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Sailing Short Stories

Cruise to Ocracoke

Some of us were going to depart New Bern, NC and others would join our group in route. We were all on our way to Ocracoke on North Carolinaís Outer Banks. New Bern is the original capital of North Carolina and is located about 50 miles inland from the sea. A planned first stop would be Oriental, NC at the mouth of the Neuse River. From there, we would sail across the Pamlico Sound to Ocracoke. The southern part of the Sound has very thin water with lots of shoals and is normally navigated using channels. The sailing might be done with the iron genoa.

We have had our 16s cross the Sound from Swanquarter, NC in the past and that worked well for the 16s. A ferry runs between Swanquarter, NC and Ocracoke and the course between the two is basically west to east across the Sound with enough water in the Sound where channels arenít necessary. Most sailing winds are NE, NW or SE, SW and that means the 16s could sail most of the way to Ocracoke. Not so with the boats leaving the Neuse River. They could sail while they were in the Neuse on the way to Oriental, but the channel in the Sound going to Ocracoke might not have the right wind direction or enough wind for sailing. The 16s on this cruise were planning on taking a ferry to Ocracoke and meeting the other boats there.

The New Bern group had 10 boats with another 2 boats scheduled to join the rest of us in Oriental. It was a good turnout for a big adventure. Silver Lake at Ocracoke looks like a small lake with a community built around its shoreline. The Coast Guard, Ferry Service and the National Park Service operate facilities on the island. The National Park Service runs the National Sea Shore and rents slips to transit yachts visiting Ocracoke. They have heads, but no showers. Leaving Oriental early on Sunday should get us to Silver Lake by late afternoon. Itís about an 8 hour voyage.

The sail to Oriental was fast with a fair wind. We had Com-Pac 19s, 23s, a 25 and 2 Sun Cats for the sail down the Neuse. When you sail the water between New Bern and Minnesott Beach, it appears that you are sailing down hill. Itís a visual effect that also works the other way. It appears that you are going up hill going to New Bern. I know thatís crazy, but thatís the way it appears to me and others. You can sail the most direct route to Neuse River # 8 at Minnesott Beach or maybe point a little less and head for Neuse River # 9 at Cherry Point. In both cases, you make a 120-degree turn to port and head for the entrance marker at Oriental. The Cherry Point route is a little longer, but wind direction determines the best course. The sail from New Bern to Oriental takes about 6 hours. We all stayed at the Whittier Creek Marina in Oriental and spent the night in a slip. The next morning was rise early, leave early and make the rendezvous outside Oriental. The 2 additional boats joined the group as scheduled, but one boat had motor problems and had to retire.

We all pointed our bows toward the Neuse River entrance marker on a wonderfully clear sunny day. The wind was modest as it normally is in the early morning. The motors were humming because we didnít have enough wind to sail. It would take us about an hour to get to the mouth of the Neuse River and enter the Pamlico Sound. The weather was looking good with a light wind that was coming up on our stern. We passed the last River mark and made a 30-degree turn to starboard staying in the channel going to the Blunt Island Shoal mark. The shoal stretches across the mouth of the Neuse River and the channel that we needed to take goes around the end of the shoal and continues across the Sound. The Blunt Island Shoal marker has another marker next to it that marks a wreck. The Governor Scott Ferry sank there sometime back when. The channel marks in the Sound are mostly day marks and they are some distance apart. They require good eyesight to find the next mark in the channel. The channels are full of fishing floats connected to traps on the bottom. You need to avoid the floats and running the channels at night is very risky. Our channel continued northeast in an almost strait line. After some distance, we passed another channel on our starboard side thatís used by ferries coming out of Sea Level and the Core Sound area. Both channels merge as they pass Royal Shoals on the starboard side. Royal Shoals is a barrier shoal between the Sound and our North Carolina Barrier Islands. We saw several wrecks on that shoal with their superstructures pointing at crazy angles toward the sky.

The wind started blowing at about 12 knots as the sun heated the atmosphere. We were running down the side of Royal Shoals and we were smoking. The Sun Cats looked like they were on tracks. The rest of the boats were flying genoas and they were making hull speed. The next mark that we were looking for was a mark where we needed to make a small turn to starboard. A short channel runs between that mark and a tall mark that flags the Ocracoke channel. That tall mark is called Big Foot. Ferries coming across the Sound from different directions need to see Big Foot on the horizon and it needs to be tall. The little channel going to Silver Lake has twist and turns and the ferries are big and fast and we needed to stay out of their way.

We had a 16 sail out to meet us as we came in. The wind was good and the 16 was having fun. He led us into Silver Lake as we all looked for slips at the Park Service Docks. Everyone found a slip, tied up and got ready for dinner at a local restaurant. The picture below/left shows the Coast Guard Station in the background, the Ferry ramp in the middle ground and a bunch of Com-Pacs in the foreground. We all slept well that night and the next day was a day to rent bicycles and explore the island. The island has lots of things to buy and places to see and a bicycle helps. We didnít go to Portsmouth Island on this trip, but itís the next island south of Ocracoke. Portsmouth has a restored village that may have housed a sea rescue service about 100 years ago. The best way to get there is by Com-Pac 16 because itís too shallow for bigger boats with more draft. My favorite shower facility on Ocracoke was closed. I had paid 50 cents for a shower there on a previous trip. I was a wood enclosure at the back of a country store that had hot water and faced Silver Lake. The shower didnít have a door, but the view was great. A brick and mortar motel currently provides the same service at a higher price. They also throw in air conditioning and a bed. We were all having a good time, but some boats wanted to start home on the third day. The wind had not settled after we arrived, but had increased. It was blowing 20 knots or more on the Sound. A Bermuda high had established itself off the coast and it was pumping high SW winds across the Sound. A few of our small boats tried going home and they came back and said their propellers were out of the water in the big waves. The wind speed was high and on the nose. We were stuck in Ocracoke until the weather changed or we could come up with a solution. Another concern was that the ferries might shut down because of high winds. I think they shut down at 30 knots.

The weather didnít change and the Bermuda high didnít move, but we did have an idea. The 16s had their trailers and cars on the island. They had planned on going home on the ferry anyway. If they would take the other small boat sailors to their cars and trailers when they went home, those sailors could come back on the ferry and get their boats. That worked and the only boats left on the island were the bigger boats. The plan for the big boats was to sail home. We would be out of the channel going home, but the chart looked like the depth might be good enough for our shoal draft boats. Royal Shoal was on the other side and we couldnít go that way. We would be leaving Big Foot close-hauled heading for a spot somewhere on the mainland. Like I said, the chart looked like it might be workable, but I didnít know of anyone who ever sailed that way before, except maybe Blackbeard and that was a long time ago. High winds on the Sound were our other major concern. Going aground in that much wind in open water could be dangerous.

We had a 19, 3 23s and a 25 close hauled, heeled over leaving Big Foot and heading towards the mainland. We tried to keep the channel marks in sight while we were out there in no-manís land, but that didnít work. We knew we had to tack to starboard before we sailed too close to the thin water close to the mainland. Our plan was to sail on port tack for as far as we dared, then tack to starboard and sail back to the channel. Our plan worked and we knew where we were when got back to the channel. I think we made two or maybe three complete tacks before we passed the Governor Scott Wreck and entered the Neuse River. We all made it without any problems. The wind and waves were much smaller in the river and we could furl our sails and motor for home. The wind and waves were still on the nose. The boats that went home on their trailers missed a great sail.

This cruise was supposed to be a motorboat cruise out and back across the Sound. We had done it before and thatís the way you navigate the southern end of the Sound. The shoals, thin water and fish traps make this type of cruise a motor trip in channels for the most part. The weather this time was unusual for June. We sailed both ways. The weather is and always will be the big unknown when you travel by water. Are you going to go or are you going to stay? We decided to sail across waters where boats donít normally go. If you have a bad weather situation, you normally want to travel over predicable routes and preferably over water that you have traveled before. If you are going to explore new areas where you havenít sailed before, itís best to do that in good weather. The idea is to handle one difficult situation at a time. We got away with two this time and we knew we were pushing our luck.

Using the ferry and the buddy system for our small boats worked well. The 16s saved the day for the rest of our small boats fleet. Fortunately we didnít have any mechanical problems on this cruise. You could say that keeping your motor in the water was a mechanical problem, but not something that we could do anything about. We looked at where our motors were mounted on the boats and we knew a port tack would be a bad tack for any assistance from our motors. Motor sailing on port wouldnít work. They are all on the port side of the boat and sailing on a port tack meant the motors couldnít reach the water. We could get help from the motor on starboard tack if we needed it. It turned out that we didnít need our motors until we reached the Neuse. We all had shoal draft boats with substantial ballast that made sailing in big winds possible. I wonder how much water we had under our keels in no-mans-land? No body knows for sure including me.