North Carolina presents one of the longest stretches of single-state travel distance on the A-ICW. The state has a wide diversity of maritime environments. The southwest coast consists mainly of barrier islands and salt marshes. The tidal range in the southwest region of the coast is 3 – 4 feet, less than at Charleston, but significant. In the northeast sector of the state, the ICW transits man-made canals, the great inland sounds and their river tributaries. Tidal ranges on the great sounds – the Pamlico and the Albemarle – and the great rivers – the Tar-Pamlico, the Pungo and the Neuse – is negligible. Travel here is more often east-west than north-south.
There are several places in North Carolina where alternative cruising routes are available. The A-ICW is the main through-route, but there are several delightful alternatives from which the cruiser can choose.
Entering North Carolina from South Carolina, northbound, cruiser’s are immediately faced with aternatives. Option one is an easy offshore transit from Little River Inlet at the state line to the Cape Fear River entrance. Option two follows the A-ICW route. For Sanctuary and crew, the choice here is based, first and foremost, on wind and sea conditions offshore, and then on the state of the tide. The offshore travel distance is in the range of 25 StM, and for us, takes 2-1/2 to 3 hours. There are no significant offshore shoals or navigation concerns. The offshore route rejoins the ICW through-route in the Cape Fear River, north of the city of Southport, NC. The ICW travel distance from the state line to Southport is slightly shorter than the offshore route, but often takes more transit time because of currents, speed zones, inlet crossings and local boat traffic. Local boat traffic can be quite tedious and challenging on summer weekends.
Alternate routes diverge:
Little River to Cape Fear – offshore vs. ICW alternatives
The offshore route:
The Little River Inlet is used daily by commercial Casino Boats working from North Myrtle Beach. The Little River Inlet entrance channel is wide and well marked. The shallowest area is right at the intersection of the inlet with the ICW, at the “Calabash Crossroads.” As with all meandering waterways, it is generally best to favor the outside radius on bends for best water depths. Currents in this area can be swift at max flood and max ebb.
The Cape Fear Light
The offshore route to the Cape Fear River is straight and near-shore. Entry to the Cape Fear can be done by staying very near shore and following the correctly charted swash channel, or by staying farther off the shoreline and intersecting the Cape Fear Entrance Channel. Again, currents in the Cape Fear can be very swift – approaching 3 kts – at max flood and max ebb. These swift currents will significantly impair or assist the progress of slow trawler/sailboat/cruiser-type vessels.
The ICW route:
The ICW route between the NC/SC border and the community of Southport, NC, does include two potentially challenging pilotage areas. These are the well-known inlet crossings at Shallotte’s Inlet (at StM 331) and Lockwood’s Folly (at StM 322). Because of the moderate tidal range and swift tidal currents in this region, conditions at these inlet crossings are highly variable and change rapidly. Even soon after dredging, these areas shoal quickly. The ICW in this area is marked with lateral daymarks placed on pilings, except at these inlet crossings, where there are floating red and green buoys arranged and placed as lateral markers. The inlet crossings are not charted. Do not depend upon the charted “accuracy” of the “ICW magenta line” anywhere, but especially, NOT in this area.
Cautions for new or occasional transient cruisers in these waters include:
- A day or two ahead of your arrival in this area, ascertain for yourself the up-to-date, current state of these inlet crossings . Do this in consultation with reliable online resources such as http://www.cruisersnet.net, http://www.waterwayguide.com and http://www.activecaptain.com.
- Consult with TowBoat US or SeaTow by VHF Radio for current conditions and local advice.
- As a precaution, try to plan your passage through this area at mid-tide or higher, rising if possible.
- Make sure to identify and distinguish between ICW markers and inlet markers. Confusing these markers can lead one to shoal waters.
