Tested: Back Cove 34O
The writer is given a nigh impossible task: catching Chesapeake blue crabs aboard the Back Cove 34O, without a single trap.
The heavens conspired to bring crabs to the Chesapeake Bay. About 35 million years ago, a fireball lit up the sky brighter than a full moon above prehistoric, subtropical Cape Charles, Virginia, or where the bay opens onto the Atlantic Ocean. And then: bullseye. On impact, the bolide caused devastation; estimates place the crater at twice the size of Rhode Island and nearly as deep as the Grand Canyon. Over time, melting glaciers became coastal rivers, which converged over the depression caused by the buried crater, laying the groundwork for what would become the largest estuary in the continental U.S.
Crabs moved in, and evolution took over. Blue crabs, with their paddle-like appendages, proved especially well suited to the area’s various habitats. When Native Americans settled the bay, they named it Chesepiooc, an Algonquian word for village “at a big river.” The name stuck. Evidence suggests these early tribes fished for giant crabs—over twice as large as the typical 5-incher caught today. If true, it means humankind has been hunting crustaceans in the mid-Atlantic for well over a millennium.
Following in that long-standing tradition, I had come to the Chesapeake to hunt blue crab. The last time I’d gone toe-to-claw with my quarry, I was an inexperienced youngster dangling chicken necks from some dock in the Outer Banks. This time, the stakes would be higher. I was tagging along with Back Cove Yachts on a special delivery of Hull No. 1 of its first outboard-powered vessel, the 34O, from Sandy Hook, New Jersey, to Annapolis. Before embarking south, I’d talked with Editor-in-Chief Dan Harding about my hopes to catch a couple of crabs. That was a mistake. Faster than you could say “crab pot,” Dan upped the ante: At his behest, I would catch enough of the critters to have a bona fide crab feast on board. Did I mention to him my last crabbing experience was decades ago? Of course not. Did I ask Dan to illuminate how, exactly, he envisioned me hauling aboard such elusive morsels without a single trap to my name? Negative, Ghost Rider.
A fall day dawned windy and colorless off Sandy Hook and the horses we were riding weren’t from around these parts. At the helm was Kevin Burns, Back Cove’s vice president of design and product development, wearing a royal blue vest with ‘34O’ emblazoned on it. The boat’s ghost-white Yamaha 300s pierced the cloud-strewn gloom as the American flag mounted on the transom slapped in the wind. Before we’d left, I’d let Burns in on my plan—which in all fairness wasn’t even a plan—to hunt blue crab. He looked at me with a mixture of amusement and pity. Did he know something I didn’t? Was I violating some angling superstition by fishing for crabs aboard a Maine lobster-boat-inspired vessel?
Gallery: Back Cove 34O
First, a more pressing question needed to be answered. When describing their designs, Maine boatbuilders are quick to use words evocative of the Down East genre: seaworthy, rugged, stable. Back Cove is no different, but could this Down East cruiser equipped with outboards measure up to those standards? Apparently, the Atlantic Ocean wanted to find out; it was throwing everything at us but the kitchen sink. I was at the helm, cruising around 24 knots—slamming into 8- to 10-foot head seas—as the empty New Jersey beaches passed by on our starboard side. Gray sky, gray land. The 34O’s slippery hull never once felt overmatched by the conditions, effectively curtailing any yaw. And though the lack of a dramatic bow flare meant the windshield wipers needed to work overtime, the only creaking noises on board seemed to come from my vertebrae.
It wasn’t hard to see, in that moment, why the Down East style is so popular nationwide. Way back when, in 2003, Sabre Yachts created Back Cove to capitalize on this preference. Over time, the Back Cove name, and the blue heron on the company crest, became emblematic of dependable, single-diesel, low-maintenance cruising boats. Tried and true. Sixteen years, eight models and over 800 yacht deliveries later, Back Cove was ready to buck a trend it had essentially helped create. But the builder didn’t just slap a pair of outboards on the transom and call it a day. The 34O runs on an entirely new hull form with an entirely new structure. By swapping solid fiberglass topsides for cored versions, its displacement is 17,000 lbs., or about 10 percent less than the builder’s popular single-diesel 32-footer. It was also the first outboard-powered boat Burns had ever designed, and it had been built with younger, active boaters in mind.
Finally deposited in the Chesapeake’s languorous waters, Burns was itching to see what the pair of 300s could really do. I was too, but cruising with the throttle down also meant we would be making better time to our destination. As anyone who has done extensive cruising knows, this is almost always a boon, and is doubtlessly the reason many time-strapped owners will take a liking to the cruiser. I, on the other hand, still hadn’t the faintest idea how I would catch blue crabs—or anything else, for that matter—without a trap. Every so often I cursed the fates for ever bringing crustaceans to these waters.
As we continued on, I realized I was hoping to find myself at the mercy of a sympathetic waterman, someone who, I imagined, would materialize out of the blue in a beat-up skiff; a wizened, perspicacious old salt who would understand my plight and graciously lend me his traps. And maybe an ice-cold beer. You know, for my troubles. And yet so far, one of the only people Burns and I had encountered was another boater at a fuel dock.
“I like it,” the man had said thoughtfully, eyeing the 34O as he gave us his unsolicited opinion. He paused. “But I thought the whole thing with Back Cove was single-inboard engines?”
“It was,” replied Burns, “until two months ago.”
