January 27, 2022

A North Carolina Cruise Story

Katie and Gene Hamilton

Bring Binocular News

Making the most of bad weather from Manteo to Edenton 

The sun was slipping below the horizon while it melted over the western end of Albermarle Sound.  We enjoyed this lovely sight from our slip at the Edenton Marina, the turnaround point for our mini-loop cruise of the Tar Heel state.

On most of our cruises down the Intracoastal Waterway we followed the markers to cross Albermarle Sound and continued south. But we wanted to venture off the beaten path of the ICW and see what we missed. We went east to Manteo and then west to Edenton, places we always rushed by. This would be our first cruise or sea trial on a smaller boat for us. Early Bird was a new-to-us 31-foot cruiser smaller than our previous boat High Life, a Grand Banks 36-foot trawler.

Chesapeake Bay to Albermarle Sound

We sailed down the Chesapeake Bay to Norfolk with plenty of time to reminisce as we made our way south. We spent the night at Coinjock, south of Norfolk at the Coinjock Marina. The first time there in 1975 we had sailed Gusto, a Rhodes 41 sloop from Chicago.  Doing the math we couldn’t fathom that 37 years had passed.  The restaurant is known for its generous roast beef serving and they did not disappoint.

From Coinjock we headed to Manteo on Roanoke Island in the Outer Banks. We had the wind blowing from the southwest, not the south as predicted. When we reached Albemarle Sound we had square waves (or so it seemed.)  To avoid the 3-4-foot beam seas we headed toward the Alligator River to keep them on the quarter bow. When we could alter course and have them on our stern quarter we headed east toward Manteo. 

Fortunately as the day progressed the seas died down and the ride was pleasant once we turned to the northern end of Roanoke Island.  We saw a rainbow of kites flying from the high dunes of Jockey Ridge State Park to our port. A few skywriters flew up and down the beach promoting local attractions, so we knew we were definitely in OBX, the Outer Banks. 

TIP  Our firsthand experience using binoculars on a boat: Binoculars are vulnerable on a boat. An unexpected roll from a passing boat wake can send binocs onto a hard deck surface or worse, bouncing off the boat. To protect binoculars, stow them near the helm so they’re readily available but tucked in a safe cubby that prevents them from being damaged.

Spending time in Manteo

The town of Manteo operates the Waterfront Harbor in the heart of the village – just steps away from fine dining and specialty shops. From our slip we looked across to Festival Park with a replica of the 17th century Elizabeth II which brought the first settlers to the area.  

Elizabeth II

A few days in Manteo gave us time to explore the town, and walk along the boardwalk and discover its Maritime Museum, a working boatyard in a converted boathouse. Nearby the Outer Banks History Center is a regional archive of the area’s long maritime history. You’ll find more information at Visit Manteo.

Fun in the Sun in water sports

The harbor town is bustling with water activities – teenagers on paddle boards weaving in and out of kayakers. We forgot we were in danger of pirates when we heard the shouts from Sea Gypsy IV, the little kid’s  pirate ship. Kids used water cannons (squirt guns) to take aim at a pirate in a yellow skiff anchored in the harbor. They sang, they giggled, they screamed and it all sounded like they were having the time of their life. We noticed some anxious parents waiting at the dock for their return.

Cruisers best friend: car rentals

After learning about a weather front with strong northern winds approaching, we rented a car for a car ferry ride to visit Ocracoke Island. We had wanted to see the island by boat but it was a 65-mile run and we didn’t want to get beat up bucking into seas.

Driving south to Hatteras we enjoyed the less developed string of sea islands, which reminded us of driving Highway U.S. 1 through the Florida Keys – sandy shores and causeways across the shallow ocean sounds dotted with small communities. How on earth did they move this thing? we wondered looking at the striking black and white Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. It is the tallest in the country and was moved inland 2,900 feet to prevent it from being washed away by the sea. 

Cape Hatteras National Lighthouse

Onward to Okracoke Island

The North Carolina Ferry System is not only free, it’s impressively efficient and moves cars off and on with ease. Ocracoke Village wraps around Silver Lake where you can dock at a marina and state dock; there’s room to drop the hook just off the shore.  The road lines the harbor with small lodges, specialty shops selling rag rugs and hammocks, and eateries, many converted from cottages.  Bicycles and golf carts are as plentiful as cars, many heading to the beach on the ocean side a mile and a half away.  We enjoyed a cold beer and delicious fish sandwiches at SmacNally’s, a dockside restaurant on the harbor where we watched the afternoon sky turn to dusk. Visit Ocracoke Island has lots of information for visitors. After the ferry trip back to Hatteras and returning the rental we went back to the boat in Manteo.

