The North Carolina ICW

The sail from Ocracoke to Oriental was one of those “Sailing Adventures” that we (sailors) sometimes talk about with that far away look in our eyes, lots of deep breaths, and long pauses that end with a head shaking sigh… In other words, it was hard.

After the gales eased, we saw a tiny window of opportunity that promised 10 to 20 knot winds from the northwest, which according to our travel direction put the wind on our starboard beam for most of the expected 9 hours it would take to cross the Pamlico Sound and transit the Neuse River to Oriental from the Outer Banks.

We woke long before light, hoping to get underway around sunrise.

There are two ferries that run to Ocracoke Island from the North Carolina mainland, and the channel leading out of Ocracoke is treacherous enough on its own without having to dodge a giant ship. We called the ferry (which was running at the dock) on the VHF to find out what time they were taking off from Ocracoke so we could follow them out without having to worry about them creeping up our asses in that channel. They told us that the first ferry would be taking off at about 0700 and the second one at 0930. Now when you consider that most VHF communication is sketchy at best and add a North Carolina-ferry-boat-captain accent on top of that, that second estimated time of departure could be a little off.

Anyway we weighed anchor and followed the first ferry out of the channel with bare poles.

Once we got out of the protected boat basin in Ocracoke the seas were in a full-on churn with white caps from the cold wind (directly in our faces) and steep, choppy growlers left over from 3 days of gales. The sunrise was a breathtaking spectacular with the promised reds of a sailor’s warning.

About 45 minutes out I (James) spotted the second ferry coming up our ass and doing about 12 knots! With us doing a little over 5 knots it looked as though they would overtake us right about the time we were passing another big ship, M/V Merritt, dredging the channel just in front of us to starboard. It was starting to get intense! Luckily the ferry slowed down enough to let us get past the dredge and fall off the headwind and out of the channel before they kicked their speed back up.

Unfortunately the wind hadn’t come around north enough to give us the broad reach that we were hoping for. We wanted to sail anyway (right?!) so we let out the jib for a good hour of close reaching with a big sea to our starboard beam… We were quite literally hauling ass and doing 6.2 knots to 7.5 knots with the current and the winds never falling under 20 knots.


Switching from close-hauled to a close reach, we shot our way across Pamlico Sound for the next 6 hours in brutal seas until finally entering the Neuse River where we were able broaden downwind a bit. At a little after 1500 we made the entrance to Oriental, NC.

We puttered around the inner harbor of Oriental looking for our sweet spot for a good half hour before dropping the hook. After that was kind of a blur… I think we just sat there and stared at shit, feeling our bodies slowly relax for an extraordinarily long time before kicking on the entertainment for the night and drifting off to sleep.

Oriental is a tiny town with about 900 permanent residents and no ABC store so it wasn’t long before we pulled up the hook and headed on down the ICW from there.

Heading east out of Oriental, you cross the Neuse and get into Adams Creek, the ICW world of close quarters, rich folks’ homes, and shallow depths. It rained most of the day so we both took our off-watches down below until we exited the land cut part of the channel and started heading into Morehead City. Right at the mouth of the channel…we got our first glimpse of the local bottlenose dolphins! They were huge animals, about 8 feet long and easily as big around as either one of us and, just like that, we were both in a good mood, despite the fucked up weather.

About an hour later we anchored in the lee of a little island named Sugar Loaf, smack-dab in the middle of downtown Morehead City, NC.

We needed propane before heading out for real, so the next morning we went down the ICW about 2 miles into Peletier Creek because that put us much closer to the propane dealer I (Dena) called with my shitty cell phone service. Also, there was a big blow coming out of the southeast for the next two days and the creek seemed to be a perfect bolt-hole for just such an event.


Leaving the main channel for Peletier caused no end of excitement. The current that had pushed us super-fast now pushed us super-sideways. It looked like I was driving right out of the narrow entrance, but I had to point far up-current of my actual desired path. Next was guessing when exactly the current would be blocked by the entrance…because I was pointing directly at land.

No sweat. Cause it was getting pretty damn cold.

Once inside, it opens up to a rather drab-looking suburb. We anchored right in the middle of the small basin, lined with private docks. With the hook buried in 12 feet of mud we rowed to the closest one, tied up, and took off on foot. Hungry! After eating…well…I’m going to keep this short. The place I’d called didn’t do propane refills, which is what I’d asked about. They had a propane exchange. Not useful. A guy heard me chewing out the clerk and told me his buddy-neighbor-business (he owned a restaurant nearby) refilled propane tanks and would definitely be open. Maybe.

