Cruising

Pamlico Sound: It's All Good

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I steered Sonata, my 1981 Pearson 36 cutter, out of the landcut linking Goose Creek to Bay River, in eastern North Carolina. Turning to my wife, Liz, I triumphantly announced, “We’re done! No more landcuts till next spring.”

Liz smiled quizzically. “What?” she asked. “You mean you don’t like landcuts? Imagine that.”

We’d navigated many landcuts along the Intracoastal Waterway since entering it at Mile Zero in Portsmouth, Virginia. We’d snaked through Virginia Cut, crossed Albemarle Sound, skirted the Alligator River, transited the debris-filled Alligator River-Pungo River Canal and blissfully sailed the wider waters of the Pungo River and then across the Pamlico River.

Veteran ICW cruisers often view these passages as a purgatory of motoring entailing close encounters with tugs and barges and jarring powerboat wakes, with eyes forever fixed on the depthsounder. But we were ICW newbies. In spite of the tedium of the landcuts, our passage through eastern North Carolina marked a new chapter in our lives as full-time liveaboards. We were bound for New Bern, a historic and scenic little city at the confluence of the Trent and the Neuse rivers, where we would spend the winter.

We had no desire to go farther south. And, yes, we knew it gets cold in North Carolina in winter. We also knew that the waters of the Neuse River—measuring more than five nautical miles across at its mouth it is the widest of all rivers in the U.S.—were some of the best and least-heralded cruising grounds on the entire East Coast. We were happy to be there.

I turned Sonata to the southeast on Bay River. The shimmering blue of Pamlico Sound hove into view. After the close confines of the ICW, it was spectacular. The low isles of the famous Outer Banks were out of sight below the horizon, creating the sense that we had just entered the broad Atlantic Ocean.

Stretching from Albemarle Sound and Roanoke Island approximately 80 miles to the south and west, the shallow waters of Pamlico Sound are frequently avoided in favor of the ICW. Maximum depths in the sound are just 26 feet. It is roughly 30 miles across at its widest point and a stiff breeze generates a chop that can be downright nasty and even dangerous. But on a quiet day in a gentle wind, the sound gives you flat-water sailing at its best.

Rounding Maw Point, we headed into the Neuse River. New Bern, with its two marinas, restaurants and eclectic shops, was close to 25 miles away. Tryon Palace (the mansion of North Carolina’s first colonial governor), the Fireman’s Museum, the New Bern Civil War Museum and the Attmore-Oliver Civil War House are among the historic attractions of the city, which was first settled in 1710. New Bern’s waterfront has been undergoing significant changes. High-rise luxury condominiums have been built, and some say cruising sailors are less welcome than they were several years ago. However, transient dockage is definitely available, and a visit to New Bern is still worth a detour from the ICW.

A few miles upriver from Maw Point, on the north shore, is the quiet town of Oriental, appropriately billed as the sailing capital of North Carolina. Five navigable creeks enter the Neuse River here. Full-service marinas dot the shore. A sailing school, a couple of charter boat companies, a plethora of yacht brokers and an active cruising and racing community of local sailors give Oriental a distinctly nautical character. There are quaint shops, including a general store, and some good restaurants in the village center. Stately Victorian homes line the shaded streets.

Like New Bern, Oriental has been “discovered” and is more popular than ever. But it has managed to retain its rural charm and remains a favorite stop among snowbirds transiting the ICW, largely because it is conveniently located near both Adams Creek and the ICW leading to Beaufort and Morehead City on the Outer Banks. Beaufort Inlet provides safe access to the Atlantic for those heading offshore. The other inlets on the Outer Banks, Oregon Inlet at the north end of Hatteras Island and Ocracoke Inlet, just south of Ocracoke Island, are fringed with constantly shifting shoals and can be dangerous even in settled weather.

Knowing we’d later sail to Oriental during our extended stay in the Neuse River, we chose to stop at Broad Creek instead, threading our way through the well-marked channel. Once inside, we dropped anchor in about seven feet of water. A cool northerly breeze blew through the stands of trees. There was a house or two perched on shore, but otherwise the scene was wild and remote, much like Maine, except with marshes instead of rugged granite.

Just across the Neuse is South River, a beautiful and protected anchorage popular among local sailors. It’s just one of many waterways that empty into the Neuse. Some are home to excellent marinas, including Northwest Creek Marina at Fairfield Harbor on Northwest Creek, six miles below New Bern, and Mathews Point Marina and Yacht Sales on Clubfoot Creek in Havelock, four miles from Adams Creek and the ICW. With the exception of New Bern and Oriental, most of the marinas are out in the country. The Neuse is one of the least developed rivers in North Carolina; its tree-lined shores remain undisturbed.

In settled weather, Neuse River sailors enjoy cruising out to Silver Lake harbor and Ocracoke Village on Ocracoke Island. It’s a wonderful opportunity to explore the Outer Banks and its beautiful beaches, maybe as part of a cruise to historic Beaufort and Morehead City. Just six miles on the ocean side south and east from Beaufort Inlet is Lookout Bight at Cape Lookout, one of the prettiest anchorages in North Carolina. It’s part of the 56-mile Cape Lookout National Seashore that extends from Ocracoke Inlet to Beaufort Inlet.

As we relaxed in the cockpit before dinner the mechanical voice of NOAA Weather Radio crackled through the VHF, predicting strong northeasterly winds the next day. Like Albemarle and Pamlico sounds, the Neuse can get quite rough. One of the pleasures of liveaboard cruising is getting to sail at a slow pace, enjoying one’s surroundings aboard a floating home. We were in a sheltered creek, and neither of us saw any reason to tangle with the Neuse the next day. We decided to stay put until the wind calmed down.

I shut off the VHF. Emerging from the companionway, I waved at two guys in a skiff. They slowed down, pulled up alongside.

“Where y’all from?” one of the guys asked.

“Maine,” Liz said. “We just sailed in from Maine.”

“No kiddin’,” the other guy said. “Maine. You came a long way then.”

I nodded. “Yeah, it’s a bit of a sail.”

“Y’all need anything? You fixed OK for food?” one of the guys asked. “We’d be glad to take y’all to the store.”

Ever since we’d entered Southern waters we’d noticed how nice people were. Strangers said hello to strangers. Strangers said, “Thank you” and “You’re welcome.” They called Liz “ma’am,” which took some getting used to.

I thanked the kind men, and said we were all set.

“Welcome to North Carolina,” they said, and motored away.

“I think I’m gonna like it here,” I said, my hand lightly gripping the backstay. I had the odd sensation that I was home. It was a good feeling, one I’ll never forget.

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