Dockside dining on the shores of Silver Lake in Ocracoke Village

Going west to Edenton we followed our GPS breadcrumbs to the sound and found more bad weather. We spotted power cable towers crossing the sound and knew we were nearing Edenton harbor. We were happy to tie up before the really strong winds and rain squalls began. 

Plundering Pirates

The sandy shores of the Outer Banks were a stark contrast to the lush green cedar trees standing in the clear dark waters surrounding Edenton.  There we saw stately homes and mansions lining the streets which spoke to the wealth and prosperity in earlier days. Much of the riches we learned came from the pirate Blackbeard, a friend of Governor Eden, the namesake of the town. 

The wind was more ferocious than the rain and we spent several days exploring the walking trails and historic homes.  A local boater told us the breakwater was recycled from parts of the old Cowan River lift bridge. We enjoyed morning coffee at Edenton Coffee House, lunch at Downtown Café and Soda Shoppe and had three fine places to choose from for dinner.  We agreed that if we had to be weathered in we landed in a good place. Want to learn more about Edenton? Go to Visit Edenton

Samantha B: A good cruising cat and crew member

Our cat Samantha B adjusted well to her new digs and cruising aboard a smaller boat. Her daily routine began when the engine fired up and she scurried down to the foot of the pilot berth. She joined us later in the day when the engine turned off.  At the dock she hides when she hears someone walking down the dock, God forbid if it’s a dog. Her timid personality morphed into a night owl with evening visits ashore. One time we had to snatch her off a neighboring boat.

More lumpy, lousy sea conditions

We left Edenton one day too soon only discovering it when it was too late to turn around. Albermarle Sound was not kind to us in the morning hours as we thrashed into seas with wipers working overtime, often in whiteout conditions. Early Bird zigged and zagged between red and black crab pot markers, dodging green and white ones as we slammed into the seas. Conditions were so bad they caused the old brass ship bell to ring.  All too often we would call out “that was a bell ringer” as we punched our way across the sound.  We made our way along the northern shore until we reached Wade Point and were able to turn down wind and run up the Pasquotank River for the short 12 mile run to Elizabeth City and calm waters of the Dismal Swamp.

Destined for the Dismal Swamp

We went through the South Mills lock of the Dismal Swanp and stopped at the North Carolina Welcome Center’s free dock, rafting onto Brown Eyed Girl, a trawler owned by Bruce and Joyce, authors of the Cruising Guide to the Arkansas River.   After our long tiring day they took our lines and we enjoyed getting to know these veteran cruisers.

The quiet, dark tannin-stained waters of the Dismal Swamp gave the canal a surreal feeling. We marveled that we were motoring through a canal dug by slaves and today we received our navigation information from some satellite in outer space. After an easy passage through the Deep Creek lock the shock of rapid radio communications between tug boat operators and navy warships told us we were only 12 miles to mile 0 of the ICW and back to the hustle of Portsmouth and Norfolk’s harbor.

We had a quiet afternoon aboard in Portsmouth in the heart of town and the next morning we explored High Street. Discovered a good breakfast joint at Bob’s BBQ where our server proudly said they’d been serving breakfast and lunch to locals for several years.

Heading home up the Bay

It was a misty grey morning and traffic seemed light until we heard two warships going out and saw one submarine coming in. We wondered where they’re going and where they’d been, hoping they’d be out of harm’s way.

It’s always startling to see a submarine on the Chesapeake Bay.

We had the current with us part of the day with gentle one foot seas, nice conditions to be sure.  A flock of pelicans swarmed overhead and three dolphins shocked us as they jumped out of our bow wake. We spent the night anchored at Mill Creek in the Great Wicomico River and then pushed on to Solomons and then home to home in St. Michaels.

The three weeks aboard was the longest time we’d spent on our downsized boat and we have no regret about changing to a pocket cruiser. The boat performed better than we did in rough weather and was roomy and comfortable. Our cruising sea trial was a success and by taking the road less traveled we saw Albermarle Sound at its best and worst and found harbor towns well worth the visit.

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Gene and Katie Hamilton are veteran sail and power boaters and award winning boating writers. They are authors of Coastal Cruising Under Power and Practical Boating Skills. They are members of the Outdoor Writers Association of America.
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