By CONNIE LEINBACH
The North Carolina Ferry Division has added two evening ferry runs between Ocracoke and Swan Quarter in response to citizen concerns about ferry suspensions the last few weeks because of heavy shoaling in the Rollinson Channel between Ocracoke and Hatteras.
Beginning Wednesday, Jan. 9, in addition to the winter schedule already in place, there will be a 7 p.m. ferry leaving from Ocracoke and a 10 p.m. ferry leaving from Swan Quarter. The extra night departures will continue until the channel is dredged and the Hatteras-Ocracoke schedule returns to normal.
Shoaling in the channel has been an issue since Hurricane Irene in August 2011. Hurricane Sandy in late October, followed by two northeasters, added to the sand buildup.
The pipeline dredge Richmond had dredged Ocracoke Inlet from Sept. 5 until mid-December, although officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who hired the dredge, said it was scheduled to go to Hatteras in mid-October. The Richmond got to the Hatteras Inlet before Christmas and will be there into March, according to ACE.
The additional ferries were agreed to Monday night, noted Lucy Wallace, information officer for the ferry division, after a discussion between the division and Ocracoke and Hyde County officials.
This followed the monthly Hyde County Commissioners’ meeting where two Ocracoke residents spoke about the issue.
Vince O’Neal told the commissioners that some basketball games with Ocracoke school had to be cancelled in recent days because the traveling teams would not have been able to get off or on the island.
“Not just the kids, but additional Swan Quarter ferries will help with people getting to doctors, appointments and taking care of business,” he said.
Mickey Baker, owner of Mermaid’s Folly, said that she was worried she would not be able to get off the island early Thursday morning to catch a flight in Norfolk. While she is going to see if the 6 a.m. ferry will run, she has made a reservation with the Swan Quarter ferry a bit later just in case. She was hoping islanders could get some financial relief from having to pay the toll for the Swan Quarter ferry if the Hatteras ferries don’t run when islanders need them.
Darlene Styron, former commissioner from Ocracoke, said in the meeting that the issue was trying to get the dredge to do the bad areas first, but that it started at Ocracoke Inlet first.
Justin Gibbs, director of Hyde County Emergency Services, noted that ferry access is important for emergency and medical services.
“It’s time to step up on that,” Gibbs told the commissioners Monday night.
John Fletcher, the commissioner from Ocracoke, said Tuesday, “When you have a contract, they’re going to want to do it the cheapest way possible.”
He echoed other islanders who have had to cancel appointments up the beach.
“Welcome to Ocracoke,” noted Celeste Brooks, postmistress at the Ocracoke office, who added at 1 p.m. the mail still had not arrived. “He’s been sitting there at the Hatteras dock since 10 a.m. This is the price we pay for living on Ocracoke.”
Brooks added that some long-time residents have noted that the high tide lines at some spots on the island show that the higher tides aren’t coming back as fast. “What is high tide is still looking low,” she said.
Several islanders noted that this is the first time they’ve had to study the tide charts and plan their off-island trips.
“It’s been a real challenge,” noted Tommy Hutcherson, owner of the Variety Store. “I sat down last Thursday with my tide chart and my schedule. That was the first time I’ve done that.”
He added that he has ample stock of meat in his large walk-in freezer and that the vendors of essential items have gotten through. He has been able to coordinate some deliveries with the Burrus Red & White Supermarket and Nedo’s in Hatteras village.
“I understand the situation,” he said. “We all have to work together.”
Sean Death, manager of the Beachcomber Campground and gas station, noted that tide charts he prints have been flying off the counter.
“It’s a total mess, especially for someone who does business on Ocracoke and Hatteras,” said Jeff Morey, whose Deep Blue Detailing Service spans both islands. After getting to Hatteras Monday morning to do business, he couldn’t get back until the midnight ferry.
Wallace cautioned that once the dredge gets to the very shallow parts of the channel—markers 9 and 10— all ferry runs may have to be suspended while the dredge does its work because there may not be enough room for both the dredge and the ferry.
If and when this happens, the ferry division will make an advance announcement, Wallace said.
The pattern of suspensions has occurred around from two hours before to two hours after every low tide, according to personnel at the ferry office.
The ferry division has been posting updates at the NCDOT Hwy 12 Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/NCDOTNC12?ref=ts&fref=ts. A blog on this page gives further information about the ferry channel and interested persons can call the Hatteras Ferry Terminal for departure information at 252-986-2353.