Jennifer and I used to live in North Carolina, and while we enjoyed lots of hiking and biking in the central and western part of the state, we never made it over to the coast. Too bad for us because it’s such a beautiful coastline. The Tar Heel state has about 300 miles of coastal shoreline on the Atlantic but thousands of miles of coastline along its sounds and rivers inside the Outer Banks. Cruisers could spend a lifetime sailing in these waters and see something new each day. If you look at a map you’ll also see the significant eastward turn we made once in North Carolina.
Next up on our trip was Southport, North Carolina, where brother-in-law Chuck (married to one of Jennifer’s three sisters) visited us with his oldest of three sons, Trevor. We arrived into Southport early in the day and tucked into a well-appointed marina with brand new floating docks. The dock master later told me that Daria made his day when she refused to pass him the bow line as we approached the dock, insisting correctly that he take the mid-ship line first, the stern line next and only then the bow line. He said he saw two kids on the lines and just figured he’d better grab whatever was available. But, he confessed, Daria’s instructions were correct, and he offered lots of praise for her politeness and composure as she gave him proper instructions. And we were of course happy to make his day! While we still have lots and lots to learn, watching the kids’ confidence and expertise grow has been rewarding, and occasionally amusing to others I guess.
Chuck and Trevor arrived from San Francisco via Atlanta, and we left to explore town, learning about Southport’s seafaring history, including its role in blockade running during the Civil War, and the colorful life of its harbor pilots who’ve worked the often treacherous Cape Fear inlet over the centuries. We also ate seafood as fresh as it gets at a place called the Provision Company, right there on the docks where the fisherman bring in their catch. We soaked-up the local scene and enjoyed the southern coastal flavor and the gracious hospitality of the townspeople.
Though our guests were only onboard for a few nights, we were able to get in some time on the water by running from Southport to Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. The excitement began as soon as we got near the Cape Fear Inlet. That’s right about where the U.S. Coast Guard called us on VHF channel 16 and informed us they’d be boarding Muddy Waters. I want to say it’s like when you see the flashing blue lights behind your car when you’re on the highway…but, it’s not. We’re a safety first boat and we try to keep things in order, first and foremost because that’s what keeps us all safe and sound. Plus, we knew for sure we weren’t speeding…since our max speed is about Jennifer’s jogging pace! We figured, correctly, it was vessel safety inspection time.
Two officers boarded from the swim platform on the transom, and the others remained aboard their boat and fell back a few hundred yards. I remained at the helm, maintaining just above idle speed in the wide channel, while Jennifer and the kids welcomed the two Coast Guardsmen aboard. They were polite, professional, expert, and efficient in every way. And well armed. In fact, Trevor, who’s five and was still on pacific standard time, was still asleep in his bunk and not that interested in coming topsides to see the activity…until his dad told him there were soldier-types onboard and they were carrying guns. For whatever reason, that will always get a five-year old boy up and running!
One officer stood with me in the pilothouse reviewing paperwork, and Keenan answered the other officer’s questions and showed him our fire extinguishers, life vests, flares, various required placards, our locked overboard discharge valve, etc. After about ten or so minutes, they gathered us and told us we passed with flying colors, handing us a copy of their report for our files. Though they politely refused Daria’s offer of freshly baked cookies, they did agree we could take a few pictures. We’ll stick those up soon. We’re glad we had the experience of it all and are reminded of just one of the many important roles our Coast Guard plays while plying our coastal waters. We felt safer for it.
Once tied-up at our next port of call at Sea Path Marina in Wrightsville Beach, we walked east a mile to the beach and then south another few miles to a beachside restaurant on a fishing pier, all with a distinctly 1950s look (save for the new cars). We saw beautiful blue Atlantic waters for the first time in a while and zig-zagged in the sand through a busy beach full of sunbathers, swimmers, and the occasional surfer.
The following day we rented a car and traveled a few miles over to Wilmington to visit the town and the USS North Carolina, a WWII-era battleship that’s now a public museum. Maintained entirely with private funds, this ship is remarkably well cared for by a group of dedicated professionals and volunteers, nearly all of whom are retired servicemen in the area. Yet another ship that would probably make an enemy surrender at first sight.
