Crab Corner amps up Chilmark selectmen’s meeting

Families balk at continued closure, flock to petition.

A king or flood tide washes over the the commercial wharf in Menemsha on July 24 while a large recreation boat draws power with a trio of electrical cords tied to outlets on the bulkhead. Transient voltage potentially posing a threat when the wharf floods arose in discussion during the July 25 Chilmark selectmen's meeting. — Rich Saltzberg

With dissatisfaction palpable in the audience over the access ban to Crab Corner, Chilmark selectmen elected Tuesday evening to keep the spot closed until their next scheduled meeting in two weeks.

They also decided to monitor voltage in Menemsha waters for a span of 10 days and to seek advice from the Harbor Advisory Committee on possible solutions to both the marine electrical hazards that may still persist in Crab Corner and the rest of the harbor, even after a recent grounding repair to the adjacent transient dock electrical service, and to the threat posed by the propellers of boats visiting the transient dock.

The selectmen’s decisions came on the coattails of a petition drive by parents bent on reopening the popular children’s wading and crabbing spot and also on a surge of Crab Corner chatter across multiple social media platforms.

“I have had a number of people very aggressively discuss the fact that by keeping it closed we are ruining Menemsha and we’re changing the character of the town,” selectman Jim Malkin, the board’s harbor liaison, said. “And I said, Well, what would you do about the character of the town if your grandchild or child was electrocuted, or felt an electrical charge or suffered some harm?”

Mr. Malkin put into perspective the two problems currently handicapping Crab Corner.

“We have an issue that has to do with propellers and the proximity to people who are swimming and wading,” he said, “which has been an issue we’ve dealt with before. And now we have an issue of electricity in the harbor, which is relatively a new issue for us.”

Mr. Malkin also said that his own family harbors an affinity for Crab Corner: “Myself, my children, my grandchildren love Crab Corner, so I’d certainly love to see Crab Corner open.”

While he could envision a solution to the problem of propellers, Mr. Malkin said, “I really don’t know what to do about the electricity.”

Improperly grounded boats have the potential to leak voltage into the water, he said, and he pointed to a recent death in Cleveland where the cause was believed to be electricity that seeped from a recreational boat.

“My own belief is that until someone can tell me that we’re safe, and the children are safe, I have an issue with Crab Corner being open,” he said.

Boats notwithstanding, selectman Warren Doty said that the selectmen deemed Menemsha Harbor’s electrical infrastructure adheres to regulations.

“It is our opinion at this time that everything that has been done in the harbor, especially in that new area [transient dock], is up to code and has been inspected by our certified wiring inspector,” he said. “At the same time, we’ve asked to have a complete review of all the electric work in the harbor,” he said. The review will be conducted by inspector of wires Cole Powers, and take place in a “few weeks,” according to Mr. Malkin.

Beach committee member Margaret Maida said that she heard an electrical problem occurred in Menemsha over the weekend and that electrician Rick Penny was called in to address it. “He did something on the dock and it was fixed,” she said.

Though the problem was related to a boat, she did not know if it originated on the boat or on the dock. In response to a suggestion by Mr. Doty that additional lifeguard supervision of Crab Corner might help mitigate the matter, Ms. Maida said that the original reason a second lifeguard was posted at Menemsha Beach a few years ago was to keep an eye on Crab Corner.

David Sprague, who initiated an online petition on Sunday to lift the ban on Crab Corner, argued that leaching voltage from boats wasn’t a problem simply for Crab Corner, but one that encompassed the whole harbor. He also asked if the selectmen could provide electric-shock drowning statistics, so he and his family could better evaluate the threat relative to statistics such as lightning deaths.

“Pretty much every night this week we’ve had tides over the dock,” lobsterman Wayne Iacono said, “so if we’re going to keep that closed, we should not let anybody walk on the dock, period, or go anywhere in the harbor. It’s the same deal. There’s six inches of water on the dock at high tide.”

“Most people don’t walk on the dock with six inches,” selectman Bill Rossi said.

To the contrary, Mr. Iacono suggested that Mr. Rossi take a look at online video that may evidence otherwise.

If the electricity in the water extends beyond Crab Corner, or “Crabby Corner,” as she referred to it, wouldn’t that also threaten kids coming into contact with the water when squidding and crabbing elsewhere in Menemsha, West Tisbury resident Sarah Henry asked.

“I don’t see it that way,” Mr. Rossi said.

“I have six kids who go down there, so I’m very interested in their safety,” West Tisbury resident Rich Huffam said. “But it seems it could be anywhere that there’d be a boat, anywhere here on the Island or anywhere, there’s a potential for electric shock.”

“I heard it was going to be closed permanently, and that would be a shame,” Catherine Deese of Oak Bluffs said.

“I don’t think we’ve made that decision. I don’t think we’re recommending that,” Mr. Rossi said.
“So if you turn this into a beach and allow people to swim there, you’re going to have to give up boating activities for a good portion of the harbor,” Caleb Slater, a state project leader in Anadromous Fisheries said, in reference to Crab Corner and the 150-foot boating distance rule that the harbormaster outlined in a memo to the selectmen.

“Last year we researched the regulations and legality of allowing swimming and swimmers to be in close proximity of any boats within the operation of the marina,” Mr. Jason wrote in his memo. “We noted that the regulations prohibit any bathing activity with[in] 150 feet of boats. All our information was found in The Massachusetts Boater Safety Handbook, which is the Official Boating Handbook of the Massachusetts Department of Natural Resources (about 60 pages), which is online.
“We have closed that area to swimmers since the electrical issues were first discovered.
In fact, due to the proximity of boats and the marina, that area is in the 150-foot radius from boating activity and in proximity to the dock with the electrical issues,” the memo further stated.
A review of the handbook seems to show that boats as opposed to swimmers are governed by the maritime distance law cited by Mr. Jason.
“Motorboats may not be operated — within 150 feet of shorelines used as swimming areas — within 75 feet of floats or markers that designate swimming areas,” the handbook states.
“There are examples of people breaking those rules … but I don’t think that’s something I want to lean on too heavily,” Mr. Rossi said. He added that it was brought up a few years ago by the harbormaster.
“And we decided to look the other way,” Mr. Rossi said. “We decided to take on that risk, with some adjustments to that area in terms of safety, but this is another level of risk that I think is a little more serious … My kids were upset when they were talking about it in 2013. They’re like, C’mon Dad, ya know, we went to Crab Corner, you can’t take that away.”
Though present at the meeting, Mr. Jason did not speak.
The selectmen agreed to have the seawater in various parts of the harbor tested for voltage daily over a 10-day span, and shifted analysis of Crab Corner’s issues to the Harbor Advisory Committee, with the expectation of recommendations in two week’s time. Until then, they opted to keep Crab Corner cordoned off.

Grassroots petition surfaces
Earlier this week, as Crab Corner remained sealed off after a repair to eliminate stray voltage in its waters was completed to the satisfaction of the inspector of wires on July 13, a petition drive surfaced.

In a memo dated July 14, Mr. Jason recommended to the board of selectmen that the popular children’s recreational spot be closed “indefinitely” because the proximity of people swimming there to boats using the adjacent transient dock constituted a violation of state law.

Bryer and Riley Gale, channeled through their mother, Liz Gale, express their concerns over Crab Corner’s closure.

A petition to undo the closure was posted by West Tisbury resident David Sprague on Sunday night. As of 7 am Wednesday, it had tallied 157 signatures.

Mr. Sprague, who spoke at the July 25 selectmen’s meeting, told The Times that Crab Corner is a frequent seasonal destination for his family, and added that his 12-year-old son has enjoyed the place since he was 1 year old. If Crab Corner becomes permanently off-limits, he said, he believes children will gravitate to treacherous areas of the harbor to crab and play.

“We know a lot of families that go there and that they really enjoy it,” Sarah Henry said. Ms. Henry is married to Mr. Sprague. She also attended the July 25 selectmen’s meeting and weighed in on the issue.

The petition refers to Crab Corner as “Crabby Place,” which Mr. Sprague said is his children’s nickname for the spot.

“The Harbormaster has recommended to the selectmen that the crabby area remain closed to swimmers,” he wrote on the petition site. “Even though the wiring problem, which is why it was closed recently, has been fixed.”
Grandson 5 loves it there. 5th generation grandchild to do the same as the rest of the family,” wrote Betty N. on the petition site. None of the signatories’ surnames are shown on the online petition.
“Crab Corner is a part of Menemsha culture — it would be like closing Squid Row,” former Riley’s Reads owner Zoe Thompson said. She and her family are Chilmark taxpayers and Menemsha diehards, she said. She described Crab Corner as a safe, contained space where there are “always other kids to play with.” She argued it’s a wading and crabbing area, as opposed to a swimming area.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find somebody swimming there,” she said. “Nobody wants kids to get shocked; nobody wants kids to get run over by a boat.” Anytime someone goes in the water on Martha’s Vineyard, it comes with some risk, she said.
The town has tried to close Crab Corner “many, many times,” Ms. Thompson said, and failed. She said she hopes the town will work harder to resolve the safety issues there instead of resorting to closure.
For the past 15 years the town has tried to close off the area because of the safety and liability dangers it presents, and because it runs afoul of various regulations, Mr. Malkin told The Times. Many parents crabbed there as children, and now bring their own children to crab, he said, so they view it as an important tradition, and think closing it is a terrible idea. They have “vociferously” protested all past attempts to shut off access to the place, he said.