Recently, a friend shared an old post card that features Teach’s Lair Marina in Hatteras village — the village also known as the Blue Marlin Capital of the World.
The postcard, circa the mid-1970s, pictures a brand new marina, the southernmost in the village, with only a smattering of houses between it and the ocean beach.
In the text, the post card notes that Teach’s Lair “offers year around service in dual ramps, dockage, self-service gas, camp sites, shower houses, restaurant, tackle shop, complete with tackle, bait, marine supplies, groceries and wearing apparel.”
Then comes this simple message, used for years to promote sportfishing on Hatteras Island, “Teach’s Lair is the closest marina to the Gulf Stream from Maine to Florida.”
Well, maybe not so much so anymore if a long-term solution can’t be found to the shoaling in Hatteras Inlet that seems to have just gotten worse over the past few years.
It’s reached the point lately, that if the winds and tides are not exactly right, vessels — even those run by experienced local captains — can find themselves bumping bottom on the shoals in the inlet.
The marinas in the village used to attract transient boats to take advantage of the kind of attractions and services that Teach’s Lair was advertising in the vintage post card.
Not so much anymore. The word about the troublesome shoaled-up inlet has gotten around in circles in which boat captains travel, and they don’t want to risk damage to their expensive vessels or bodily harm by taking a chance on coming into Hatteras Inlet to Teach’s Lair or any of the other marinas.
During a recent prestigious billfish tournament, boat captains were running all the way down to Ocracoke Inlet to get out into the Gulf Stream.
It’s clear that Hatteras is risking its reputation and its economy with boats using time and money to go out through Ocracoke Inlet — and for the captains, time is money. And what’s next, running up to Oregon Inlet?
Even the U.S. Coast Guard has problems getting its bigger craft in and out of the inlet from Station Hatteras Inlet in the village. That’s a public safety issue.
And, finally, you have the working guys — the charter and commercial watermen — who risk their boats, gear, and sometimes their lives by trying to get from the village docks to the ocean.
They want to work, but there are too many days that they can’t get out or worry about getting out — or even pray on it.
It’s tough for Hatteras watermen when they drive north over the Bonner Bridge and see one or two U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredges working to keep Oregon Inlet cleared.
That’s happening because Dare County made it happen by setting up an inlet maintenance fund that is matched with state money for dredging. Congress is supposed to pay for dredging, but, as with so many other things, there’s just no money for it in the federal budget anymore.
And the county and the state have arranged for the Army Corps to do preventative dredging instead of waiting until the channel is clogged.
It would seem logical to everyone that the county and state could make the same arrangement with Hatteras Inlet, but that’s not so.
The reasons are very complicated, and funding is not an issue — at least not at this point.
The simplest explanation is that the Army Corps can dredge only where Congress authorizes it to dredge and the places it can dredge in Hatteras Inlet are based on surveys from more than 50 years ago.
So the Corps can dredge — just not in the places that the boat captains need dredging to get to and from the Atlantic Ocean.
The state has stepped up to the plate twice in the past year to try to dig out the clogged channel with the Ferry Division’s dredge, but the boat captains say that the job didn’t get done. The state stopped because the smaller dredge couldn’t handle the rougher water and currents in the area or because workers were afraid they would hit a buried power cable that carries electricity to Ocracoke.
Dare County has two panels of citizens and users to advise the Board of Commissioners about issues with the inlet or inlets — however, you want to look at it.
One is named the Oregon Inlet Task Force and the other is named the Oregon Inlet and Waterways Commission. Both meet monthly.
The Oregon Inlet Task Force seems to have done a great job of solving the issue of long-term dredging of that inlet.
But for a while last year, most Hatteras captains felt that the county’s southernmost inlet wasn’t getting enough attention.
The Oregon Inlet Task Force members made it clear that they didn’t want to confuse their issue by adding Hatteras Inlet to their business. So it was more or less decided that the Oregon Inlet and Waterways Commission would address Hatteras Inlet issues as well. And the members of that group voted to alternate its meetings, which used to all be in Manteo, between Manteo and Buxton.
But the county commissioners did not change the commission’s name, though the county board has continued to chip away at Hatteras Inlet.
Earlier this year, the Board of Commissioners added an eighth member to the Waterways Commission — Steve “Creature” Coulter, a Hatteras charter boat captain.
Coulter said he had been attending meetings of the Waterways group to educate himself but hadn’t asked for an appointment.
“I was asked to be on it,” says Coulter, adding that he takes his “responsibility very seriously.” He has joined Ernie Foster of Hatteras village on the commission as a voice for the boat captains.
After Coulter’s addition, the commission members included — chairman Dave May, co-chairman Ernie Foster, Danny Couch, Hatteras Island Commissioner Allen Burrus, Arvin Midgett, Jim Tobin, Fletcher Willey, and Coulter.
And the county has also hired an engineering firm to get the permits to dredge the area that is most problematic — called the Connecting Channel. Also, the state is working on getting a memorandum of understanding between the state — which can dredge where the feds can’t — and the corps.
