A Storied Land
By Margaret Graham Neeson, 91 years young, Marine Parts Express
Originally Published in The Skipper: The Magazine for Yachtsmen, January 1968
As hundreds of yachtsmen will be reminded again this summer, the North Carolina section of the Intracoastal Waterway, from the Dismal Swamp at least until you reach Cape Fear River, is the dullest bit of all. Those narrow rivers and canals pushing through miles of swampland, “dismals and pocosins” as an early writer called them; those shallow, treacherous sounds and estuaries which tempt a boat into trying a sail, only to catch it fast around—it all adds up to slowness, boredom and frustration.
Adding to the frustration is the knowledge that just a few miles west of the waterway are such interesting and historic sites as the old towns of Edenton, New Bern and Bath, and such new developments a the wilderness of the Croatan forests. To the east lies an even more storied land, the sandy island of Bodie, Hatteras, Ocracoke, Portsmouth and Boque.
These islands, along with a few others, form a long, narrow barrier protecting the North Carolina coastal area from the Atlantic. Known as the Outer Banks, they take off from the Virginia line and stretch some three hundred twenty miles south, westing sharply at each of the three great jutting capes: Hatteras, Lookout and Fear. There are but a few inlets leading from sea to sound, and the islands, at their widest, are not over two miles. In some places, they are only a foot or two above sea level; in others, the shifting dunes rise to considerable heights, so that Kill Devil Hill stands one hundred feet high and many cottages at Nags Head, originally built on pilings over the waters of Roanoke Sound, now poke high and dry above the sand. Across the island, on the eastern coast, and as though to even things up, the ocean nibbles away at the banks, making the narrow belt even narrower. Occasionally, as at New Inlet in 1933, the Atlantic breaks through to the sounds.
For generations the Banks were almost completely uninhabited, their residents limited to a few fishermen, marooned sailors, game hunters, and, says the legend, to pirates and shipwreckers. The danger of the capes led to early establishment of Coast Guard stations (at one time about every seven miles along the most easterly coasts) and of lighthouses, most of them still lit and while no longer manned, are still standing tall. Of these the spirally painted black and white brick light at Hatteras is the best known, and among its other claims to fame is the fact that it is one of the very few operating lighthouses in this country open to the public. Managed jointly by the Coast Guard and the National Parks Service—hence its “use agency” visiting privileges—its one hundred ninety-one feet can be climbed by two hundred fifty-six circular steps by anyone with the strength, energy and ambition to try it.
There are various aspects to the Banks. Many of the islands are accessible only by boat, or sand buggies, and are known only to fishermen and stalwart visitors. Others are rapidly developing as seaside resorts with motels, restaurants, and lines of summer cottages. At the back of these resorts are the old sound-side towns with stores, post offices and small harbors, mainly used by fishermen, both amateur and commercial, and with such wonderful names as Kitty Hawk, Manteo and Wanchese on Roanoke Island, Oregon Inlet and Hatteras Inlet harbors, Silver Lake Harbor at Ocracoke.
The Banks, particularly the more northerly ones, boast an historic past. At Fort Raleigh, for instance, was the site of the first English colony in America and the birthplace of Virginia Dare, America’s first white child. It is after her the county containing the most famous islands is named. At Kill Devil Hill, to give another example, the Wright brothers flew the first powered airplane in history, and Orville wrote back to Ohio telling about his friends from the Life Saving Station and about how good and plentiful the local fish (flounder, mullet, bluefish, shrimp and crab) were. They still are.
Two of the islands, Hatteras and Ocracoke, with a third one, Portsmouth, in the planning stage, have been converted into national seashores, and these, with their few small, unsophisticated villages, have a true back-to-nature appeal, particularly in the off seasons. Birds, of which some three hundred species have been recorded, fly overhead, gather on the marshes, or stroll across the roads. The long sandy dunes are spotted with a mixed vegetation of yaupon (from which the Indians made a tea), bayberry, live oak, gallberry and loblolly pine. On the other side of the dunes are the long stretches of sand beaches and the foaming breakers of the Atlantic.
So many ships have left their bones on the shoals and bars of Hatteras and its sister islands that their skeletons, alternately exposed and covered by the shifting sands, can be readily seen. There is even a list available at government stations of “visible shipwreck remains” with some as old as 1878, others as new as the 1950s.
Though perhaps not as dangerous as in the old sailing days, the shores of Hatteras can still be lethal. As our car swept down the long bridge that crossed Oregon Inlet to Hatteras Island, we saw a large boat heading from the ocean to the shore. As we watched, she seemed to come to a sudden dead stop, an odd thing for a boat to do at any time. Later on, we discovered that it was the Army Engineer’s hopper dredge, the Hyde, which had been clearing the inlet for the fishing fleets. Sure enough, she had gone aground, and when we left three days later, she was still there. A small Coast Guard boat had failed to pull her off; her sand compartments had been flooded as a safety measure; and a rescue tug was on its way from Norfolk. The Hyde had just returned from a tour of duty from overseas, and it must have irritated her crew to get safely away from there only to go aground on a bright sunny day off the coast of home.
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August 2, 2010 / mpartsexpress / 0
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Margaret Graham Neeeson
Margaret Graham Neeson
Marine Parts Express