Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Going down The Drain

Most of us who grew up riding around North Carolina learned how to drive on dirt roads and paved highways marked with signs and sometimes directions. You could get lost, but you could find your way home by following one road after another. They’re easy enough to see.
I was thinking about that Sunday afternoon while trying to pick my way across the shallow, watery expanse between Taylors Creek in Beaufort, over to Harkers Island and out to Cape Lookout in a boat. It’s truly one of the most beautiful areas of North Carolina, but if you don’t know what you’re doing and don’t have a chart, you and your boat can be hard aground before you know it. We were.
Nautical highways are marked, to the extent they are marked at all, by navigational aids called dayboards – numbered red triangles on a post to mark one side of a channel and numbered green squares to mark the other. If you’re heading south and returning to port, the reds mark the right side and greens the left.
Trouble is, some of those posts are a long way apart, and often nature has a way of changing the bottoms of creeks, rivers, inlets, sounds and marshes long before the government can remark the course and dredge the shallow places.
So it was that we plowed a bit of a furrow as we mired up while trying to find Barden Inlet, a way to get from Cape Lookout Bight back towards Harkers Island. That inlet is a quieter way to get out to Lookout than Beaufort Inlet, which has lots of room under the keel for ocean-going ships but can be incredibly rough. We once went through it in our old 37-foot, 20,000-pound sailboat at the wrong time – tide going out, wind blowing in – and we were coming off the crest of waves and dropping into the trough. It was enough to rattle your fillings, not to mention your garboard strakes.*
This time we were in our 22-foot fishing boat, which draws a couple of feet when puttering along. We were looking for a straight channel called The Drain, part of Barden Inlet, which opened during a 1933 hurricane. We finally picked it up, with the help of a GPS chartplotter that had a three-year-old digital chart stored on a little memory chip. Once we started trusting it, we were fine, following the screen’s route right into Lookout Bight.
If you’ve never been in the lovely anchorage that lies at the foot of Cape Lookout lighthouse, you’ve missed one of this state’s marvels. It’s a breathtaking view of a place deeply rooted in the state’s history – and a sanctuary for ships for centuries.
The Lookout Light, 150 feet tall, was built in 1859 and became the pattern for three more lights – Currituck, Bodie and the most famous, Cape Hatteras Light.
The lighthouse is painted in a black and white checkered pattern that many mistake for a diamond pattern. That confuses folks into thinking Diamond Shoals is nearby. It’s not. Diamond Shoals is up at Cape Hatteras. The shoals off Cape Lookout are called Lookout Shoals. In 1873, the federal lighthouse board ordered the painting of Bodie with horizontal stripes, Hatteras with a spiral and Lookout with checks so mariners wouldn’t confuse the three during daylight.
Lookout Shoals has been a dangerous place for ships for a long time. Sunday they were a dangerous place for fish – bluefish and Spanish mackerel. We trolled for several hours off the cape and back down Shackleford Banks and caught some for supper with enough left over to freeze to take back home.
The wind had picked back up over the afternoon and shifted southwest, giving us a bit of a beating and an occasional bath, and this time it was an easy call how to go back: Beaufort Inlet, thank you very much, with a lot of water under the keel and a rapid ride home.
*Garboard strakes are the boards right next to the keel of a wooden boat – and can take a pounding in rough waters.


Anonymous said...

As our state becomes less and less rural, one thing that I really miss are the white direction signs with the black arrows at intersections. "Five miles to Marvin, Gold Hill 3 Miles, Goldsboro 14." I hate to see them go.

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