It was her 40th birthday.

He called and confirmed that someone would be there, so we trudged on over, glad that the place was on the way back to the dink. When we showed up at the little boat, a guy was fishing on the dock and, as we walked up, he snidely asked why we’d park our boat on a private dock. We only had to talk to the guy for a couple of minutes before he changed his tune and became a pretty nice guy (TM) who gave us directions to all the things that we’d already found on our own. Personally, I (James) thought he was just another prick who thought he could own a piece of the water.


The next day we had no reason to go ashore so Dena broke out a sanding block and went to work on a project that she’d been wanting to do for the last 500 miles or so. (It was sticking, hard, and irritating the fuck out of me.)

I (James) took that opportunity to get some cleaning done down below.

The next day it was back to the grind of motoring down the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway.


The views started to reveal themselves so I pulled the dusty old camera back out and resumed my job on this crew.

That night we anchored off the shore of Camp Lajeune, a U.S. Marine base infamous for its pollution, and spent a totally peaceful night at anchor. The first in quite some time.

Goo Morning ICW

We were up with the sun the next day and headed south once again.

We had three bridges to open so the sooner we got under way, the better. In excellent news, we timed our arrivals at the first two so that we didn’t have to try to hover while waiting. These things don’t open just because we want them to–the locals don’t like their traffic all stopped up like that. They generally open once an hour, on the hour, though the second was generous. It would open on the hour or the half-hour. But not a minute early or late. (Well, late, yes, but not if the late one is the boat.)


Just as we passed the second swing bridge, I (James) went down below and got a familiar whiff of a not-so-long ago emergency and a sound that I just wanted to forget. The exhaust system had broken once again!

Dena was at the helm so I appraised her of our situation and she found a place to anchor just off the main channel of the ICW.


We tore into the engine compartment and sure enough, the quick fix we’d done in the Chesapeake (a few weeks ago!) had re-broken and this time we wouldn’t be able to fuck it back together. It was time to fix it right. We nursed the tiny thread of cell phone internet and found that there was a hardware super-box-store 2.7 miles up the road from where we were anchored.

I (James) rowed the little boat to the closest dock, a little private dock just to the east of us. Dena stayed behind to make sure we weren’t fucked with.


Can you tell that subject is old? Maybe by the fact that this picture doesn’t look painful at all?

James got bad information at the aforementioned box store that tried to send him another 5 miles into the boonies, but I found him a specialty fabrication shop closer-by. He and the fabricator, Cody, got everything ready for a replacement part…that we didn’t have. Turns out, there’s a piece in the mix that’s reverse-threaded and…why?!?

Meanwhile, a boat pulled up next to us and I (Dena) poked my dubious head out of the companionway. It was a neighbor in the area, a Parks and Wildlife oyster reseeder named Zan. Of all the people I’d thought to fend off, he was the most unexpected.

He insisted on going back to his house, getting in his car, and picking James up so he didn’t have to walk back in the cold and dark. Then he gave James a few dozen amazing oysters, which we ate for lunch the next day.


In case you were wondering…we ordered the part we needed. So there we were, engineless and on the edge of the channel.

Time to find internet and get groceries!

Until the Coasties showed up and tried to chivy us out of our comfortable anchorage. We resisted strongly and put out a stern anchor to prove we took them seriously (phft), giving us the couple days it took for the part to arrive.

Another great guy sent someone at his shop on a 20-mile drive to get us the part. In the rain, James met the driver at the entrance to the weird suburban housing development, got the part, walked to the dink, and rowed to the boat.

Ten minutes later, we were hauling the anchors and within twenty we were motoring along again. In a torrential downpour and ridiculous winds.

Actually, the Coasties weren’t wrong. We were on the edge of a shoal and our fore-and-aft anchoring was barely keeping us off it. That morning, the wind turned and shoved us ashore, barely. The tide came up and floated us, but we knew we’d be aground again by evening.

So we really had to go out in that terrible weather. When the bridge tender made us wait almost ten minutes past the hour, we were both frothing at the mouth. When we scraped aground in Mott’s Channel, we just shook our heads and kept powering on. When the wind tried to tear our hair off at the turn to Banks Channel, James knelt on the foredeck and I held on tight, yes we were going to anchor in that gale.

And then we were anchored.

Solid, secure, with plenty of water under us and lots of swing room. It felt like freedom, like safety. The storm raged for another day, but we were snug in Wrightsville Beach.

And oh, that sunset.

Wrightsville Beach Sunset


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