- Be very alert for swift cross-currents, which can sweep a boat sideways into shoal waters. Although we can not know for certain, we believe swift cross-currents account for most groundings in this area. All of the grounded captains we’ve talked with have thought they were “in the channel,” but when viewed from a slightly more distant perspective, they clearly were not. Watch these cross-currents carefully, especially at mid-tide flood and ebb.
- Be wary of fishermen in small craft. Some are anchored immediately outside the ICW channel. Others drift throughout the channel and will often make sudden moves. These boats are highly maneuverable and generally know where cruising boats have to be. We always prefer, and make an effort, to maintain wide clearances with local fishermen, and yield, to avoid “close encounters.” However, the channel here is narrow, fishermen are often preoccupied with their own interests, and cross currents are unforgiving. So, hold your course and speed, don’t worry about your wake, and pass fishermen by closely if you must, lest you get swept aground.
There are several marinas along the ICW approaching Southport from the south. St. James Plantation at StM 315 is well protected from foul weather and is a very nice facility with floating docks. There is a small onsite snack bar, but nothing else onsite or nearby. Just north of the second high-rise bridge at StM 311.3 is South Harbor Village Marina. This marina is on the ICW, and even though it’s in a “no wake” zone, the face dock is exposed to frequent wakes from passing boats. Inside the basin, within the protection of their floating docks, it’s very nice. There are two restaurants – one casual, one upscale – within easy walking distance. There is little else nearby. Southport Marina is in the village of Southport at StM 309.
The routes rejoin:
Once in the Cape Fear River, the ICW route follows the river north to Snow’s Cut. There are large North Carolina State Ferries on this part of the Cape Fear, but the river is wide and they will not affect the alert captain. Carolina Beach State Park is located at the southwest end of Snow’s Cut. Carolina Beach State Park has floating docks with 30A and 50A power and water, and modern, clean shower facilities. It is well protected from weather, but is not not within walking distance of shopping or restaurants. CBSP has a published LOA limit of 40′, but are somewhat flexible about it. This does not seem to be a popular stop, but we think it’s a gem for transient cruisers looking to overnight or wait out foul weather.
Cape Fear River and route to Wilmington, NC
There is a great side trip to Wilmington, NC, 10 miles upriver from Snow’s Cut on the Cape Fear River. There are several fine marinas in Wilmington. The Wilmington Marine Center is just east at Marker G”59.” This is a friendly and welcoming marina with a full-service yard and a full range of mechanical services. Continue upriver past the commercial seaport to two new marinas on the downtown Wilmington waterfront. There is an airport (ILG) at Wilmington that is useful for business and family travel and crew exchanges. WARNING: both raster and vector charts of the area show a channel called the “Wilmington Short Cut.” That charted channel leads northward from Snow’s Cut to the Cape Fear River. Do not follow that channel; it is shoal with depths of 2′ or less at MLLW. Instead, for safe water from Snow’s Cut to Wilmington, follow the marked ICW channel southwest to its intersection with the Cape Fear River Channel at ICW G”177,” navigate into a safe depth of Cape Fear River’s Upper Midnight Channel Range, and then turn 150º northbound towards Wilmington.
Snow’s Cut is a short man-made canal that connects the Cape Fear River portion of the A-ICW nearby the Carolina Beach Inlet. At the east end of Snow’s Cut, just south of the A-ICW magenta line, there is a large embayment at Carolina Beach labeled “Myrtle Grove” on the charts. In Myrtle Grove, there is a new Town of Carolina Beach municipal mooring field. Anchoring is possible in the north end of Myrtle Grove basin. We aboard Sanctuary consider this to be a fair weather anchorage.
Northbound on the ICW above Snow’s Cut, it’s about 15 miles to Wrightsville Beach at StM 283, where both anchorages and marinas are available for cruisers. About 3/4 mile west from the drawbridge is a mall with a West Marine store. The drawbridge is restricted to hourly openings, on the hour. South of the bridge, the waterway is narrow and can be very, very crowded. North of the bridge, the waterway shoals quickly on both shores. To us, this feels like a tourist trap. We anchor occasionally in the pool to the east of the village, but we do not use the marinas.
