Ocracoke – The Outer Banks

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December 6-8, 2017

    The Outer Banks were still calling to us, and it appeared that we had what looked to be a temporary weather window, so we again ventured out into Pamlico Sound.  

     Our destination was back across the sound to Ocracoke Island… the Outer Banks.  In stark contrast to so many of the posh resorts as well as luxuriously sprawling and lavishly decadent mansions along the Maryland and Virginia shoreline, tiny Ocracoke Island is both a diamond in the rough and a fresh breath of real life.

     We were being chased by ominous dark clouds that started to materialize on the horizon behind us about halfway into our crossing.  Conditions on the water were cold, but not ugly yet.  It seemed we might beat the weather to Ocracoke; but if so, it would not be by much.

    As we pushed onward, yet another reason to momentarily celebrate arose.  We had just passed our one thousand mile travel marker aboard Exit!  Another small but significant accomplishment to briefly revel in.

     Ocracoke has an exceptionally long and narrow entrance channel with depths of less than one foot outside that channel, so there is only one way to come in and you have to pay close attention to the markers.  The channel approaches from an angle so we couldn’t really see the small bay the town of Ocracoke is nestled up against until we were actually inside it.  

     The bay, called Silver Lake, is nearly circular and houses a couple of marinas, the main docks for the ferry (without a connecting bridge, you only get to Ocracoke by boat or plane), and some smaller docks for businesses.  On the far side of Silver Lake, opposite the ferry dock, were a few unoccupied sailboats at anchor.  During a busier time it would have gotten crowded very quickly, but we seemed to be the only transients here at the moment; so we had no trouble finding a spot with enough space to get out plenty of chain.

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Ocracoke and Silver Lake

The storm, which had been hot on our tail, caught up with us as the anchor chain we had began paying out rattled over the bow roller.  Almost instantly, a cold wind kicked up and the clouds unleashed a torrent of rain on us.  By the time the anchor had been set and snubbed off, I was completely soaked.  At least we had made it.

     Ocracoke has a population of only about a thousand people, staunchly proud of their community’s small town character.  We had heard that, despite catering to a large number of tourists, life on Ocracoke Island has changed very little in the past 25 years.  

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Ocracoke Lighthouse

     It also has the distinction of being a location the famed pirate Edward Teach, better known as “Blackbeard”, spent some time at.  Ultimately, Blackbeard was killed by British Naval forces in a battle on Ocracoke Island.  It is rumored his treasure is buried somewhere here.  Incidentally, we found nothing…

     One thing we did learn about Ocracoke on our first wander around was that almost 100% of the Ocracoke businesses close down as the season winds down.  We could only find two bars, one general store, and a variety store open out of all the businesses we walked past.

     The following day, we put on our foul weather gear and walked to the beach.  Isolated and completely undeveloped, it extends for nearly fifteen miles.  Apparently, it was recently voted the number-one beach in America, and we could see why.  Not a single structure could be seen in either direction from horizon to horizon.  Nor was there a single other person walking on the beach.  Aside from one SUV and one pickup truck driving onto the beach for a short time in the distance, we didn’t see a single soul the whole time we were there.  

     With the entire beach to ourselves, we watched dozens of pelicans diving into the water and flying intricately in squadron formations just inches above the water.  Even a couple of dolphins made an appearance, hanging out amongst the breaking waves just off the shoreline, patrolling back and forth.

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     And, stretching out before us in every direction, was the vast Atlantic Ocean.  In the distance, we could barely make out on the horizon what appeared to be the jagged edges of big waves… turbulence kicked up from the Gulf Stream we suspected… quite intimidating… awesomely inspiring… little bit scary.

     We spent two nights at anchor at Ocracoke and could easily go back again.  While I wouldn’t relish the idea of sharing the space at Silver Lake with a shitload of other boats, I’m sure Ocracoke, in its’ non-hibernation state would be a blast to visit.

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Ocracoke Dec 2017 – Plenty of room to swing

     It would have been easy to stick around for a bit longer, but we really needed to get moving again.  Hopefully, we would catch up with James and Dena in Oriental, North Carolina, to plan a potential offshore passage.   We hadn’t seen them since they sailed past while we were dead in the water on the Elizabeth River, outside Norfolk.

     Unfortunately, the weather forecast did not look promising.  The following day appeared the best prospect over the next four days, but it was hardly an optimal forecast.  Potentially, the 15+ knot wind carrying substantial amounts of rain would swing around from behind us to nearly in front of us over the course of the day, which meant we would see the forecasted three to four foot waves from all sides as well as probably experience some major current shifts along the way.

     When we lifted anchor Friday morning at 7:30am, a steady rain driven by piercing cold wind accompanied us.  Just outside of the bay, the chop immediately began to kick up, and the rain made it appear as though there was a blanketing fog all around us in the distance.

     We managed to time our trip through the channel almost perfectly, meeting the incoming ferry just after we had navigated through the narrow section and as we were arriving at the channel’s end.

     In the end, the day was rather uneventful and we were ambushed by no surprises, though the weather did it’s best to try to beat us into submission.  

     Very confused seas stacked up closely spaced waves that seemed to range between four and six feet tall.  The wind and rain were relentless.  During watches in the cockpit, all you could do was tuck inside the dodger as far as possible.  Still, after an hour, fingers and toes were numb.  The change of watch gave just enough time to duck below and get warmed up for an hour before, once again, putting multiple layers back on and climbing out into the hostile environment of the cockpit for another turn.

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Uncomfortable watch bound for Oriental, NC

     As always, an unexpected visit by dolphins created a stir of excitement.  Though they stayed only briefly, any encounter wth these incredible creatures is always welcome.  And, though the dolphins did a remarkably good job of warming our hearts and moods, our asses were still pretty damn cold!

     At some point we realized, to our dismay, that Wilson, the pumpkin we had rescued from the water outside Norfolk, who had been been vigilantly standing watch at our stern ever since, must have toppled off the boat.  By the time we became aware, Wilson was nowhere to be seen.  We can only hope the dolphins who visited us may have found him and carried him to safety; or maybe we’ll stumble across him still adrift at some point in the future.

     We arrived in Oriental, NC tired, cold, and beaten; but we’d had our first taste of what could be expected when we ventured offshore in the not so distant future.  Looking forward to that… especially once we reach the tropics!

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