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I Visited Ocracoke as Soon as They Would Let Me In.

It looked like a short window of opportunity - Ocracoke Island would reopen to visitors on December 2nd, 2019, and Highway 12 would reopen between Ocracoke Village and South Dock Ferry Landing (so named because it is on the south side of Hatteras Inlet) at the north end of the island later in the week. In the meantime, the temporary ferry route between Hatteras and Silver Lake would continue to run. As soon as the highway reopened, it would be discontinued. If I wanted to add this route to my collection, I had just a few days to do it. And just as important, I wanted to visit Ocracoke and see for myself just how the island was faring.

I made the five hour drive from Winston-Salem to Edenton December 3rd. After unloading the car and catching a bit of dinner, I put a coat of paint on an inside bulkhead left primed the previous month. Phil's boat, Oryoki, was anchored out in the creek, and I wondered why he had left his mooring on the dock. Fearing the worst, I considered that his wife Marilyn may have had a health crisis and need daily medical care, and Phil might have had to economize by giving up his slip in order to pay for it. Or perhaps he had gotten into a dispute with Scotty and left in a snit. The next day I was to find that I was wrong on both counts, that there was a much happier reason for Oryoki being at anchor.

Oryoki motoring out the mouth of Pembroke Creek just before sunrise.

Back on Terry Ann, I collapsed in exhaustion around 9:00. It had been a long day. After a fitful night, I got up at 5:20, breakfasted and showered in preparation for a day trip to Ocracoke. From the clubhouse I noticed marker lights lit on Oryoki, and it dawned on me that Phil was preparing for a cruise. By the time I got back down to the dock, Oryoki was motoring out Pembroke Creek.

It was now 6:30 and the sun was not yet up, but perhaps by the time Phil got down to Edenton Bay there would be enough light to get a picture or two. I drove to the waterfront park and watched Oryoki's masthead light pass behind the treetops along the creek. But then, rather than appearing out into the open anchorage just above the bay, Oryoki doubled back. I drove to the marina and found Oryoki circling off the dock and Phil walking along the road and into the marina. Turns out he had forgotten something at home, had walked back to get it, and Marilyn was piloting the boat, waiting for him. We had just enough time for Phil to tell me they were headed south before Marilyn approached the dock and he swung aboard. So Marilyn must have made an amazing recovery from her invalid state of a month ago.

Back at the park, I got a few good shots of Oryoki motoring out the creek, and then started the long drive to Hatteras. The road crosses four major bodies of water on four long bridges - the Albemarle Sound, the Alligator River, the Croatan Sound, and the Roanoke Sound. From Manteo, the road follows the Banks south to Hatteras. I drove past the National Park Service's Oregon Inlet Campground, which, in a change from recent years, is going to stay open all winter. It was a real pleasure to cross the inlet on the new bridge, finally a reality after years in the making. The road down Pea Island looked pretty good, with just a few areas of sand and water on the pavement. Near Mirlo Beach I passed the newest project, construction of the "Jug Handle" causeway which will carry NC 12 out over the Pamlico Sound to bypass a section of island that is too narrow and unstable to sustain a highway.

M.V. Roanoke was covering the Hatteras-Silver Lake route today, and around 10:30 she steamed in with a few cars. The main action had been Hatteras and Croatoan, which were shuttling truckloads of asphalt to South Dock for the final stages of work on NC 12. They could only handle two or three trucks per run, plus a few light 4WD vehicles that are allowed to run a sand road around construction and get to Ocracoke Village that way. So both of them plus a couple more boats were turning around as fast as they could. Asphalt trucks were stacked up at the Hatteras dock parking lot 10 deep.

