Shoaling in Hatteras ferry channel continuing to cause problems
By CATHERINE KOZAK
A federal dredge could soon be heading back to the Hatteras-Ocracoke
ferry channel to clear persistent shoaling that has plagued the
waterway since Hurricane Irene in August.
For the last few weeks, ferry traffic in the channel has been limited
to only smaller, lighter vessels and has been forced to slow way down
at one section.
“It’s closing up,” said Dare County Board of Commissioners
Vice-Chairman Allen Burrus, a native of Hatteras. “It’s the most dry
land I’ve seen in the inlet in my lifetime.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the North Carolina Department of
Transportation have agreed to have the Corps do emergency dredging in
Rollinson Channel as soon as possible, followed by more extensive
contract dredging in the fall. In exchange, the state would pick up the
Once the agreement is signed by both parties, the sidecaster dredge
Merritt, which had already done post-hurricane work in the channel in
November, will return to Hatteras, said Roger Bullock, chief of
navigation at the Corps’ Wilmington District. The smaller
will work to get enough sand out of the channel so that the larger
hopper dredge Currituck can follow behind and dig out more
Burrus said that one side of the channel appears to be washing away
while the other side is filling in. In some places, there’s less than 4
feet of water, he said. Even the small 150-foot ferries draw 3 to 4
Storms are the main culprit, Burrus said, but he also blames inadequate
dredge funding from Washington, D.C. Since the ferry channel equates to
the roadway between Hatteras and Ocracoke, the ferry service has
suffered beyond mere inconvenience, he said.
“I would say they’re crippled,” Burrus added.
Terry Gray, Ferry Division operations manager for Hatteras Inlet, said
that the area between Alpha Buoys 9 and 11 --- about 15 minutes from
the Hatteras terminal -- is the worst area. Wednesday
there showed only about 3 ½ feet of water about one hour after high
One some days, ferry runs --- which normally run hourly between 5 a.m
and midnight, have had to be cancelled or postponed. Within the last
week, he said, runs had to be suspended about six different times.
“Our guys are very, very careful not to inflict damage on our vessels,”
Three vessels are running now in the channel, two actively and one on
standby, he said. The smaller Hatteras-class ferries draw
water but also hold fewer vehicles, said Lucy Wallace, public
information officer for the Ferry Division.
There have been no injuries or damages related to the most recent
crisis, but Gray said that is largely because the captains’ skill has
prevented serious problems.
With the northeast or southwest winds, ferry captains have been forced
to slack back on the throttle in the shoaled area, slowing from about 8
knots down to about 3 knots and exposing the boat to the danger of
being pushed up onto a shoal by the wind.
No ferries have run aground in the channel, Wallace said, but there
were two instances in December when they scraped bottom.
If the vessel bumps bottom, the Coast Guard has to be notified, and the
ferry has to be inspected for damage before it is allowed to continue.
But the number one priority, Gray said, is the safety of the passengers.
At a meeting last week with DOT and Ferry Division officials, Dare
County Manager Bobby Outten said that it was reassuring to see that the
state understood that clear passage for the ferries is essential not
only for the economy, but also for emergency evacuation and access.
Outten said that there was mutual agreement that the situation was akin
to a rockslide on a mountain road, and should warrant the same state
and federal attention.
“So we had our sandslide on our highway to Ocracoke,” Outten said. “We
got some encouragement from them that they recognize that.”
As a federal channel, the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry channel is the
responsibility of the Corps to maintain. But Bullock said that the
district has squeezed every penny it could from the budget to provide
additional dredging to address storm-related shoaling at Hatteras and
Oregon inlets, and only has about $300,000 left for Outer Banks
projects for this fiscal year.
“It seems to have really unstablized in Hatteras, Ocracoke and Oregon
inlets,” he said, adding that conditions are the worst he’s seen in his
22 years with the Corps.
Before the state agreed to pay, Bullock said, all the dredge work on
the Outer Banks has been paid for by federal dollars.
Bullock said that the goal is that after the Hatteras channel is back
in good shape, a contract will be let for additional work in September
with a pipeline dredge, which will obtain the project depth for the
Rollinson Channel of 10 feet. As a bonus, the dredged sand will be put
to good use for bird habitat that was depleted in the
“When the (agreement) is approved, the Corps of Engineers is going to
respond with government dredges, followed by a contract dredge
operation,” Bullock said. “The material coming from the dredging will
be beneficial to the bird islands.”
Most Ocracokers are used to the vagaries of nature on these barrier
islands and plan for possible ferry delays.
Last Monday, Jan. 23, Georgeann Lyons was on the 1:30 p.m. ferry from
Ocracoke after having been turned away at 8 a.m. when fog prevented the
“I just kept calling the dock, and when I saw the fog burning off, I
came down here,” she said. “Delays have been happening fairly
frequently since November.”
At least a few Ocracoke residents are trying to time their ferry trips
at high tide when they can.
Several Ocracokers expressed concern about the lack of dredging and
hope it can be accomplished before tourist season begins.
The best thing travelers can do to find out about delays, Wallace said,
is to call the ferry terminal at Hatteras, 252-986-2353.
They also can sign up for Twitter feeds, which Wallace sends out
Although those “tweets” may not be specific as to ferry delays, they
will alert travelers, who can then call the ferry office, she said.
Leinbach also contributed to this article.)