, narrowing their focus after spotting a plywood motor box in the waves.
Lonnie Moore, Jason Charnock’s father-in-law, said he saw him in the water swinging a red shirt into the air.
“He was very, very cold,” said Moore, who helped pull him aboard. “He could barely talk, just exhausted.”
Nearly 10 days passed before Ed Charnock’s body was found. After an autopsy in Norfolk, the island’s daily mail boat returned his remains in a brown casket.
Since losing his dad, Jason Charnock has been to church every Sunday. He didn’t own any suits, so he’s been wearing his father’s.
As people gathered in Tangier’s Methodist church to tell stories about Ed Charnock on May 17, his son told the AP that he'll return to crabbing sometime soon.
“I love being on the water,” Jason Charnock said. “And it’s the easiest way for me to make a living.”
Associated Press researcher Monika Mathur contributed to this report.