Roanoke backed in, quickly unloaded, then took aboard a 25 gallon drum of motor oil on a forklift. Next thing, she pulled out of the slip, as a line of cars waiting to go to Ocracoke watched in dismay. Then she spun around and came into the slip forward. I had befriended the dock crew and they had let me know there was going to be a delay as Roanoke needed to refuel. The hose would only reach if the boat was docked with the front inboard. So I knew what was going on. In fact none of us knew what was going on, because the fuel pump failed to engage. Turns out a work crew ashore had tripped a circuit breaker. With power to the pump, it still wouldn't work. After a while, a diffident, older man on the dock crew said that years before they had this problem and had to roll the delivery hose all the way back in, and then run it back out to the tank on the boat, to get it to work. That idea sounded a little questionable, not just to me but to the rest of the crew, but what could they do? They tried it, and it worked. Twenty minutes later, Roanoke had enough fuel to make a round trip to Silver Lake.

Chicamicomico picks up two more truckloads of asphalt.

In the meantime, Chicamicomico had pulled in to the second ramp and loaded two more asphalt trucks for South Dock. By now I was ensconced in the passenger lounge. The dock crew had taken mercy on me and arranged with the captain that I could board early. Once refueling was complete, Roanoke was ready to board motor vehicles. In order to refuel, she was nose in, but to unload at the Silver Lake dock properly, she needed the cars to be pointed forward. Rather than undock and spin the boat again, the crew loaded cars over the nose and had the drivers u-turn at the aft end. With the smaller cars, that just required one jack, but getting the big SUVs and a delivery truck turned around took some work. Incidentally, the delivery truck was a load of building materials from Kellogg, and will figure in this story later on.

45 minutes behind schedule, Roanoke left the dock and proceeded toward Ocracoke. That 45 minutes was the total dwell time expected at Silver Lake on the schedule. So Roanoke would have to unload at Silver Lake, then immediately load and leave to get back close to schedule. That left me with a dilemma. Did I want to come right back on Roanoke and miss seeing anything of Ocracoke, or did I want to wait 5 hours and take the last boat of the day, at 7:15? In ordinary circumstances, there would be no question. Even if Roanoke had been on time, I would have chosen to have more time on the island. But these were not ordinary circumstances. The weather forecast was calling for winds to build into the evening, gusting to 30 miles an hour. The Hatteras-Silver Lake route is covered by River-class boats, not the big Sound-class boats. All the Sound-class boats are tied up covering the Cedar Island and Swan Quarter runs. The Hatteras-Silver Lake route runs well out into the sound, with shoals to the lee and a long fetch for westerly winds that were expected in the evening. Would the late boat even run? And if it didn't, what would I do, stuck in Ocracoke? Sleep under a bridge (there are no bridges in Ocracoke)? It's unfortunately the case that many runs have been cancelled for weather or mechanical problems recently.

So it wasn't just the weather, it was the shape of the boats as well. The Ferry Division does a great job maintaining them, but most of the boats are old, and they have taken a beating on the long Hatteras-Silver Lake route. The enormous loads of building material going in and storm refuse coming out haven't helped either. So the chances of a cancellation of the late schedule were far from nil.

Hatteras returning from South Dock.

I put all that in the back of my head and settled down to enjoy the trip to Ocracoke. The tiny passenger lounge couldn't have accomodated more than 6 people, but I was the only walk-on. It did offer a good view, and also a 120 outlet. I promptly plugged in my Toughbook and fired up OpenCPN. Once I was satisfied that it was getting a signal and recording our course, I left it to do its job while I took in the sights.

The route out of Hatteras twists and turns, following a narrow, shallow channel that includes a stretch that would have been dry land a couple of years ago. We met Croatoan, returning from delivering two loads of asphalt to South Dock, right in the narrowest, shoalest section, sandwiched between two dogleg turns.

After a while an older gentleman came up to the lounge from his car, perhaps to escape his wife. No aspersion on his wife, they had been cooped up together for a long time. They had been to Boston over Thanksgiving and were trying to get home to Ocracoke. After the long drive south on I-95, they had followed 264 to Swan Quarter to board the early morning boat to Ocracoke. That boat didn't go, mechanical. The next boat was scheduled for early afternoon. Instead of waiting, they decided to make the 3-hour drive to Hatteras and go across on the 11:15 boat. I'm sure when Roanoke pulled away from the dock without loading they came close to losing it.

The old man had a lot to say about Ocracoke. First, that they had moved there 12 years ago because they loved it, and they still did. That they hoped to stay there for years to come, but it might not be possible. Everybody knew that in the long run NC 12 was not stable, either on Ocracoke or on the northern islands. The transportation issues were just getting to be too much to deal with. Then he got down to details. The Variety Store (the grocery store on Ocracoke) had to send a truck to Swan Quarter every day to pick up stock, because most of the distributors were refusing to come to the island due to the long ferry ride and questionability of getting their truck back on the same day. And some of the distributors were refusing to meet in Swan Quarter. He mentioned the Pepsi distributor in particular. No Pepsi products on Ocracoke. And no Pepperidge Farm. The local people are tough, but that's asking a lot. Good cookies will go a long way in adversity. Then there was the issue of contractors coming to the island to work. They were badly needed and much appreciated, but with so much housing stock damaged, there was nowhere for them to stay. So they had to commute from Hatteras. A 2 1/2 hour ferry ride to begin the day, a 2 1/2 hour ride to end it. That added 5 hours of overtime to every day's work, and wore down the workers. Once repairs were finished on NC 12 and traffic could resume through South Dock, it would be a more manageable 40 minutes each way. That would relieve a lot of pressure.

Croatoan hustles back to Hatteras for another load of asphalt.

I thought about the Kellogg box-truck full of construction materials on the vehicle deck. More on that later.

After a while, the route to South Dock veered off to port. The old Hatteras-South Dock route took 18 minutes, but heavy shoaling in Hatteras Inlet mean that the current route which runs far out into the sound takes 40 minutes. As we peered across the water toward South Dock, the Ocracoker said, frowning, "I wonder what all that is". A huge crane and row of tall pilings could be seen in the inlet, offshore from the dock. I didn't know what was going on, and he didn't either. Just, things going on at the north end of the island that nobody knows about. Fueling paranoia on an island that is already on edge. Right after Dorian, the national and regional press came in, got their stories and left. Since then, the only news has come from the local papers. Their writers are earnest and hard-working, but, like me, they're amateurs. Without the professionals who can make the time investment, a lot of stories get missed. (Please, no offense, my friends at Island Free Press and Ocracoke Current. The difference between an amateur and professional, is, a professional doesn't have to hold a side job, and has a huge editorial support staff for backup.)

It was a real eye-opener to talk with the old gentleman, and it was good to get the scoop on what people were thinking. I hope he and his wife get to stay on Ocracoke for many more years.

Later another old gentleman came up and we had a chat - nothing to do with Ocracoke, just yarns. He was ex-Coast Guard, a mechanic, country boy, not much formal education, but extremely well-traveled. He had an authentic eastern Virginia accent and I had to listen closely to make out what he was saying. He said he was just going to Ocracoke to deliver Christmas presents, then would immediately move on. For all I know he was running drugs. He probably thought the same of me.

The yellow line is the original Hatteras-South Dock route. The blue line is the current Hatteras-South Dock route. The red line is the Hatteras-Silver Lake route. Click on the picture to see it larger.

After 2 1/2 hours we docked in Silver Lake. I had made up my mind - I would stay on the island and take the 7:15 boat back. The wind was not picking up like the forecast had expected, and the boat crew was pretty sure the later boat would run. I would know with some certainty by 4:15, when the boat was scheduled to leave Hatteras. If the ferry agent at Ocracoke confirmed the boat was on its way from Hatteras, then I had a ride home. Once the boat comes to Silver Lake, it almost always goes back. The crew ties up in Hatteras. If the 4:15 from Hatteras was cancelled, I would try to hitch a ride to South Dock and take a boat from there.

