May 15, 2013
Roaming Ocracoke Inlet and Portsmouth Island
By PAT GARBER
Coastal Review Online
Off the coast of eastern North Carolina lies the remote, uninhabited island of Portsmouth,
renowned for birds, seashells, surf fishing and history. Getting there
from neighboring Ocracoke requires a boat ride through the serene
beauty of Ocracoke Inlet. Along the way, you may learn about pirates’
lairs, Civil War forts, and an effort to save one of the last remaining
brown pelican rookeries in the state.
Part of Cape Lookout National Seashore,
Portsmouth Island has beautiful ocean beaches and soundside marshes
that stretch its 22-mile length. Superior fishing, beachcombing and
shelling await those who visit.
History also beckons. At its
northern end, not far from the island of Ocracoke, stands what is left
of a once vibrant and important port. Big sailing ships once stopped
there for “lightering.” Their cargo would be transferred to smaller
boats that could safely transverse the shallow inlet and Pamlico and
Core sounds. Commerce faded and fishing replaced shipping as the
primary occupation for the islanders.
The U.S. Lifesaving
Service opened a station on Portsmouth in 1894, which played a vital
role in the community for 50 years. Steadily the population declined,
though. Only 17 residents lived on the island in 1956. The last
two left in 1971.
The National Park Service took over the island
when the seashore was created five years later. Now a ghost town, the
village is maintained as a cultural resource, with a visitors’ center
and public access to the old church, the lifesaving station, and
several of the old homes.
There is no state ferry service to the old village on the northern end of Portsmouth, but Austin Boat Tours,
owned by brothers Rudy and Donald Austin, carries passengers from
Ocracoke to Portsmouth on a regular basis. The Austins captain two
24-foot skiffs, each capable of carrying up to 15 people. The ride to
Portsmouth takes about 15 to 20 minutes, but it is much more than just
a boat ride.
Austins, who grew up on Ocracoke, are a wealth of information about all
things related to the islands, and they are more than happy to share
their knowledge. Don’t expect a canned speech, though. The Austins are
born storytellers, and they entertain their customers with their wit
Rudy, the elder brother, explains that their
father, Junius Austin, began the business years ago. He had, for 20
years, been the caretaker of the Portsmouth Life-Saving Station, which
became a hunting and fishing club after it closed. Junius sometimes
took people to Portsmouth in his skiff, but business increased and
prospered after the seashore was established. Rudy and Donald took over
the business after their father died. Rudy's son, Wade, sometimes helps
Now they run the boats seven days a week in the summer,
weather permitting, and on demand at other times. “But I'm not going
over in any thunder squalls,” Rudy said emphatically.
also take out school and church groups, sometimes using both boats. At
the end of December each year they transport assorted bird watchers to
the island for the annual Christmas bird count, a nation-wide
citizen-science bird monitoring project.
“They're an interesting group,” says Rudy. “Some come from as far away as Michigan.”
Every other year, the brothers ferry people across for the Portsmouth Homecoming, sponsored by the Friends of Portsmouth Island.
A lot of people go, including the descendants of the residents who once
lived there. “It's a great way to encourage young people to get
involved,” Rudy notes.
As the boat leaves Silver Lake Harbor in
Ocracoke, the captain might mention that the harbor, then known as the
“Creek,” was shallow and not navigable before the Navy dredged it for
its ships in World War II. He might follow up by describing what
happened when the war came to the Outer Banks, with German submarines
attacking merchant ships in plain sight of the islanders.
he'll point out Hog Shoal, alive at low tide with a variety of water
birds. He may steer the boat close to Beacon Island, famous for the
number of brown pelicans, terns, and other sea birds that nest there
The island is itself rich with history, having
been the site of the Civil War fort, Fort Ocracoke, which was burned by
federal troops in 1861. Erosion from storms has eaten away at the
island, and it is now the focus of a joint project by the N.C. Coastal
Federation and Audubon North Carolina, which are using oyster shells to
build a protective reef around it. James Barrie Gaskill, an Ocracoke
native and a federation board member, is leading the effort.
the distance, you can be seen what is left of Shell Castle, once a
significant island in itself. Wharves and warehouses, used by the ships
that passed through Ocracoke Inlet, lined its shores. Before the
Ocracoke Lighthouse was built in 1823, there was a wooden lighthouse
there. The island, which built up around a huge oyster reef, has almost
“Things change,” says Rudy. “Everything changes.”
boat ride may include a swing by Ocracoke's South Point, with a chance
to see Blackbeard’s hideout, Springer's Point, and Teach’s Hole, where
he anchored his ship. The 122-acre Springer’s Point Preserve is owned by the N.C. Coastal Land Trust and boasts
over a mile of estuarine shoreline, parts of which are eroding because
of waves generated across Pamlico Sound and boat wake from a nearby
navigation channel. Local people, the land trust, and the federation
are working to restore the site.
Whatever route it takes, the ride is sure to be interesting and informative.
“We try to educate the people on birds, turtles, dolphins, shells, whatever they want to know,” Rudy says
Portsmouth, the boat slows to navigate the shallow and winding channel.
The steeple of the church is visible in the distance, as well as
Haulover Dock, now under repair by the Park Service. The captain hands
out maps and directions to guide visitors to the beach and the village,
with instructions to be back in a little more than three hours. For
those who want to go to the beach, Rudy says with a laugh, “I tell them
walk to the ocean and turn left. If you turn right, we may not see you
again for days!”
To take the ride to Portsmouth Island, book
ahead and then come to the dock behind the Ocracoke Waterman's Exhibit,
next to the Community Store in the heart of the village. The round trip
ride to Portsmouth costs $20 a person, and the entire excursion lasts
four hours. Be sure to bring bug spray and water if the weather is
warm, and be prepared for a memorable, rewarding adventure.
story is provided courtesy of Coastal Review Online, the coastal news
and features service of the N.C. Coastal Federation. You can read other
stories about the North Carolina coast at www.nccoast.org.)
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