Saturday, June 1, 2013

Okracoke Island, Outer Banks

     The Island beckoned, the weather cooperated and the crew of Simple Life decided to divert off course from the ICW toward Okracoke, a remote barrier island south of Cape Hatteras on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Okracoke is accessible only by boat or plane and is the most isolated of all the islands along the Outer Banks. It is also the least populated island with under 1,000 residents who reside in Okracoke Village. The remainder of the 17 miles of low lying land has been designated part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore as well as a national park thus preserving its natural beauty and protecting it from development and exploitation.

       The decision to sail to the Outer Banks and back requires a good weather window. Okracoke's thread-like tendril lies east from the mainland across Pamlico Sound bordered on its eastern edge by the Atlantic Ocean. When looking at a chart Pamlico Sound is deceiving. It doesn't appear to be the expansive body of water that it is, but the Sound is the second largest fully enclosed body of salt water in the United States with Chesapeake Bay taking first place. Surprisingly, sailing Pamlico Sound feels more akin to making an offshore ocean passage. The mainland slips away within an hour or so and the Sound becomes a 360 degree unadulterated watery horizon line. It feels like being at sea and the near sea level island pops up rather suddenly on approach. Pamlico sound is shallow with most depths hovering around 15 feet. Because of the shallow depths a steep chop can develop with winds of 12-15 knots. It can become downright dangerous when winds increase to higher ranges. We saw the results of the what 20-25 knot winds can do as we neared the channel to Okracoke's Silver Lake anchorage after a blustery weekend. A sailboat with its flapping, tattered 
Sunken sailboat outside Big Foot Slough Channel
mainsail and jib still raised was aground and sunk on a shoal outside the channel. The channel into the Silver Lake anchorage is well marked, but must be followed since two and three foot shoals lie to either side.

Okracoke Lighthouse view from Silver Lake


     The village beckoned after dropping the hook in the uncrowded, idyllic harbor. Initially, we had difficulty locating the dinghy dock since it was obscured by a house boat, but after a few inquiries we were informed of its location and where to tie up. The village is ideal for strolling. Bars, restaurants, shops and a small grocery are within easy walking distance. All businesses are privately owned and there are no chains on the island. We'd read a few restaurant reviews and one that came highly recommended on Claiborne Young's Cruisers' Net was the Back Porch Restaurant with its signature seafood dishes and delightful eclectic cuisine. I was anticipating a night on the town and the restaurant sounded perfect. We also hoped to stop into one of the local pubs to listen to the island's own nationally acclaimed bluegrass band, Molasses Creek. Unfortunately, they were not scheduled to perform until Thursday evening at the Deepwater Theater and we'd planned our departure on Wednesday. We've enjoyed the bands' performances in the past and purchased several of their CD's during our last visit to Okracoke nine years ago.

         One of the best ways to explore Okracoke is on bicycles. There were numerous reasonable rental facilities in the village. We rented bikes for three hours to explore the village and ride out to the National Seashore. The beach was uncrowded and spectacular. It was voted the number one beach in the US in 2007. On the way to the beach we noticed a nearby roadside pub sign offering  $.50 raw oysters and $5.00 baskets of peel and eat shrimp! We knew where we were heading after the bike ride and beach visit.

     Wednesday morning dawned with clear skies and was pleasantly warm. Winds were forecast from the southwest, but at our departure time they still blew from the west. We hoped for a quick shift that would enable us to sail the entire 46 nautical miles from Okracoke to the town of Belhaven on the North Carolina mainland. After an hour of motoring into the wind it finally shifted to the southwest and picked up to 12-15 knots. The waves built up, but they were on our stern so we enjoyed a fast ride at over 7 knots for the remainder of the day.

     The trip to The Outer Banks was a welcomed "vacation" from our cruise north to find shelter during hurricane season. That may sound odd but, traveling along the ICW for days on end can become tiring and dealing with shoaling in so many areas can be stressful. It was fun to stop and enjoy Okracoke for a few days, recharge our batteries and not lose sight of what attracted us to cruising and why we have chosen this lifestyle. Sure it takes time to head off the beaten track and lose a few days of progress to the north, but as I always like to remind myself, "Not all those who wander are lost." (from The Riddle of Strider by JR Tolkien)

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Location:North Carolina