A few years ago, getting from Hatteras to Ocracoke was simple. The boats ran between Hatteras Dock and South Dock (so called because it was on the south side of Hatteras Inlet), and it took 18-20 minutes. Then, as Hatteras Inlet shoaled up, the direct route became untenable. Despite several rounds of dredging, the channel across the inlet became too shallow for the ferries to negotiate. At this point, a new route was established that involved running out into the sound and then back in. This route took 40 minutes, and was a major setback for inter-island travel. Finally, when NC 12 was broken between South Dock and the town of Ocracoke, a third route was established - Hatteras to Silver Lake. This route took 2 hours and 15 minutes, and caused all kinds of conflicts with the cross-sound boats that came in to Silver Lake from Cedar Island and Swan Quarter.

As I walked along the Ocracoke waterfront I immediately noticed that all the old derelict boats had been cleared out of the anchorage. That's a plus. And while some of the docks were damaged, some of the docks were brand new. That's another plus. The boys on the Community Store rehab crew were especially proud of their new dock. And well they should be, it's gorgeous.

There were plenty of signs of damage, but it was mostly to the man-made structures. The trees came through, for the most part, just fine. I saw a number of carpenter crews working on restoring the man-made stuff. One striking thing was all the bicycles set out on the street to be trashed. It seemed a shame, since with some work, a flooded bike could be put back in service. Even the worst damaged ones generally had good tires. One old-timer on the island who weathered the storm and kept right on trucking chalked it up to complacency. A bicycle was easy to stow away high enough to be safe from the water, but many people really didn't think it was going to be that bad. They had never heard that old saying, "Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst".

The yard furniture looks salvageable. The lighthouse, of course, is fine.

I got the impression that a lot of work had gone into cosmetically cleaning up and repairing exteriors. Many houses were vacant, even though they looked ok from the outside. I'm guessing that some owners of rental properties are selectively leaving some buildings alone for now, since they probably wouldn't be able to rent them to tourists until next spring anyway. For a town with a serious housing shortage, there seem to be a lot of buildings that could be fixed up good enough to inhabit that are standing vacant. I have heard that damage to electrical circuits is slowing down progress. There simply are not enough licensed electricians in the region to handle all the work.

Out close to the edge of town, I came to the Variety Store, with a lit neon open sign and a prominent notice, "No Public Restrooms". I didn't need a facility, but I wondered if this was an overt "Visitors Not Welcome" statement. Inside I found an empty Maola ice cream chest and shelves lined with jugs of laundry detergent. I asked the cashier whether Maola was delivering and she glared at me and said she didn't know. Most personnel problems are personal problems, and she was probably having a bad day. Kid up all night puking, boyfriend came in at dawn drunk, you know the situation. I thanked her and left, thinking that at least they were trying to keep the shelves stocked with what they had, to put on a good face.

I was really hoping the brewery would be open, because I could use a beer, but the sign on the door said they would open at 5:00. Heading back into town, I passed Books to Be Red, and thought I would look in. The door was unlocked and the proprietor beckoned me in. I asked her if she sold coffee, and she laughed and said she didn't, but she would have gladly given me a cup if she had it. We chatted while she unboxed books and I perused the shelves. She had been a vocal proponent of opening to visitors as a step on the path to getting life back to normal. Although her shop was far from the way it was before the storm, she was making progress and doing what she loved. I found a book that looked interesting - "The History of Fort Ocracoke in Pamlico Sound" - bought it, and went my way.

Ocracoke alley.

Back at the ferry landing, I confirmed that the boat was on its way. Under the pavilion, I ate my dinner of graham crackers and peanut butter. One of the arguments of the anti-visitor party was that visitors would eat up all the food at the restaurants, leaving nothing for the contractors. So I brought my own. Another argument was that visitors' cars would take up space on the ferry that was needed by residents and contractors. That's one reason I walked on (the other being, who needs a car in Ocracoke?).

