The Kayak Chronicles ©

by Darren Caffery


Coastal Paddling in North Carolina:

Portsmouth Island Castaways

     Paddling to Portsmouth Island - Wednesday October 2nd, 2002

I fell in love with the island of Ocracoke from my first visit there in 1998.  The island is in southernmost portion of Hatteras National Seashore of North Carolina and is accessible only by ferry. Arriving by ferry it appears you are arriving to nothing more than a very large sand dune however, from the ferry terminal you can take your vehicle along NC-12 about 14 miles through the undeveloped island to a small quaint town where most of the tourist activity occurs. Ocracoke is rich in maritime folklore involving Blackbeard the pirate. It seems like time stands still there, and  the local people reportedly are increasingly engaged in battles to fight off plans for development which threaten to severely compromise the island’s laid back lifestyle and atmosphere. I hope they continue to stand their ground and keep the island just the way it is.

From Silver Lake in the village of Ocracoke, you can see Portsmouth Island off to the south across the Ocracoke Inlet and vast Pamlico Sound.  Portsmouth Island is part of  Cape Lookout National Seashore.  Portsmouth Village grew to be the  largest settlement of the Outer Banks in   by 1770, however a series of severe storms over the years made the inlet and surrounding bays very shallow. After a new, deeper  inlet at Hatteras was formed, much of the fishing and economic activity moved north and the village was slowly abandoned.  Although there are no human residents on Portsmouth, remnants of the original village remain on the island and are maintained by the National Parks system. There are no modern services on the island such as water or electric and it is accessible only by boat. Primitive camping is allowed anywhere on the island except within 100 ft of any structure. Ever since getting a glimpse of Portsmouth Island on my first visit to Ocracoke, I’ve wanted to paddle there. And so the story begins….. 

I started to plan for this kayak adventure by gathering information from nautical charts and North Carolina kayak guidebooks in addition to talking to a few members of my kayak club who have made this trip in the past.  After a few weeks of gathering enough information plan a successful kayak trip from the small island of Ocracoke to Portsmouth Island with an overnight stay of primitive camping, I chose a date for the trip and posted a message on my kayak club’s internet message board to see if any other adventurous members of the club would be interested in making the journey with me.  Four other members of Jersey Shore Sea Kayak Association responded to my message and committed to the journey down to the Outer Banks (also known as ‘OBX’) of North Carolina. The crew consisted of Tom Kelly of Toms River  NJ, Al Kukitz from Ambler, PA and Mary Lou and Lenny Senkarik of Mystic Island NJ.  The crew  departed for North Carolina on Sunday September 28.  After an 8 hour trek by car with our car-topped kayaks, we arrived at our motel in Nags Head of the Outer Banks which would be our base for the entire week.


In addition to our overnight primitive camping and kayaking trip, I also had a number of daily trips planned for the local waters around Nags Head to make it a full week of kayaking.  If we were going to travel 8 hours to a destination, we planned to log some serious paddling miles!  From our base in Nags Head, Ocracoke was about 65 miles away which meant some extra planning was required once I arrived in North Carolina.  Our camping and paddling trip to Portsmouth Island required coordinating Ocracoke Ferry schedules with the tides for the Ocracoke Inlet.  I had all the necessary information and was prepared to guide a two day camping trip on Portsmouth Island during any weekday within our scheduled visit to the Outer Banks.  Although I planned the trip with two specific days in mind, the weather forecast would  ultimately dictate which days we were to paddle across the Ocracoke Inlet on this primitive camping trip. Luckily when we arrived to the Outer Banks, favorable weather was predicted for our entire stay, so our Portsmouth adventure could occur as planned. 

The most challenging part of planning this overnight trip would be getting the group to adhere to a rigid schedule for the first day of traveling to Ocracoke to prepare for our launch to Portsmouth.  We awoke some time at around 4 am on Wednesday October 2nd.  Our vehicles were mostly packed the night before and we did all our obsessing about what we needed to bring with us in the previous weeks.   With one last stop at a convenience store for snacks and last minute items, we departed our Nags Head motel on schedule at about 5 am.  We  had a 65 mile trek south on Rt 12 through the Hatteras National Seashore and to the Hatteras Ferry terminal.  The car ride in the morning darkness of the Hatteras National Seashore was intense with the extremely silent, flat and black Pamlico sound on one side of the road and the roaring ocean surf on the other side.  We could see the flashing light of the Hatteras Lighthouse as we approached the Cape.   We were to arrive at the ferry terminal by 7 am to be on the 7:30 am ferry to Ocracoke. To cross the inlet at slack tide as planned, it was imperative we get on that 7:30 am  ferry.  From the ferry terminal we would then have another 15 mile drive to the south end of Ocracoke where we would then prepare our kayaks and gear for the launch to Portmouth Island. The planned schedule would give us about 30 minutes to load our gear into our kayak hatches for our overnight trip. Luckily, we arrived at the ferry terminal at Hatteras at 6:55. We were the last vehicles loaded on the 7 am ferry and were just in time to watch a spectacular sunrise over Hatteras.  Boarding this earlier ferry turned out to be a blessing as it would get us to the Ocracoke launch site 30 minutes earlier than expected.  This extra time for loading our kayak hatches turned out to be something we definitely needed! We most likely would not have been loaded and launched on schedule if we had taken the later ferry, which would have caused a host of other logistical problems for this trip.


We loaded up all our gear for the overnight camping trip with hatch space and time to spare!  It was exciting to see Portsmouth Island about 4-5 miles in the distance before we launched.  Tom, Al, Marylou & Lenny and myself launched into the Pamlico sound at 9:20 am with more than enough time to paddle 3 miles to the Ocracoke Inlet for slack. We could not ask for more perfect conditions.  There was a very slight breeze from the south, and not a cloud in the sky.  The sun was shining bright and air temperatures were in the 80’s with a comfortable humidity level. After launching, we quickly came to the channel for Silver Lake where the Cedar Island Ferry was just pulling out.  We let the ferry pass as people on the ferry pointed, took pictures and waved at us.   After paddling a few miles we landed at a beach where the sound rounds out to the ocean.  The area was filled with trucks and fisherman so we landed on the beach to scout around a bit before the tide changed.  While the crew talked to some locals, I scouted the waters across to Portsmouth Island with a new set of binoculars.  Although we were well prepared for rough conditions of the inlet crossing, the surf in the inlet was flat as a board and there were very few boats coming in or out.  Within 30 minutes, I rounded up the crew and we departed the beach at Ocracoke, taking full advantage of a slack tide and the great conditions to cross the inlet over to Portsmouth Island. 

The paddle across the inlet was largely uneventful in the flat water with some occasional rollers coming in from the great Atlantic. Although the Ocracoke Inlet crossing had the potential to be the most challenging of our paddles, it actually proved to be most relaxing paddle since we arrived in North Carolina.  It felt like a summer day, but I reminded myself it was October.   As we approached the Portsmouth shoreline, we could see some RVs on the beach there and a few ATVs which get ferried over to the island on occasion.  As I scouted the waters, the water out into the ocean looked very navigable and everyone was comfortable with proceeding.  Avoiding a few areas of breakers in the distance, we headed up the coast of Portsmouth passing a few RV’s on the shore until we spotted our own isolated piece of beach.  We all made very easy surf landings in the calm ocean at Portsmouth Island at around 12 noon.  Before unloading our hatches, we scouted the dunes to see if the area was suitable for a camp and we quickly realized it was the perfect place for setting up a few tents and spending the next 24 hours.



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