Summer has come to Ocracoke and none too soon for local business owners who have struggled through a winter of suspended — and longer — ferry rides and a cool spring.
The streets and shops are again seeing more tourists, thanks, in part, to the resumed regular ferry run between Hatteras and Ocracoke, which returned to its normal schedule on Sunday, June 16.
“Thank God, summer finally got here,” George Roberson, co-owner of Teach’s Hole Blackbeard Exhibit along Highway 12, said this week.
From mid-January until mid-February, the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry was shut down because of shoaling in the main channel caused by Hurricane Sandy last fall and a string of northeasters.
Since Feb. 22, islanders and visitors have used an alternate, longer route marked by the U.S. Coast Guard, thanks to urging from Dare and Hyde County officials. From December until the end of May, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been dredging the Hatteras Inlet.
The longer route took an hour to an hour and 10 minutes to run, while the regular route takes only 40 minutes.
June 15 is when Tim Parker of T.J. Outfitters, across from Community Square, noticed an immediate difference in Ocracoke village traffic.
Summer on Ocracoke translates into an increase in “day-trippers,” typically from up the beach.
A group of such day-trippers enjoyed ice cream at the Fudge Shop in Community Square this week. It was the first time Kathy Krestar and her group, hailing from Pennsylvania and vacationing in Kitty Hawk, had been to the island in 15 years, and they didn’t know anything about the island’s winter ferry issues.
They arrived at the ferry dock before 10 a.m. and had a short wait before boarding.
“It was a nice trip,” Krestar said as they enjoyed the sunny day. “We’ve been to the lighthouse and some of the shops.” They planned to tour more of the island before heading back later in the day.
At mid-day, the gift shop area of Teach’s Hole was bustling with adults and children—a good sign for Roberson. He said that his attendance numbers are up to about where they should be for the third week in June, which is when attendance jumps appreciably because public schools in the northeast finish their year.
“I’m so glad we survived,” he continued. “It’s been a long spring. If (the tourists) hadn’t come this week, we’d have been in big trouble.”
Trish Davis, who works at Down Creek Gallery, has noticed a dramatic increase in traffic this week.
“The number of people on the village streets has doubled,” she said.
Frank Brown, owner of Natural Selections along School Road, said customer traffic is “almost like it’s supposed to be.”
He was thankful for the return of the regular 40-minute ferry route, as were other business owners because the customers are happy about that.
“I haven’t heard as much complaining about the wait at the ferries,” said Jenny Mason, manager of Ocracoke Island Trading Company.
In the last several weeks while the ferries were running in the alternate channel, people have waited up to three hours at the Hatteras docks.
“I talk to a lot of people who come here,” said Christina Hagins in the Village Diva. She also works at the ABC Store and talks to many visitors. “Some were waiting up to four hours, and the regular ferry run is definitely better for us who live here.”
Many visitors waiting in the ferry line turned around and left rather than continue to wait in the last several weeks, Roberson continued, adding that his attendance numbers in April and May were half of what they normally are at the exhibit.
Carol Pahl, owner of Ocracoke Restoration, definitely noticed increased business this week, but Rufus Keel, owner of the Sunglass Shop, said his traffic flow was not appreciably larger.
“We’ve had the same good flow all spring,” Keel said.
Although her shop isn’t one frequented by day-trippers, Melinda Sutton, co-owner of Tradewinds Tackle Shop, said she has noticed more fishermen from Hatteras coming to the island.
“Hatteras has 40 miles of beaches, We have 17,” she said, yet both have about the same amount of beach open during the shorebird and turtle nesting season — about 8 miles each. But since Hatteras has more visitors and the beaches are more crowded, some of those choose to come to Ocracoke to fish, she said.
Mickey Baker, co-owner of Mermaid’s Folly, was relieved that business this week was “back to normal,” and noticed an increase the day the ferry got back to its usual route.
“Summer will happen here,” Baker said, adding that some fellow business owners had been worried about the survival of their businesses in the last few months. “Ocracoke always pulls through.”
The reason she wasn’t worried is her view that people will venture to Ocracoke no matter what.
“People just love it here,” she said. “The people who come here have a passion to come here.”
With the return to the regular ferry route, there are 32 daily trips in each direction, starting at 5 a.m. from both Hatteras and Ocracoke.
Going out of Hatteras, there is a departure at 6 a.m., and then every half hour at the top and bottom of the hour from 7 a.m. through 7 p.m. The evening schedule has trips at 8, 9, 10 and 11 p.m. and midnight.
The Ocracoke schedule also has departures at 6 and 7 a.m., then starting at 8 a.m. goes to every half hour at the top and bottom of the hour until 8 p.m. The schedule wraps up with departures at 9, 10 and 11 p.m. and midnight.
Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry returns to its original route
Army Corps of Engineers changes dredging plan again
More dredging operations get underway in Hatteras ferry channel
UPDATE: Another dredge will try clearing sand out of ferry channel