Kellogg Builders Supply has stores in Manteo, Corolla and Edenton. They recently demolished their Edenton store and built a new, much larger one. I shop there frequently for boat work supplies, and have been amazed at what they stock. Kellogg is one of the best hardware stores I have ever seen. They made a big investment in Edenton, a town that is short on investment, and I hope they do great. Back on Roanoke, a Kellogg box truck made up part of the load. The driver was a young guy with an authentic California surfer haircut - shaggy blond hair to his shoulders, blowing in front of his face. As I sat eating my graham crackers and peanut butter, he walked up. Because of Roanoke's quick turnaround due to running late, he hadn't been able to unload and get back on the boat. He got stuck waiting for the 7:15 boat. He laughed about it, still at the age when everything is an adventure. But did I know of a restroom anywhere? He was about to pop. The National Park Service used to have some portable ones at the ferry landing, but now they were gone. I told him the brewery was about to open, and he could get a beer and use their facilities. He said that is just what he would do - but he was driving the company truck - they wouldn't mind - but no, he couldn't do that. Then he wandered off to find a building to go behind of, and I thought - you people, he started his day at 8:00AM and he is going to finish it at midnight, to bring you the building supplies you need. And you can't even give him a place to take a leak?

With a couple of hours to go before the ferry went to Hatteras, I decided that I would walk back to the brewery and have a beer myself. Maybe two - after all, I wasn't driving. I decided to take the back streets and turned onto British Cemetary Road, then made the next right. That's where I found Zillie's. Right in the middle of the residential neighborhood, here was a big house, elevated off the ground, evidently some kind of commercial establishment - and it appeared to be open! I walked up the steps and in the front door, to find an elaborate beer and wine store. I asked the clerk, if I bought a beer, could I drink it here? Absolutely! I could sit at a table inside or next to one of their gas fireplaces out on the porch. They had a small selection of craft beers on tap, and I chose a Hercules Double IPA. It looked like rancid orange juice but tasted like nectar and kicked like a mule. Perfect! I sat a a table inside, hauled out my Toughbook, got on the store wifi and checked my mail while I sipped my beer. After a few minutes, a young man came in and bought a bottle of wine to take back out on the porch, for a little group at a fireplace. He noticed my camera and asked about it, saying he wanted to try something with more user control than his IPhone offered. We talked cameras for a minute, and then he invited me to join him, his wife and his mother-in-law (plus two well-behaved dogs) at their table. I readily assented, and soon was introduced all around. The young couple were from Brooklyn and the mother-in-law lived part-time on the island. I had a wonderful time talking with them. They seemed to have no enemies and live for the pleasure of living. Kind, generous people.

Builder's plate on Croatoan.

After a while, I made my way back to the ferry landing and watched a big Sound-class boat come in. After unloading, it moved over to a dock nearby. One of many reasons the Ferry Division is ready to be done with the Hatteras-Silver Lake route is that it makes for three routes trying to use two ramps at Silver Lake. That means shuffling boats around to make room.

Croatoan had finished its service of the South Dock route, and was now covering Hatteras-Silver Lake. Once it came in and unloaded, I prevailed on the crew to let me come aboard and wait the layover in the passenger lounge. I napped until departure, then watched the lights of Ocracoke disappear in the distance. Out on the sound, the stars overhead were brilliant.

As we approached Hatteras, we crossed paths with a boat headed to South Dock, right in the narrow, shoal dogleg, the worst possible place. Both boats had their 20-million candlepower lights shining, spotting the temporary markers lining the shifting channel. We squeezed through with the shore no more than a couple hundred feet to starboard and the opposing boat 50 feet off our port.

The few cars and one box truck unloaded at the Hatteras ramp, and I walked off and across the parking lot to my car. I quickly caught up with the northbound traffic. One by one, the cars turned off onto their residential streets in Hatteras and Buxton, until there were only two vehicles on the road north - a Kellogg box truck and a Mazda 3. I followed that box truck all the way up the dark, deserted Banks, to Manteo, where it took the road into town, and I continued for another hour to Edenton. Aboard Terry Ann, 11:45 PM.

Text and Photographs by Paul Clayton.

Copyright © 2019 Paul M. Clayton