We found Mariner’s Wharf, a row of complimentary transient slips in downtown Elizabeth City, as the last light dipped below the cityscape. Dubbed the “Harbor of Hospitality,” Elizabeth City encourages boaters to stop here, and its revitalized waterfront, shops, restaurants and Museum of the Albemarle are good reasons to do so.
Our next stop was Belhaven, North Carolina, 85 miles south. A nasty chop on the Albemarle Sound showed the Corvette’s rough water pedigree, and our cruising speed remained a comfortable 18 knots except for no-wake zones. After getting a slip at the accommodating Belhaven Waterway Marina, a walk through town revealed a struggling local economy.
We found a more vibrant atmosphere 50 miles south at Oriental. Known as “The Sailing Capital of the Carolinas,” Oriental is a small, quiet town located on the Neuse River off Pamlico Sound, a large estuary second in size to the Chesapeake Bay. Cruising, sailing and fishing are an integral part of the area’s culture, and the town enthusiastically welcomes transients.
Our slip at the Oriental Marina and Inn was convenient to its Tiki Bar and Restaurant, where we enjoyed happy hour and an excellent meal. A public dinghy dock encourages anchoring in the small harbor or up Greens Creek, just beyond the 45-foot-high bridge. Besides boating activities, Oriental seems to inspire healthy doses of walking and talking. My morning stroll along the river’s Lou Mac Park was followed by breakfast at The Bean, where locals gather to discuss sports and politics, all with a dash of good ol’ boy, Southern humor.
Weather permitting, running outside can save hours, so after arriving in Beaufort, North Carolina, the next day we made the offshore jump to Wrightsville Beach, also in North Carolina. Both inlets are wide and well marked, and the Corvette ran them effortlessly. After getting fuel and an overnight slip at Seapath Yacht Club, we walked to the thriving beach community for dinner. On our two-mile walk, however, one young jogger after another ran by us. It seemed as if the entire town consisted of 20-somethings training for a marathon. Our waitress explained, “Everyone in Wrightsville Beach loves to run before dinner.” What’s this world coming to when running replaces happy hour?
Our route the next morning took us past the sandy shores of Masonboro and Myrtle Grove Sound, where hearty souls were out fishing or walking the beaches in the unseasonably cold weather. The waterway is straight and narrow here, and it’s important to stay in the middle of the marked channel. Temporary buoys, some of which are not on the charts, mark the shoal areas where the ICW crosses side creeks and small inlets.
We stopped for lunch in Southport, North Carolina, near the mouth of the Cape Fear River. The popular Southport Marina, recently renovated, has more than 200 slips and welcomes transients. Getting a transient slip here turned into an amusing experience. The dockmaster gave us directions, telling us to “turn left” after entering. We soon found ourselves on the wrong side of the marina. After eventually finding our way, we listened as he misdirected the next several boats behind us. Unfortunately, he hadn’t realized “his left” looking out from the marina was “our right” looking in. The confusing radio chatter between the arriving boats and the dockmaster was hilarious.
Southport is the quintessential Southern town, and it’s easy to think about living here. One of my favorite novels, The Old Man and the Boy, written by Robert Ruark, was based on his childhood years in Southport. The picturesque streets lined with live oaks and historic homes have been the scene of several television shows and movies including Dawson’s Creek and Crimes of the Heart.