North of the drawbridge at Wrightsville Beach, there are three more drawbridges that many trawlers/cruisers and all sailboats will need to open: 1) Figure-of-Eight Island at StM 278, 2) Surf City at StM 261 and 3) Onslow Beach at StM 241. All of these bridges are restricted, and timing them is very important. Currents in the region reverse as inlet creeks are passed, so what looks like a fair current in one place can and will turn foul in another couple of miles. Generally, our strategy here is to run at speed until we are within about two miles of the bridge, then slow to time our arrival at the bridge about 5 minutes before its scheduled opening. Monitor the VHF (VHF-13) as all of these bridges will “adjust” their opening schedules to accommodate commercial traffic. Sometimes, that means you can get through early. Equally often, you may be delayed for a few minutes. There are few places to stop or anchor in this stretch. Plan accordingly.
Marine training operations at Camp Lejeune
At StM 244.5, there is a popular anchorage on the northwest side of the ICW at Mile Hammock Bay. For your planning and awareness, this anchorage embayment is a US Marine Corps training area that is open for use by the public. Rarely, the Marines close the bay to pleasure craft. Occasionally, marine corps training maneuvers are conducted here, and can go on throughout the night. We have anchored there and enjoyed beautiful, peaceful overnights. However, we know cruisers who have rocked and rolled all night, too.
The Osprey in exercises at Camp Lejeune
Between StM 237.5 and StM 235 is the US Marine Corps Training Base at Camp Lejeune. Training operations at the base can cause full-stop closures of the ICW. Monitor VHF-16 in the hours before you arrive in this area so you can plan around any scheduled closures. Typically, the waterway will be closed from 08h00 – 12h00 and again from 13h00 through 17h00. In the fall, it’s already dark by 17h00. We learned the hard way that the bridge at Onslow Beach would open to allow traffic to proceed northbound… about two miles… whence we had to anchor in the channel for 3-1/2 hours. That afternoon, the Navy and the Marines were working a coordinated live-fire exercise between a firing range inland at Lejeune and 20 miles offshore. The gun reports were substantial. Needless to say, we arrived at Swansboro, northbound, after sunset. Occasionally, the range officer will allow boat traffic to proceed “at your best speed” through the training area. If/when we get such a travel window, we hustle. How often does all this happen? Well over 10 years, about one transit in four, so not that often. Southbound through here, our strategy is to depart Swansboro at “o dark thirty,” to be past Camp Lejeune before 08h00; before 07h30 is better!
At StM 229, there are two marinas in Swansboro. One is Casper’s and the other is Dudley’s. Both offer fuel at competitive pricing for the region. Dudley’s is a combination marina and roadside mini-mart and gas station. Both components are big businesses in their own rights. There are restaurants in town, and the marinas will generally offer rides (but not use of a car). There is a small but fairly exposed anchorage with good holding in the area below the road bridge in the White Oak River. There are some small boat wakes, but that goes away after dark.
Above Swansboro lies Bogue Sound. On charts, this body of water appears large, but it is very shallow and it is necessary to be meticulous about staying in the charted channel. Many daymarks are well outside the channel, so don’t crowd the markers.
Morehead City, Beaufort, Newport River, Core Creek, Cape Lookout National Seashore
At StM 204 is the city of Morehead City. The general area of Morehead City and Beaufort, NC, might well be considered a destination stop. There are several marinas and restaurants in Morehead City in the Peanut Island Channel. From Morehead City, there is access to the Beaufort Inlet and, offshore about 12 NM, the positively delightful bight at the Cape Lookout National Seashore. There is a superb marine-oriented hardware store in the downtown at 600 Arundel St. called Ace Marine and Rigging. These good folks stock stainless steel fittings, marine rigging materials, bulk anchor and dock line, and all kinds of maintenance items at very competitive pricing. North of the NC State Seaport, immediately above the highrise highway bridge and railroad bridge, there is a channel to the west that leads to the Morehead City Yacht Basin. This facility is very well protected from heavy weather. MCYB is a modern marina with floating docks, fuel, courtesy car and all cruiser amenities. It is within easy walking distance to restaurants, ACE Marine and Rigging, a NAPA Auto Parts store, and a beautiful Methodist Church.
Four to five StM east of the ICW, at downtown Beaufort, NC, is a modern and popular – if expensive – municipal marina. There are several restaurant options in Beaufort, of which our personal favorite is Clausen’s. There is also a North Carolina Maritime Museum, an excellent nautical book store, and a post office within walking distance. Cruiser’s can anchor in Taylor Creek, but it is crowded with local boats, including some apparent derelicts.
North of Morehead City, the ICW transits the Newport River, Core Creek and Adams Creek northerly to the Neuse River. The Newport River area is well marked, but very shoal. Pay close attention to the markers in this area.
At the Neuse River, cruisers can turn to port to go upriver for a side trip to New Bern, NC, or proceed slightly stbd, across the river, to Oriental, NC. New Bern is a very nice and historic coastal city with a welcoming waterfront, several marinas, a great hardware store and many restaurant choices. Oriental is a much smaller, quaint old town, but also offers several marinas. Eight miles east of Oriental on the north shore of the Neuse River is Broad Creek, home to River Dunes Resort and Marina. River Dunes has floating docks, fuel, a courtesy car and all marina amenities for cruisers. It is very upscale, but also very affordable. It is our stop-of-choice in this area, particularly to ride out heavy weather.
Alternate routes diverge:
Broad Creek to Coinjock or Elizabeth City – ICW vs Crystal Coast alternatives
From River Dunes or an anchorage on Broad Creek, there is a choice of two route alternatives for the cruiser. Option one is to follow the ICW to Belhaven, NC, then to-and-through the Alligator-Pungo Canal to Columbia, NC, and then across the Albemarle, to either Coinjock, VA, or Elizabeth City, NC. Option two is to depart from the ICW, cross the Pamlico Sound in a northeasterly direction to Ocracoke, NC, then transit from Ocracoke, NC, to Manteo, NC, then cross the Albemarle to either Coinjock, VA, or Elizabeth City, NC. The Pamlico Sound route is actually shorter than the ICW route, but it does involve traversing the open waters of Pamlico Sound. The Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds are shallow, in most areas no more than 17-18 ft. The Pamlico Sound is well charted, and navigation is not a problem, but winds above 15 – 20 kts will create short period, steep, uncomfortable seas.
The ICW Route:
The Option One route from Oriental via the ICW route turns northwest into the Bay River and enters a man-made canal through Hobucken, NC. The commercial seafood company, R. E. Mayo & Co., is located at StM 158. Cruisers are welcome to overnight here. Protection from weather is very good, but facilities are minimal, and so is the cost.
The Estuarium at Washington, NC
Continuing northbound at StM 149.5, cruisers enter the Pamlico River just above it’s mouth at the Pamlico Sound. There is a wonderful side-trip here to the small cities of Bath, NC, and Washington, NC. At Washington, there is a municipal marina with power and water on the riverwalk. There are several shoppes and restaurant choices. The North Carolina State Estuarium is on the Washington riverwalk. It celebrates the Tar-Pamlico Estuary, and is well worth a visit!
Back on the ICW through-route, on the Pungo River at StM 140.5, to the east, is Slade Creek. This wide creek contains anchorages that offer good holding and heavy weather protection from every compass point.
Belhaven Waterway Marine in Belhaven, NC.