This all helps solve what is a very difficult and complicated problem.
However, the boat captains are still unhappy with the status of the clogged up inlet and have been vocal at public comment during Board of Commissioner meetings about their unhappiness.
The captains are as tired of talking to the commissioners as the commissioners probably are of hearing them complain.
So what can be done? It sure is not an easy fix, but appearances and communications can count for a lot — and both can be improved.
For instance, there has not been a quorum of members at either of the last two Waterways Commission meetings in June and July.
At the July meeting, captains complained that they were blindsided by the state’s decision to stop dredging just before July 4 weekend and before the job was, in their opinion, finished.
Representatives from the federal government attended the May and June meetings — from the U.S. Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers. But no member of state or county government attended. (Allen Burrus was absent because of a death in the family.) Therefore, no one could really explain why the dredging stopped when it did.
Finally, it turns out that a new member of the Waterways group, appointed on June 6 by the Board of Commissioners, hasn’t lived in Dare County for some time.
Holly White, a state fisheries biologist, said in a phone interview that she lived in Kill Devil Hills for six years and applied during that time to serve on a county advisory board. According to her application, dated in February 2014 — well over two years ago — her choices were Outer Banks Catch, the Outer Banks Scenic Byway Committee, or the Oregon Inlet and Waterways Commission.
At the June 6 meeting, the terms of three members of the Waterways Commission expired — Burrus, Foster, and Tobin.
Board chairman Bob Woodard motioned to reappoint Burrus until his tenure ends on the board after the November election, in which he has declined to run for health reasons. He will presumably be replaced by Couch, who is running unopposed for the seat.
Woodard also motioned to reappoint Ernie Foster and to appoint Holly White to replace Jim Tobin, who did not want to be reappointed. White’s application was among four that the commissioners had before them. Commissioner Jack Shea seconded the motion. The vote was unanimous.
White never attended a Waterways Commission meeting, though a nameplate marked her place at the table. Several members of the commission were surprised this week to hear that she had never accepted the appointment.
White said in a phone interview that she now lives in Norfolk. She says she got a letter from the county about her appointment and called and left a message with a person whose name she couldn’t remember that she couldn’t serve since she no longer lived in Dare County.
That word never got around — at least it didn’t get very far.
Maybe it’s an easy enough mistake to make, but you would assume that with so much at stake, the county commissioners would choose members for the Oregon Inlet and Waterways Commission more carefully.
And, speaking of appearances, why doesn’t the county board just throw in the towel and name it the Hatteras Inlet and Waterways Commission? Do we really need two advisory groups for Oregon Inlet?
It wouldn’t solve the problem, but it might make some of the Hatteras watermen feel like they are getting more respect.
Coulter says that after his first months on the commission he is “discouraged.” And it’s easy to see why when the same discussion dominates the conversation at every single meeting — how to get Hatteras Inlet unclogged.
Attending the Waterways Commissioner meetings on a regular basis is like watching that movie “Groundhog Day,” in which a TV weatherman assigned to cover the holiday event in Punxsutawney, Pa., relives the day over and over in a time loop.
But Coulter adds that he is also “hopeful.” He notes that he has been asked to participate in a conference call next week with the engineering firm that the county has hired to obtain the permits for long-term dredging of the inlet.
Beth Midgett, whose family owns several Hatteras marinas, attends as many of the Waterways Commission meetings as she can. She’s also a member of the Dare County Planning Board, which meets on the same night — only earlier. She often rushes from one meeting to the next.
“I have no doubt whatsoever that we have a lot of people that want to and are sincerely trying to help us,” Midgett says.
“That being said,” she adds, “it is a complex set of issues and solutions and it is hard to know where to ask people to direct their efforts. It is my hope that with the recent hiring of the project engineer by Dare County that coordination of efforts and communication will improve significantly.
“No doubt frustration is high, our captains desperately want to work,” she says. “Rationally we know that there are laws that must be obeyed, but it is hard to continue to be patient when livelihoods and lives are in jeopardy.”
If you want to add your voice to the chorus on Hatteras Inlet, you can speak during the public comment session of the Dare County Board of Commissioners meeting on Monday, Aug. 1, at 9 a.m. You can travel to Manteo to address the commissioners in person or speak to them via a live hookup from the Fessenden Center in Buxton. Public comment usually takes place near the beginning of the meeting.
And the next meeting of the Oregon Inlet and Waterways Commission is on Monday, Aug. 8, at the Fessenden Center.
THERE’S STILL TIME
There are still three days to help the Buxton Volunteer Fire Department put their chief — Bryan Perry — over the top in the Stand Up and Stand Out initiative to recognize the outstanding volunteer firefighters in the country.
As of Friday afternoon, July 29, Chief Perry had moved into third place with about 6,000 votes. You can vote for him every day through Sunday, July 31. Go to http://woobox.com/woodoh.