Weekend Cruise: Ocracoke Island, NC
There aren’t any Golden Arches on Ocracoke Island. In fact, there’s no fast food at all. Most of Ocracoke’s restaurants and bars are open-air and shoes are discouraged. There are no chain stores and no laundromats. However, if you like walking barefoot on mile-after-mile of unspoiled, undeveloped, pristine Atlantic Beach, or if you like fresh, locally caught seafood, or if you’re a pirate—Blackbeard was killed off Ocracoke Island in 1718, and Ocracoke Village is already getting ready for the 300th anniversary—start planning a sail to Ocracoke Island.
Ocracoke Island is the southernmost island in the Outer Banks, part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, accessible only by boat or private plane. There are no bridges to Ocracoke, but there are a number of gigantic ferries that do an excellent job shuttling land-based people to and fro. The ferries also do an excellent job scaring the bejesus out of sailors who meet one (or two) in the Big Foot Slough, the main channel leading to Ocracoke’s beautiful Silver Lake anchorage. The other two channels, 9 Foot Slough and Ocracoke Inlet, are intimidating for reasons of their own.
Sailing east from our home port in River Dunes, North Carolina, across southern Pamlico Sound to Ocracoke Island, it takes us between 6 and 7 hours to cover the 35 miles on a good day. We don’t go on a bad day. The entrance to Big Foot Slough is marked by two large, uneven pipes that stick out of the water at an angle that’s not quite right. This actually is the wreck of the Lehigh, a reminder to stay in the channel, preferably the middle. Depths outside the markers go from 20 to 2 feet in a heartbeat. Two sailboats were lost in Big Foot Channel in 2013, one during a freak afternoon storm on Memorial Day weekend, the other on a formidable night in September.
Big Foot Channel is also the port of entry for the 220-foot ferries. The ferry captains are seasoned professionals and are not inclined to change course for your benefit. They’re big, they’re fast, they push lots of water, and they can shove your boat around like a toy in a tub. Then again, if you meet a ferry in the channel, don’t freak out. Remember there’s enough room for two ferries to pass port-to-port, so there’s also room for you.
If you draw less than 6 feet, as we do aboard our 39-foot Prout catamaran, Different Drummer, the 9 Foot Slough entrance will save you some—but not much—time and distance. It will also allow you to avoid the ferries. Check your charts, and aim to enter at high tide.
If you enter from the Atlantic through Ocracoke Inlet, I wish you well, whether it’s your first or your hundredth time. Ocracoke is an “unimproved inlet.” This means it sucks. It’s unmarked, it’s unchartered, it has big scary breakers, and it seemingly changes with the tide. Use local knowledge, and good luck!
Fortunately, while getting to Ocracoke Island can be an adventure, once you’re inside beautiful Silver Lake, everything changes. Time slows. Pelicans stare at you. And the ghosts of pirates are everywhere.
Anchoring in Silver Lake is priceless and free, and should be experienced by all cruisers at least once. The Ocracoke lighthouse shines over the lake all night, every night, as it has since 1823. Gentle winds and tides slowly turn you on your anchor chain so you get a 360-degree view from your cockpit. The sunrises and sunsets make you glad to be alive. The two town dinghy docks are free and easy to get to. Live music drifts out from the different venues around Silver Lake, but things get quiet when things get dark. Watching a full moon over Silver Lake is, to us, what cruising is all about.
There are, however, a couple of drawbacks. For one thing, the holding is poor throughout—soft, slimy mud that stinks really badly and is full of treasures just waiting to foul an anchor: cables, crab pots, lines, fishnets. West winds have piled up boats like cordwood next to the Jolly Roger Pub on the east end of Silver Lake, which is why we bought a bigger anchor.
There’s also the issue of derelict boats—Silver Lake is not very big to begin with, and it’s even smaller when you toss in eight abandoned sailboats on questionable moorings. There’s a rumor that the Village of Ocracoke may someday install permanent mooring balls. Hopefully, they can get this done before the Blackbeard Jamboree in 2018. Hopefully, they can get this done before next year…
The National Park Service docks are to port when you clear the ditch going in to Silver Lake. Sandwiched between the giant WWII bollards that help guide the ferries to their terminals, there’s room for 10 to 12 boats, and the price is right. With our Senior Pass ($10 a lifetime for those 62 and over; get one and use it!) the NPS charges $0.60/ft. plus $3.00 for 30-amp electricity. There is clean, free water and flush toilets, but no showers. The docks are a short walk from Ocracoke Village center, where bicycles and golf carts are available to rent.
We have never docked at the Anchorage Inn Marina, but my dealings with Mike Leombruno, the Anchorage Inn’s dockmaster, have always been exceptionally pleasant. Feel free to call Mike regarding fuel, ice, docking or the catch of the day—he’s always there!
Photos by Dennis Mullen
Dennis Mullen lives and cruises with Marlene aboard Different Drummer, a 39-foot Prout catamaran