After bidding farewell to our guests, we next headed for Beaufort, North Carolina – a somewhat long run of nearly 70 miles with strong currents and various bridges to time along the way. So you know, the Beaufort in North Carolina is pronounced with a long “o” whereas the Beaufort in South Carolina is pronounced with a long “u”. Think “o” for over and “u” for under – that’s my trick anyway. It’s best not to offend the town folk by mixing up the two.
While motoring to Beaufort, we passed through the Camp Lejeune firing range and saw a few charred tank remains from some recent target practice. Occasionally, the ICW is shut down due to live fire. Adds a new dimension to safe boating practices and the need for staying alert.
Beaufort, like Charleston, is a place where the current rips across the town docks. Combined with some sudden 15 knot wind gusts, we had a heck of a time backing into our assigned slip and instead crabbed sideways to the bulkhead at the dockmaster’s suggestion and walked Muddy Waters into a slip adjacent to the one we originally thought we’d take. The bulkhead at these particular docks is actually the best slip in the house…while you’re parked. Unimpeded views of the town and easy access, with a floating dock between us and the city wall itself. But, it can be a challenge to exit since boats like ours pivot well forward of the transom. There’s a reason these slips are often the last ones filled in a marina.
After spending a lovely and downright cold evening in Beaufort, Jennifer and Daria flew back to Atlanta for Jennifer’s parent’s 50th wedding anniversary. Daria had fun with her cousins, telling them a little about life at sea and encouraging them to visit us onboard. They all had a terrific time celebrating with the family and friends who arrived in Georgia for the festivities, including Uncle Andrew who flew all the way from London. Fifty years, pretty amazing! My mom and dad just celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary last week, wow again!
While Jennifer and Daria were on the road, Keenan and I stayed onboard and enjoyed this once-sleepy-now-bustling coastal town. We visited the North Carolina Maritime Museum and enjoyed watching a meticulous craftsman make delicate and tiny ships and then patiently place them into small bottles with even tinier instruments he’d crafted. In a nutshell, the masts are collapsable and the craftsman uses a line attached to the tiny rigging to re-step the mast once the boat’s inside the bottle. We later learned at the U.S. Naval Academy that foreign prisoners of war in America’s early days would often spend their time making ships in bottles and selling their crafts in small colonial markets.
The highlight of the weekend for me and Keenan was something similar, but on a larger scale – the Beaufort wooden boat-building competition. We saw both professionals and high school students begin with all their tools and materials. Within a few hours, the competitors were placing their boats in the water and racing them through the marina. We were perched on our bow, enjoying the excitement of a day at the races. Check-out the photos.
With the girls in Georgia for two nights, Keenan and I departed Beaufort two days later at slack tide and had two dock hands and a friend help us shove off, and everything turned out fine. We managed to dodge the fifteen-foot bowsprit of a schooner parked on the face dock. Wiggling 50 tons out of a tight spot with lots of other boats around gets your mind working through lots of scenarios, angles, back-up plans, etc.
On a recommendation from friends, and a promotional and discounted per foot dockage rate, we eventually pulled into River Dunes Marina, in northern Oriental, NC. What a find. No current or wind, a beautifully appointed marina, an ace dock-master, and a parking spot next to a sparkling pool and a lovely lodge. We joined a half-dozen other sailors for a community dinner in the lodge, and it sort of felt like Thanksgiving with all the good food, cheer, and stories swirling around. Jennifer and Daria rejoined us that evening and we spent the next day touring the lovely grounds and surrounding area on bicycles and also took a dinghy tour up the river and into some of the quiet creeks surrounding the area.
Next morning, on the recommendation of friends and ace boaters Jean and Garland Hagen, we decided to depart the more traditional ICW route (the famous magenta line on the charts) and head across the Pamlico Sound to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. We arrived into Silver Lake (a natural harbor) in Ocracoke just in time because the final thirty minutes of the ride in the sound had us staring at 20 knots from the northwest, creating a short, steep, stiff chop right on the port beam. Our quiet ride, much of it out of the sight of land, quickly turned wet and pounding. We thanked the trawler gods again for landing us in such a fine and seaworthy boat. All hail Krogen! The placid harbor in Ocracoke welcomed us gently, even as we slid by the powerful propeller wash of a massive car ferry. One minute we were getting pounded on the beam, and the next we were tied-up all comfy at our first fixed dock in many moons.
Ocracoke is a wonderful, once-isolated, community with a great local art and music scene. The Hatteras seashore is stunning and pristine, and we walked a good part of it after biking over from the west side of the island. Looking outward at what’s known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic we were reminded that these shores have shown no mercy to sailors over the centuries. More than a thousand vessels, of all sizes, and their crew have met their end off these shores. Most through Mother Nature’s work but others by the swords and cannons of Ocracoke’s most famous former resident, Edward Teach. Also known as…Blackbeard!
We explored just about every inch of Ocracoke on our bikes and enjoyed seeing the close-knit community’s art, music, and natural sights. We also celebrated Daria’s 11th birthday onboard and made our way on bikes to the Ocracoke Coffee Company for pastries, coffee (only for the adults) and even some music we played on the various instruments set among the coffee house couches. We also visited the Ocracoke Lighthouse on our bikes and explored the edge of the island and its safe harbor near the ocean inlet, where Blackbeard would hide-out before attacking merchant ships and other unlucky vessels.
Next morning we were off to the town of Manteo on Roanoke Island. You may know Roanoke as the famous Lost Colony, dating back to 1585. This turned out to be one of our very favorite stops. We ran into fellow Looper friends Ruth and Wayne of High Spirits and Gloria and Jim of Crawdad shortly after arriving into the newly renovated city docks located in the heart of town. After walking the lovely historic streets of the town, we visited Manteo’s terrific history and settlement museum and wandered through a working replica of the Elizabeth II, one of seven ships from Walter Raleigh’s fleet. We also saw an excellent short film on the history of the colony and the conflicts between the Croatan tribes, other tribes, and the English as the settlement period began. Great history and geography lessons for all of us.
After two terrific days in Manteo, we set sail for the Great Dismal Swamp Canal, crossing the Abermarle Sound with lots of wind behind us and following seas. We were glad to be heading northwest in the strong southeast breeze and accompanying steep chop. After dodging a few hundred crab traps, we arrived into the pretty town of Elizabeth City at the northern end of the Pasquotank River. Because of the wind direction, the harbor was a washing machine of confused seas, with waves bouncing boats in every direction. We were disappointed not to tie-up there, especially because we missed a chance to meet the famous Rose Buddies and a chance to get a cup of joe at the Muddy Waters Coffee House in Elizabeth City.
Because of the weather, we decided to head farther up the river and anchor out in a quiet spot around a bend and protected from the strong southerly wind. We dropped the hook in ten feet of water and couldn’t see a soul, it was just us and the songs of thousands of neighboring frogs. We then lowered the dinghy so the kids could go tubing.
It was nice to be anchored-out and on our own again. We’ve really enjoyed the easy access of the town docks when we’re exploring these terrific coastal cities, but when we’re outside city limits, we’ve greatly enjoyed anchoring. Dinner and board games with the kids on the back porch while at anchor, watching an evening sunset, is a day’s perfect ending.
Next morning we were off to the Great Dismal Swamp Canal, which is indeed a great canal, though neither dismal nor a swamp. This short stretch, which is now a national wildlife refuge, was one of the prettiest on our trip, squeezed into a narrow water corridor surrounded by imposing vine-covered trees that nearly create a canopy over the waterway. The area was originally swamp-like, and in the 1760’s George Washington proposed draining the area, harvesting the trees, and farming the land – digging a canal that would connect North Carolina and Virginia and as a result, open a safe inside passage for trade in goods to the Carolinas and northward toward the Chesapeake. Somewhat disappointed in the business venture, Washington eventually sold his shares to Harry Lee… father of Robert E. Lee. The history here is filled with famous names, places and events, and we tried to cover as much as we could with the kids along the way.
It’s been revealing to see just how much of early American history was shaped by coastal geography. The ICW itself, the Dismal Swamp Canal, the C&D Canal, and of course the world-famous Erie Canal, plus many other watery paths created or altered by man, have all played essential roles in our nation’s history. Seeing these watery throughways from the decks of Muddy Waters has given us a close-up view of the places – and promise – some of our American forefathers saw hundreds of years ago.