As part of our Fall, 2010, southbound snow-bird migration, Sanctuary and crew diverted from the standard A-ICW route. Instead, we transited from Elizabeth City, NC, to the North Carolina Outer Banks communities of Manteo and Ocracoke. When we later departed Ocracoke, southbound, we crossed the Pamlico Sound to Oriental, NC.
Manteo and Ocracoke are thoroughly enjoyable little towns. This Outer Bank route is 20 miles shorter than the traditional A-ICW route from Coinjock, VA, to Oriental, NC. It is, however, more exposed to open water on the Pamlico Sound. The open-water Pamlico crossing is about 35 StM, so cruisers are reminded to pay particular attention to marine weather conditions and the near term weather forecast prior to departure from Ocracoke. Because the Great Sounds of North Carolina are shallow, in most areas ranging from 10 to no more than 18 ft., winds of 15 – 20 kts will create short period, steep, uncomfortable seas. Also, crab pots abound, and can be hard to spot if seas are up. Sanctuary and crew recommend this route as an excellent “side-trip” and refreshing alternative to ICW route through the Alligator River, Alligator River Swing Bridge, and the boring and tedious Alligator-Pungo Canal.
We transited to Manteo by traversing the Albemarle Sound from Elizabeth City to Croatan Sound. On this route, there are no navigation or piloting concerns, but we did encounter many, many crab pots. On the Albemarle, the helm watchstander must be constantly vigilant and alert. From the Albemarle, we entered the Croatan Sound Channel at its north end. We proceeded southbound to the northwest end of Roanoke Island, and then turned east to follow the marked traverse eastbound across the northeast end of Roanoke Island, where it intersects the Roanoke Channel. We turned south in the Roanoke Channel and followed it into Roanoak Sound to its intersection with the Manteo Harbor Entrance Channel. Manteo Harbor is shallow and requires cruisers to stay in the network of marked channels.
The Roanoke Channel, from it’s northern beginnings above Manteo, carries as little as 7 ft to it’s intersection with the Manteo Harbor Entrance Channel. South of the Manteo Entrance Channel, the Roanoke Channel carries at least 9 ft for it’s entire length; in most areas, we saw 11ft to 14ft. The sailing vessel Elizabeth II, which draws 8 ft, regularly uses this channel. The channel is quite narrow, probably 100 ft. It is not a “No Wake” area. Thus, our plan was to “take our half out of the middle,” which was OK at 07h00 on a Monday morning.
There were, however, two areas that caused some confusion for our stalwart captain. The first was a couple of miles south of Manteo, at the US64/US264, 65 ft fixed highway bridge. As we emerged southbound from under that bridge, there is a square “No Wake” sign on a post just on the east side of the channel. With the sun low on the morning horizon, I nearly mistook that sign, by shape, for a green lateral marker. It is not a lateral marker; it is a “caution” sign.
The second area of confusion was another 2 – 3 miles south of the bridge, where there is a side-channel that runs off to the west, into the village of Wanchese (pronounced: WAN-cheese). In that area, the south-running Roanoke Channel takes a modest dog-leg to the east, and then another, back to the south. It took me a minute looking through the binoculars to actually realize there was a side-channel intersection there, and I found it momentarily confusing. It’s also narrow. The helmsman must carefully identify the markers for the Roanoke Channel.
At it’s south end, the Roanoke Channel turns sharply southwest. In another mile, where the Oregon Inlet Channel intersects from the ocean, it becomes the Old House Channel. There are several new markers there that were not mentioned in the then-current cruising guides, and were only reflected on electronic charts that had recent LNMs incorporated. On the Roanoke channel, the new markers include 37A, 37, 36A, 36, 34A and 34. At the entrance of the Old House Channel (which is just a continuation of the route from the Roanoke Channel into Pamlico Sound) there is a new green-over-red marker, “OH.” The rest of the Old House route into Pamlico Sound is well marked and unremarkable.
The route across Pamlico Sound is, likewise, unremarkable. Navigate the Pamlico Sound to the Big Foot Slough Channel that leads from the sound into Ocracoke’s harbor. Note here that the North Carolina State Ferry System uses this channel. Draft for pleasure craft in the channel is not a problem, but if cruisers encounter a ferry in that channel, carefully avoid the prop wash! The prop wash is very, very strong, and definitely enough to set a cruising boat out of the channel. There is a red-over-green junction marker just beyond R4 and G3. Watch for the correctly charted shoal there, and turn 120º or so to port, into the entrance channel leading to Ocracoke harbor, called “Sliver Lake” on the charts.
In Silver Lake harbor, inexpensive dockage with 30A and 50A power and water is available at the US National Park Service docks. At end-2014, beginning-2015, the NPS docks were upgraded. They now have electric pedestals that are ground-fault protected (Equipment Protection Devices – EPD) to the newest National Electric Code requirements. Some cruising boats may encounter problems if there are previously unknown, previously silent ground-faults or leakage-faults aboard the boat. The NPS docks are adjacent to the NC State ferry docks. In this harbor, there is plenty of room for 20 or more boats to anchor. The harbor is very well protected from the strong periodic winds that frequent this island, located as it is about 20 miles off the mainland into the Atlantic.