Last week I had a new experience traveling to Ocracoke, one of my favorite places to visit, especially for Thai food.
Instead of waiting in the stacking lanes at the ferry, I boarded the Soundside Shuttle, captained by Will Whitley of Hatteras, and joined a family also looking for a different visiting Ocracoke experience.
We slipped down Ocracoke Island, traveling in the Pamlico Sound on the backside between the barrier island and the reef.
I couldn’t help but think about the past weekend.
The Saturday before, my boyfriend, Patrick, and I were preparing to head down to Ocracoke, as we often do.
I uttered a statement so shocking that it nearly inverted the poles.
“I don’t know, Patrick…maybe Thai food isn’t worth it.”
For me, Thai food is always worth it. Always.
At least, that’s how I felt right up until the moment the ferry attendant’s outstretched palm doomed my boyfriend and me to 30 more minutes in the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry stacking lanes.
As we sat there, sweltering in the fire pit that used to be Patrick’s truck, we discussed the logistics of the trip. Basically, we were looking at three more hours of traveling and waiting in lines—at the very least. This was not what we had envisioned when we lined up at 10 o’clock that morning, but we stuck it out.
And it was miserable.
There was the oppressive heat, the seemingly endless waiting, the fact that, because we were packed on the ferry like sardines, I was unable to open the passenger’s side door, and so was confined to the Chevy Sweat Box. Trust me. The rolled-down windows were a sorry consolation prize.
We were rushed when we got to Ocracoke village, which made the already nightmarish task of driving even more stressful. (Even in an average-sized truck, I always feel like we’re driving an armored tank through Ocracoke’s small, pedestrian and bicycle-dominated streets.)
By the time we got back to our house, I was an irritable mess—sweat-soaked, sunburned, and stressed out.
In the midst of all this, I had forgotten that I absolutely love going to Ocracoke. Dining options aside, it is still one of my favorite places in the world.
I’ve always thought of Ocracoke as being as much an experience as it is a destination. There are, of course, plenty of reasons to visit the island, but what makes it so special has little to do with the sights or even the food.
It’s the people, the pace, the feeling of being in another world, the feeling that you have finally done it—you have literally gotten away from “it all” and you never want to go back.
So when I had the opportunity a few days later to ride with Whitley on his brand-new, custom-outfitted, passenger ferry to Ocracoke—the Soundside Shuttle—I didn’t hesitate.
The chance to get to Ocracoke without the purgatory of the ferry stacks? No one had to ask me twice.
I showed up at Oden’s Dock in Hatteras village just before our slated departure time of 11 a.m. The boat, with its shade-top, cushioned seats, and chrome rails, looked like an oasis in the barren desert of Hatteras-Ocracoke transportation options.
I boarded the boat, along with the Pryor family from Long Island, New York—Jim, Theresa, and their two children, James and Gabrielle—and we set sail.
After pausing for a few pictures, we were underway, and within minutes, we were passing the 11 o’clock ferry from Hatteras. I felt a tinge of sympathy for the passengers, who waved excitedly as we breezed by them, not knowing what they were missing.
It was a gorgeous day to be on the water. It was so clear that we could see the bottom as we cruised through the shallows of the Pamlico Sound, and even though it was hot, there was just enough of a southwest breeze — enhanced, of course, by our 18-knot cruising speed — to ensure that we stayed cool, but there was not enough wind to make the passage rough.
I felt nothing but relief as we flew past the ferry docks at the north end of Ocracoke and continued on, skidding across the sound, somewhere between the island and the outer reef. It was so nice to be able to skip over the part of the trip that involves driving for 15 or 20 minutes in a really long line of cars, all inexplicably going 35 on a 55 mph Highway 12.
Along the way, I chatted comfortably, aimlessly with the Pryors. They make the nine-hour trek from Long Island to Hatteras each year, spending about a week and a half on the island. Theresa and the kids had been to Ocracoke before, but this would be Jim’s first time. He hadn’t had much interest in taking the ferry.
They asked whether those were “little houses” in the sound, and the explanation led us to a conversation in which we bonded over a shared confusion about the appeal of duck hunting. The little houses are actually duck blinds.
They asked for recommendations about what to do on Ocracoke, and I gave them a list of must-dos — Thai food included, of course.
An hour after we left Oden’s Dock, we were idling through Silver Lake harbor, with Whitley steering his skiff into its slip at Anchorage Marina, right smack-dab in the heart of Ocracoke village.
Ocracoke is a charming place—and I don’t mean that in any diminutive, kitschy sense—and getting there via water taxi just made sense. It was a charming ride — right down to the part where we had to turn around in the middle of the sound, because the usual route had shoaled up, and Whitley had to scout out an alternative passage.
