Text and Photographs by Paul Clayton

I received the following email from a reader -

We are thinking of moving our home base north, though not necessarily as far as you. I would like to spend some time exploring the Pamlico/Pungo River area, and maybe venture up to the Albemarle Sound area. We would like to be somewhere close to civilization (boat yards, restaurants, etc.) but with good access to less developed areas.

I don't want to be on the "wrong" side of the draw bridge (think Washington). Bath is too small. Any suggestions, or suggestions on where to look for suggestions, for either a locality or a specific marina?

For the Pamlico/Pungo area, first thing that comes to mind is McCotter's, just downriver from Washington. It's below the railroad bridge, so no issues of getting bottled up in harbor. If you like the Washington area (I do!) McCotter's is worth checking out.

Dowry Creek Marina.

Yes, Bath is a small town, and so is Belhaven. I've enjoyed the times I have docked in Belhaven, but it's pretty clear that this little town is on a downward trajectory. The downtown is minuscule and prone to flooding and most of the business has moved out to ugly development along the highway. There are a couple of decent restaurants downtown and a nice public library, but that's about it. The town is perfectly safe and friendly but its civic shortcomings are sometimes apparent. I understand that Bellhaven is a poor community with no industry or tourism to speak of - but the level of neglect of their infrastructure is disheartening. I saw water streaming across the main street in mid-town due to a plugged drainpipe under the road. The maintenance crew had set up a small electric pump to transfer water to the low side, and run a drop cord across the street to a plug at a local business to power the pump. This kind of expediency may be picturesque but it's not efficient. Bellhaven streets run water for days after any heavy rain.

The town sports a federally-funded transient dock located well outside the downtown area. In order to access the street, the visiting sailor must cross a sodden, often submerged field. The dock itself is proportioned and constructed more like a commercial dock than a recreational one. No doubt the local contractor was more accustomed to building docks for commercial trawlers than recreational sailboats and made a good-faith effort, but the result is difficult to use.

Better implementation could have made the Belhaven town dock a real destination for boats plying the ICW. The next town to the north is Coinjock at MM 50, and to the south, Oriental at MM 181. So Belhaven, at MM 136, would make a nice place to spend a night, pick up groceries and eat a shore dinner, but it's such a hike out to the dock. An intown location would have made it much more attractive as a stopover, as well as creating a focal point for sailors to gather. The ICW, with travelers from all over the country, all over the world, is a real cultural attraction. I have sat on the dock at Elizabeth City and gammed with sailors from Canada to Brazil, and for anyone with the slightest interest in the world over the horizon, it's fun. So, opportunity missed in Belhaven. That doesn't mean it is a bad town to choose for a base of operations, just that it could be much better.

This is the fabled Elizabeth City Shipyard. They built sub-chasers here in WWII. For many years it was the place to get repairs done to a sailboat in northeastern North Carolina, but today it is closed and derelict.

Belhaven has its good points. The harbor is well-protected and the Pungo is a nice river to sail. Just to the north is the Alligator-Pungo Canal which is no fun, but gets you out to the Albemarle. The public library welcomes transients and has good internet connection. There are two small marinas in Belhaven proper, Belhaven Marina and River Forest, plus a couple more nearby. I went into River Forest for fuel one time, and the dockmaster and deckhands were competent and friendly. Just up the Pungo is Dowry Creek, which I have heard is a very nice, plush facility, and just south is Pungo Creek, which I don't really have much information on. There is a small boatyard in Belhaven but it looks pretty rundown compared to the ones in Oriental. I think it specializes in running repairs for ICW transients.

That brings up a major issue for moving too far from Oriental. The boatyard situation is grim. There is McCotter's, far up the Pamlico River, and there is Hurricane, far up the Bay River almost to Bayboro, and that's it for full-service marinas. North and east there is nothing. I have not found a single yard on the Albemarle that can do masthead work from a crane or bucket lift. There are a couple of yards at Columbia and Mackey's Ferry that no doubt do good work, but there is nothing to compare to the Sailcraft Service/Deaton's/Bock Marine complex that I think most of us have grown accustomed to. So that's a real consideration.

Elizabeth City is a full-blown city, the metropolis of northeastern NC, but the two marinas are best described as atmospherically decrepit. As an alternative, there is a small office condominium right downtown that has a dock and will occasionally lease a slip. The grounds are well-maintained but there are no facilities. There is no fuel available at dock anywhere in town, and the boatyard is closed. Columbia is nice but very small, and the marina is a couple of miles out of town up a narrow, shoal channel. Manteo has a couple of good marinas and plenty of activity, plus you can smell the ocean, but I don't know how the sailing is. There's a decent channel to the Albemarle, and a problematic one south to the Pamlico. If your boat can get under the old Mann's Harbor Bridge you can use Croatan Sound to get to the Pamlico. Manteo of course is a long haul from the rest of the state.

Elizabeth City waterfront.

Something to consider is how much you enjoy marina society. I always looked forward to going to Matthews Point if just to see the many friends and sailors who congregated there on weekends. You don't get that kind of fun at the small marinas. Like I mentioned in my review of Ensign Marina on Lower Broad Creek, David Howard and I resorted to glassing the empty houses across the creek from the cockpit of his boat for entertainment one evening. Edenton Marina is completely deserted during the week and not much better on the weekends. There is no clubhouse where people congregate.

So I hate to say it but I really don't have much to offer. If I were making a road trip through the area to look at marinas, I would definitely check out McCotter's and Dowry Creek, plus the two downtown Bellhaven marinas. So there, I have come all the way around to where you started us off. Despite Bellhaven's drawbacks, it might be worth considering.

fair winds

The Reader responds:

Just FYI, I did a little scouting this weekend. Belhaven was rather a let down, it has definitely declined since I was there by water 30 years ago (but then, so have I). Belhaven Marina did not seem set up for keeping a boat in the water to use, and talking to the management confirmed that. I did not get to Dowry Creek or Pantego Creek. Bath was a little better, owner was friendly and obviously eager for more renters. The docks were not in great shape, and one sunk boat plus several others that looked pretty iffy. He told me the guy that owns McCotters had bought the other boat yard on Broad Creek, which was interesting. And the dog was friendly. It's close enough by car to Washington that it might work for my wife. Swan Quarter is a rough. commercial fisherman port with piles of rusted engines and boat gear strewn around. They were very friendly but seem confused that anyone would want to keep a sailboat there.

We'll be in Oriental this year, but I am going to keep looking around this winter and next. I will check out the Albemarle marinas you mentioned by car sometime in there.

Thanks again for your help.

Park-like setting, full services, lots of boats, nearby yards. That's what we have gotten used to on the Neuse. This is Sea Harbor Marina in Oriental.

Thanks for the update. Your take on Swan Quarter confirms my feelings - wonderful, friendly people, but very much a working fishing village rather than a recreational boating center. Plus, a long way from anywhere and not much to do. I emailed McCotter's with some questions and never got a reply, so there's not much I can add. I'm going down to Edenton in a few days and may stop in at Dowry Creek just to scope it out. As you noted before, it's like Matthews Point, a long way from town - and the town is Belhaven.

fair winds

For anyone reading this who might consider moving south, here are a couple of ideas.

I used to keep a boat at Southport and that was a lot of fun. It was easy to get out into the river and down into the ocean, but the boat traffic, especially on summer weekends, was something to behold. From a wife perspective, plenty to do, and Wilmington is just up the road. The beaches are a short ferry ride across the river.

Depending on where you live, Georgetown SC might be worth looking at. From my home in Winston-Salem, it is no longer a drive than the Neuse River or the Albemarle. The Waccamaw River is not quite as wide as the Neuse, but plenty of room for sailing, and not much traffic. There are many nice side creeks for exploring. The ocean is just out the well-marked ship channel. And the town is beautiful, clean and pleasant.

Seriously, we have been spoiled by the Neuse River/Pamlico Sound/Beaufort area. There's nothing else like it.


Postscript - I went into Pungo Creek Marina and Dowry Creek Marina on a visit to northeast NC in late February 2018. Pungo Creek has 48 slips, of which 10 were leased as of my visit. The friendly dockmaster told me they carry up to 9 feet of water at the t-dock, and the creek and inlet channel are well-marked and uniformly deep. Gas and diesel are available at the dock, as are pumpouts. Pungo Creek Marina charges a flat $35 for overnight dockage, one of the best rates in the area. I was given to understand that monthly lease rates are also very low. There are restroom and shower facilities in a cinder block building, serviceable but far from luxurious. The marina is far out of town, too far to walk, but there is a small bar onsite run by the owner. The docks are in good shape. My take is this might be a good place to store a boat if your main interest was doing long trips and you weren't much interested in spending time at the marina.

Dowry Creek is, as advertised, a plush, upscale facility with a pool, clubhouse and immaculate restrooms and showers. Gas, diesel and pumpouts are available at the well-constructed dock. Compared to Matthews Point, Dowry Creek is just as club-like, but whereas Matthews Point has a comfortable, traditional appeal, Dowry Creek is more corporate. Like Matthews Point, Dowry Creek is far out in the country, at least 10 miles from the nearest grocery or restaurant. There was no dockmaster on duty during my visit, but I have heard that the marina welcomes transients. For sailors who have visited in the past, know that the marina has recently changed hands, and the former owner who cooked for the transients has retired.