Now, with miles of glassy real estate in front of us, Burns dropped the throttles. As the props dug in, the bow rose, the cruiser leveled off and we quickly picked up steam. The company’s literature proposed the 34O could blow the 32 out of the water, with a top speed approximately 10 knots faster than its diesel-burning cousin. “This is what the boat was made to do,” Burns said. We hit a giddy 37 knots—right on brief. The crabs could wait. This was too much fun.
Consider the Atlantic blue crab. Callinectes sapidus to marine biologists, which means “savory beautiful swimmer” in Latin. “Jimmy” and “Sook” to the watermen who harvest them and load them into bushels based on their sex. (Jimmies are male; sooks are mature females and are generally cheaper due to sporting less meat.) To everyone else, blue crab is an epicurean feast best enjoyed in the summer. But for Marylanders, steaming hard-shell blue crabs is a social custom—almost a sacred rite—that brings together family and friends around a bounty of red shells, spread out over newspapers on dining room tables or picnic tables in the back yard, ice cold Natty Bohs in hand. Such merriment can last into the evening, or well past the time the last crab is picked clean.
Standing in John and Joan Hines’ living room, in Fairhaven, Maryland, I was getting a crash course in the key component of every crab feast: the steaming process. The couple had forbidden the b-word from being mentioned in their presence—the b-word, of course, being boiling. “Not up here, that’s the law,” said Joan.
How did we get here? Thanks to the 34O’s shallow, 24-inch draft, we were able to trim the outboards and nose the boat close to the Hines’ cozy home on the Chesapeake Bay’s western shore. I made some calls, and a local yacht broker out of Shady Oaks Marina had provided me with a dinghy and set me up with the couple, who welcomed me with open arms.
But there was still the issue of wrangling together some crabs. Luckily, I had an ace-in-the-hole: I found my waterman. Bill Serbo has been fishing for blue crabs in the Chesapeake for over 40 years. When I came across him, he was on his workboat tied up to the dock behind his house. He had just come back from a long day of crabbing. Serbo had the bluest eyes I’d ever seen, bluer than a glacial stream. (If given the choice, I would rather have been submerged in a vat of crabs than tell him that to his face.) He wore the resolute look of a man who works with his hands. I talked to him at length about my recent troubles: the rough seas in the Atlantic, agreeing to this whole debacle without a trap.
“So you’re makin’ it up as you go?” he finally said.
Then, he let me in on a local secret. Late fall in the Chesapeake is the best time to get the largest and fattest hard-shell crabs at the best prices. It was an easy decision. I bought a dozen jimmies from him for $40. Sorry, Dan.
I thanked him and said my goodbyes. As I was leaving, Serbo pulled an overladen cart full of empty traps toward a workshop next to his house. He beckoned me to follow. Once inside, he quickly located what he was looking for: a Ziploc bag filled with a fine orange powder. The entire scene had the illicit feeling of a drug deal. “That’s J.O. seasoning,” said Serbo. “I sell it when I’m hustling crabs at the retail market down in Friendship. Put some on top, brings out the flavor a little bit.”
Back at the Hines’, their daughter Lisa had volunteered to help an admitted greenhorn with the steaming process. We sprinkled some of the J.O. seasoning on top. One by one Lisa picked up the ornery little bastards from the bushel and deposited them in a big black pot on the stove. Each one fought lively to the end. “Nobody pinch me,” she said. “Those are the house rules.” Their feistiness was impressive, like “the fury of scissors if scissors had muscle” to borrow a line from John Updike. Once all were deposited in the pot, it was time to wait.
Video produced by John V. Turner
A pile of ruby-red shells coated with seasoning had been arranged on the Back Cove 34O’s cockpit table. A thin layer of “crab wrapper”—in this case, yesterday’s Capital Gazette—was spread out underneath. No plates, no silverware. Only the essentials: A sharp paring knife and a mallet to extract the sweet, delicate white meat. Dan met me on board, saw the crabs laid out the way they were and nodded approvingly.
All crabs molt, some up to 20 times during their lives, in order to grow. I couldn’t help but make the comparison to the boat we were aboard. In creating the 34O, it was like Back Cove’s 32 had molted. Do you know how to differentiate male and female blue crabs? You flip them on their backs: males have an apron shaped like the Washington Monument, while female crabs have an apron shaped like the dome of the Capitol Building. If you were to flip the 34O over, you’d see its Trailing Edge Lift System, which Burns developed as a flat section about 5 feet long and 2 feet wide aft that provides lift and clean water to the props. And, like a hollow part of the carapace, the 34O has generous storage where inboards would traditionally be. Below the salon, underneath the deck is an enormous compartment for bikes, stand-up paddle boards or miscellaneous gear—all easily accessed by an electric lift. The molting had proven advantageous.
Sitting in the cockpit, the sunshade retracted to squeeze out every last drop of sunshine, I was starting to realize a few things about my “catch.” Unlike lobster, with its generous portions in the tail and claws, blue crabs make you work for it. Each crab needed to be picked—cracked a couple times with the mallet, then drawn and quartered with the paring knife before I could dig in. As we ate, we tossed the empty shells from whence they came, back into the Chesapeake, trying not to get crab mustard on the new upholstery. Crimson and gold light from the setting sun danced across the water. A Back Cove, outboards and a crab feast on board. Had a new tradition been created? It had, in more ways than one.