It felt authentic and exciting, and it fit perfectly with that “world away” feeling that makes Ocracoke so unique.
The Pryors rented a golf cart and set out to explore the shops on the island and to eat lunch.
I rented a bike, and as I pedaled through the busy village, I thought to myself that this is how you should get to Ocracoke, because this is how the island should feel—remote, but not forbidding; familiar, but slightly exotic; inviting, but unconventional.
Getting off the boat and biking around, eating at little food stands, drinking a beer on the waterfront, venturing down narrow, sandy streets, kind of reminded me of island hopping in the Caribbean. No responsibilities, no worries.
Though Whitley just purchased the boat this past April, he said the idea has been stewing in his mind, in various forms, for about the past five years or so.
The inspiration ultimately came from his work and experiences on the water—more than two decades of maritime adventures that have included running a boat for the Hardee’s corporation, delivering private boats to destinations all over Atlantic and Caribbean, captaining private boats and headboats in Morehead City and Hatteras village, and touring the country’s lakes, rivers and coastline—what’s known as a Great Circle Tour—on a restored, 1925 Chesapeake Bay “Buyboat.”
Having traveled around the world by sea, Whitley recognized that there were really no transportation options in Hatteras for people who don’t arrive here by car, especially when it comes to visiting Ocracoke.
That was the tangible, demonstrable aspect of starting the business, which he has done with his wife Carol. He had to prove that there was a need before he could get licensed and approved by the North Carolina Utilities Commission, and so he spent a lot of time talking with people who come to the Outer Banks without ground transportation—those who come to fish seasonally or in tournaments, who come on sailboats, who bring their boats to the Hatteras Marlin Club, and the like.
On the surface, it would seem easy for such individuals to get to Ocracoke. They already have a boat! But the effort (and expense) of taking a large sportfishing yacht or sailboat over to Ocracoke for a day is, in the end, more trouble than it’s worth.
Whitley realized that what was needed was a skiff of some sort—a smaller vessel that could easily and quickly maneuver through the sound, close to the island and wouldn’t burn a barrel of diesel fuel in the process.
He worked directly with Carolina Skiff to build just such a boat, and he was able to demonstrate enough interest to get the project approved.
There is a need for Whitley’s service, but there’s want, too. That, Whitley said, was a part of the business plan that was probably best captured in a statement from Bill Gilbert, who owns Anchorage Inn and Marina in Ocracoke and who worked closely with Whitley in developing the shuttle service.
“Everywhere I go,” Gilbert told Whitley, “I always ask if there is a boat going somewhere (I want to go) and there always is.”
When it comes down to it, there’s just something about going somewhere on a boat. Something different. Something exciting. Something that makes people want to do it.
To be fair, the ferry is a boat, too. And it definitely has its benefits.
Perhaps the most obvious benefit of the ferry is that it’s free. A round trip on the Soundside Shuttle costs $40 per person. While Whitley does offer group discounts—$35 per person for groups of 10 or more and $30 per person for groups of 15 or more (the boat can carry 19 people)—it can still be a pricey day trip. In addition, the ferry keeps longer hours and more flexible times, and there are times, especially later in the day (and later in the season), when the lines aren’t that bad, and the boats aren’t too crowded.
And, of course, you can take your car with you on the ferry, which is pretty important if you’re toting bikes or surfboards or pets and essential if you plan to drive out on Ocracoke’s renowned beaches.
But Whitley knows all this, and he’s in the process of diversifying his portfolio, as it were.
He said that he expects to do most of his village-to-village transportation on the mid-week days (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday), when the ferry traffic is the heaviest. The rest of the week, he’s planning to offer private, full and half-day sound excursions, taking people clamming, crabbing, shelling, swimming, or even just picnicking on the sand islands and shoals in the sound.
He also talked about offering sunset and full moon cruises, and serving as a water taxi, shuttling people between Hatteras Island villages. One particularly interesting idea he mentioned was serving as a kind of taxi service to the beaches, transporting fishermen and their gear (as well as other beachgoers) to areas of the beach that are technically open, but are inaccessible because of other resource closures. He can’t do anything like that right now, but he is talking with Cape Hatteras National Seashore officials about the possibility.
For now, Whitley is mainly promoting the Hatteras-to-Ocracoke passenger ferry aspect of his business, and I would encourage anyone looking for a different way to experience Ocracoke—whether it’s to avoid driving their own boat, to escape the ferry stacks, or to get a fresh perspective on a familiar place—to give it a shot.
Also, if you are staying on Ocracoke, you can take the Soundside Shuttle to Hatteras village to go shopping and sightseeing, especially at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum.