It was early October 2019 and the old, frail, decrepit Alligator River Bridge had marine traffic all tied up. The opening mechanism was broken, parts had to be fabricated, and nobody had a good handle on how long it would take. That meant the bridge was locked down in the "closed" position. To a sailor, that means open for highway traffic, closed for him. Alligator River Marina, just on the north side of the bridge, was doing a booming business, every slip taken and boats lining the fuel docks. The snowbirds were edging south from New England and the Chesapeake Bay, ready to sprint for Florida as soon as hurricane season ended, and they were all piling up at the marina.
Don't get me wrong, Alligator River Marina is a fine little place for a night - but for a week? It's a long way from nowhere and there's nothing to see except the endless stream of highway traffic on U.S. 64. When I visited - by road - the fifth day of the closure, I could sense a degree of tension - expressions of frustration - antsiness about wanting to move on - among the sailors. It hadn't deteriorated to fistfights between the skippers, or "domestics" below deck, but I had to wonder if it would come to that.
When one captain expressed to me his extreme frustration with the situation, I asked him whether he had considered taking one of the other routes south. He replied curtly that he couldn't get under the old Mann's Harbor Bridge across Croatan Sound. Well, what about the route down Roanoke Sound and Old House Channel, I asked. The Washington Baum Bridge in Manteo clears 65 feet. He looked at me for a moment and then said "Excuse me, I need to look at my charts."
That's when it started to dawn on me that many of the snowbirds running the ICW are not aware of the easternmost of the three routes connecting the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds. It's not surprising, I guess, since their chart plotters are optimized for speedy transit of the ICW, not meandering about the inland seas of eastern North Carolina. But a quick perusal of Chart 12205 will clearly show the narrow but well-marked channel that provides a third route between the sounds without the constraints of low clearances and balky opening mechanisms.
The Roanoke Sound - Old House Channel route, like any, has its drawbacks. I haven't yet run it, but hearsay has it that the channel is lined with shoals and a moment's carelessness can lead to a grounding. In particular, when the wind has been blowing steadily from the north, the water gets shallow. It's mainly of concern to deep-keeled boats like my Terry Ann. Hard blows from the south set up a nasty chop as water rushes up from the Pamlico and reflects off the banks of Roanoke Island. So this route is best taken in gentle weather. There are several marinas and yards in the Manteo/Wanchese area. Out on the Pamlico, it is a long, lonely voyage with just one marina, at Engelhard, before joining back in to the ICW at either the Pamlico or Neuse Rivers.
In the end, the Alligator River Bridge closure lasted for eight days. I wonder how many of the boats at the marina would have stuck it out there if they had known about the eastern alternative. It would have been a backtrack of just a few miles to get onto the Roanoke Sound route.
It goes without saying that the Roanoke Sound route works just as well for northbounders. A word of caution - before proceeding up the Pungo River, through the Alligator-Pungo Canal, and all the way down the Alligator River, make sure the bridge is working. There is no marina on the south side of the bridge, or even a decent anchorage. To arrive at the bridge from the south on a southerly breeze and then have to beat back up the river ten miles just to find a marginal anchorage would be wretched. And backtracking from there means a second transit of the Alligator-Pungo. Thinking about it, the Roanoke Sound route sounds better and better.
NOAA Chart 12205 includes an insert with details of the route.
Text and Photographs by Paul Clayton.
Copyright © 2020 Paul M. Clayton