Belhaven, NC, is at StM 135. Our favorite place to stay to ride out weather of just relax is at the Belhaven Waterway Marina. Enter Pantego Creek through the Belhaven breakwater and stay at this wonderful, small, welcoming gem of a marina. Here, you have a short walk to the small town, a hardware store, pharmacy, a local heritage museum and otherwise limited shopping and restaurant choices. Marina owners Les and Brenda Porter can arrange a ride to the local Food Lion for re-provisioning and provide a full range of mechanical services if needed. There is another local marina at the Belhaven breakwater which we do not recommend.
When departing Belhaven northbound, verify the acceptability of the weather forecast. Between Belhaven and the Alligator River Bridge, there are no facilities and only fair weather anchorages. The Alligator River Swing Bridge will not open if winds are consistently blowing 25 mph or more, so plan accordingly.
Marvelous private lighthouse, Alligator River Marina, Columbia, NC.
At the Alligator River Bridge, at ICW StM 84, on the western shore, is the very well protected Alligator River Marina. Stop and visit Ms. Wanda. Fuel prices here are frequently more competitive than regional averages. Ms. Wanda has an onsite restaurant that offers a limited down-home menu of excellent home-made “victuals.” This stop positions cruisers heading north for an early morning crossing of the Albemarle Sound, which is often the most desirable time of day for the 25 mile crossing. In the area north of the bridge, there are anchorages in the Little Alligator River, at Sandy Point on the Western Shore, and at East Lake/South Lake about 5 miles to the east of the ICW. Northbound above the Alligator River Bridge and approaching Albemarle Sound, be alert to the shoals. They change, and channel buoys are re-located from time-to-time. In some areas, floating markers are in place, but can be difficult to find and see. Cruisers must find them and honor them. Use online resources for current information.
The Pamlico Sound Route:
The Option Two route from Oriental via the Pamlico Sound departs the Neuse River to the northeast. Chart a course to Ocracoke, NC (42 StM). There are large North Carolina State Ferries on this route. Particularly in the Big Foot Slough Channel leading from the Pamlico Sound to Ocracoke’s Sliver Lake harbor, be careful to avoid the backwash of their powerful engines. The backwash is sufficient to sweep cruising boats out of the channel and into nearby shoals.
At Ocracoke, there is an inexpensive National Park Service dock in Silver Lake that offers power, water and toilet facilities, but not showers, to cruisers. There is also a commercial marina available with a more complete package of amenities. Sanctuary and crew stayed at the NPS dock.
We suggest cruisers rent a golf cart to tour around the island. There is a wonderful local history and heritage museum, and a large former Coast Guard station that is now a private conference center. There are many shoppes and choices of restaurants. And of course, there is Ocracoke Light House. The light house tower is not open to the public, but the grounds are available.
The cruise from Ocracoke to Manteo (67 StM) is documented on this blog as a separate entry, here: https://gilwellbear.wordpress.com/category/cruising-practica/us-east-coast/north-carolina/north-carolina-manteo/.
Lost Colony Settlement
Manteo, NC, is a very historic and wonderful cruising stop. We highly recommend visiting here. It is the Site of the first English Colony in North America, known today as the “Lost Colony.” Manteo is the home port of Elizabeth II, a reproduction of the ship that brought those 117 colonists to the region in 1587, including John White, his daughter, Eleanor Dare, her husband Ananias Dare, and their daughter, Virginia. The Roanoak Island Festival Park and Roanoak Adventure Museum includes a reproduction of the English Settlement and Indian Village, with crafts and demonstrations depicting life in a pre-colonial village. The Plantation does a particularly good job of honoring the importance and contributions of the local Croatan Indian peoples. Manteo is the home of the Roanoak Marshes Lighthouse, and a small boat-building museum. There is a very nice marina, many shoppes and restaurants.
Departing from Manteo, travel north and turn west immediately north of Roanoak Island. Proceed to the intersection of Croatan Sound, and turn north to the Albemarle. Set your course to either Coinjock, VA, or Elizabeth City, NC (46 StM).