It's high noon at Sunset Beach on the Eastern Shore, and the tiki bar is open for business.
Several power boats have already gathered off shore, and as the afternoon stretches on, a steady stream of vessels — mostly from Hampton, York, Poquoson and the Middle Peninsula — rumble in and drop anchor.
Soon there are more than 50 boats bobbing in the water, while a flock of rubber Zodiac rafts ferry people ashore like ducks traveling across a pond. Families set up canvas chairs and coolers, kids play at the water's edge, teenage couples stroll the beach holding hands, and the men throw horseshoes or gather for conversation on the wooden deck above the beach. The restaurant on the deck is called the Pelican Pub, where you can get food and drinks and listen to a band, but everyone calls it the tiki bar.
Most weekends from Memorial to Labor Day, Sunset Beach is a prime gathering spot for the Peninsula power boat community. They come in small boats, small yachts and sleek performance-style racers to escape the weekly grind and kick back with their families and friends. Other popular gathering spots are New Point Comfort in Mathews County, which has no restaurant but boasts a sandy beach, and York Point at Chisman Creek and Poquoson River.
Jim Steineke of Seaford says Sunset Beach has been a rendezvous spot for years.
"It's a quick jaunt over there where you can hang out with people, have something to eat and drink, and then head home," he says. "On a nice day, the shore is lined with children because it's very shallow over there."
If you want to get there fast, you need a racer like the one Steineke owns. His 42-foot Fountain performance boat, with its twin 600-horsepower engines, can make the 26-mile trip across the lower Chesapeake in a half hour. "Speed is in my blood, and I've always enjoyed high-performance boats," says Steineke, who owns Casey Cycle City in Hampton.
Others take a more leisurely ride over there. Wade Garnett, also of Seaford, captains the "Island Girl" and has been bringing his family over for years.
"The boating community is pretty tight, we're all friends with each other," says Garnett. "And our daughter has a great time over here. She loves the water."
Some boaters who don't go ashore for food attach portable gas grills to the stern of their boats and throw on a package of hot dogs. Plastic containers of food come out of coolers — salads, sandwiches, dips and cheeses are easy, and brownies make good desserts — for a quick, easy-to-clean-up meal.
Last weekend, a large contingent of boats organized by Bluewater Yachting Center in Hampton took part in an Eastern Shore excursion that included an overnight stay at Bay Creek marina near Cape Charles and Sunday afternoon at Sunset Beach. The marina even brought over its own water taxi to shuttle boaters to and from shore.
Bob Winstead, Steineke's neighbor and another performance boat owner, says people have been heading over to the tiki bar for as long as he can remember. He usually makes the ride over four to six times in the summer.
"There aren't many places like that where you can go," says Winstead. "There's usually a Gloucester crowd, and another group from Yorktown. It's really just a place to go and be informal and hang out."
Boaters are a friendly lot, so there's plenty of waving between boats and hand-shaking up and down the beach.
"We hear about it all the time, and I see a whole lot of people I know here," says Ricky Edgerton of York County, who was making his first trip to the beach. "I know about 15 boats here."
Even a rain shower didn't dampen the spirits of the crowd gathered on the sand.
"We have a good time," says Bob Ross of York County. "This is what life is all about."