Slow Crawling Down the NC Coast

Heading south along the ICW, we take time to explore some new stops in North Carolina with a healthy mix of breezing through familiar ones.  We take side trips to New Bern and Wilmington, finding them both great visits loaded with history and culture.

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After completing our month-plus of land and air travel, we were getting the seagoing itch.  The frost on the docks and deck exacerbated that itch.  So we took a couple days to provision and clean/prepare the boat after a month in the boatyard, and off we went. 

The North Carolina section of the ICW is a wealth of small coastal towns, each with their own personality.  There are also lots of opportunities for side trips up rivers to towns loaded with their own history and charm. The first half of our journey would take us across the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds, through the narrow man-made Albemarle-Pungo Canal, and along three large Rivers:  the Alligator (bad name – no alligators), Pamlico, and Neuse.  All of these can get really snotty if the conditions aren’t just right so intense monitoring of the weather forecast is key.  This was our fifth time along this route, and we looked for new stops and picked New Bern and Wilmington for side trips with longer stays to explore better.

Leaving in mid-November put us  in the back of the pack for the mass of southerly boat migration, and this was by design.  For one, we wouldn’t have to compete for marina spots.  Secondly, it would give more time for the now longer hurricane season to peter out and thus less likelihood of running into bad storms.  Bonus was we would be able to enjoy holiday festivities and decorations at the towns along the way.

Chesapeake VA to Oriental NC

Nov 13-16, 2023

Great Bridge behind us as we start our trek south from AYB.

To get to NC and start across the Albemarle Sound we had a short distance in VA along the Elizabeth and North Landing Rivers, with two timed bridges to get through in our first hour: the  Centerville and North Landing swing bridges.  We planned our departure time from Atlantic Yacht Basin and speed to hit their respective 0830 and 0900 openings.  

But alas, our well-laid plan went right out the porthole as we approached the Centerville Bridge and saw not one, not two, but THREE tugs and barges with dredge equipment taking up the entire canal just before the bridge!  The water levels in the canal were low so no room to pass as they crept along at 3-4 knots.  At such slow speeds and with the turbulence in the water the tugs created as they maneuvered to keep the barges in the middle, the five pleasure craft (including us) behind them struggled to stay in the center of the narrow channel and not run over each other. 

We missed the planned 0900 North Landing Bridge opening, and were still plodding along at the 0930 opening.  We were getting worried that we would not be able to get across the Sound to Alligator River as planned before dark.  Others,  growing impatient,  hailed the tugs asking if they could pass with the response being “If you want to take that chance with these low water levels, that’s your call.”  Wisely all declined.  By the time the North Landing Bridge was in sight, the slow procession behind the barges had grown to a dozen boats as other caught up.  The bridge opened for the barges, but because it took them almost 15 min to pass and automobile traffic was backing up, the operator had to close it and not allow pleasure craft through.  Fortunately, once traffic cleared out he did an unscheduled opening for us.   After a few more miles following the tugs it finally widened enough to pass, and the race was on!  We did some new calculations and discovered we could still make it across the Sound before dark if we burned some fuel to go our higher cruising speed.  Whew!

Totally calm waters on the Albemarle Sound when we were crossing.

Our reward was a completely glassy Albemarle Sound and clear skies – it was an absolutely beautiful crossing.   We slid into the rustic Alligator River Marina as the shadows were getting long.  An early start the next morning meant a calm Alligator River for the first half of the day’s travels, then a leisurely cruise along the very straight and protected Alligator-Pungo Canal to Belhaven.  Nearing the end of the canal, who should pop up on our screens as we got within AIS range but our good friends The Three Dredges!  Fortunately they were far enough ahead (they travel 24 hours) that they exited the canal into the wide Pungo River just as we caught up to them so were not affected.  We did however, hear a lot of radio chatter earlier as they once again had an impatient lineup of boats behind them coming through the canal.

Sunrise at Alligator River Maraina

Belhaven was a familiar stop for us, but we stayed at a new marina that we really liked – Grand Manor.  The next day was a short hop to Oriental with great cruising conditions on the Pungo River and western edge of the Pamlico Sound, then a short sprint on a mildly choppy mouth of the Neuse River just until we got around the corner to the marina.  Here we met another Looper who turned out to be a USNA ’83 grad, and he and Dave swapped names of many mutual acquaintances.

Just chillin' in Oriental.
Part of the fishing fleet in Oriental.

New Bern NC

Nov 17-23

New Bern was our first side trip, and we loved it!  Located about 25 miles off the ICW up the temperamental Neuse River, we lucked out once again with a perfect weather day of mild temps and flat, glassy water.  Having suffered major damage from the storm surge of Hurricane Florence in 2018, the downtown has almost completely recovered.  We docked at Grand Marina in the heart of downtown, so were able to make frequent trips to explore the many restaurants, shops, old churches, and art galleries in the two square blocks. Shopkeepers and municipal employees were busy putting up their holiday décor and lights, making it quite festive. 

This gate leads to the ruins of the first chruch in New Bern. NOw just the foundation remains, and it is used for outdoor services.
This was a true hardware store, with aisles of vintage bins with all kinds of hardware, along with a variety of other goods.
New Bern City Hall
During Union occupation, this house served as the jail for a single inmate -- a woman accused of being a Confederate spy (she was).

60-second New Bern history highlights: Founded 1710 by Swiss immigrants… named after Bern, Switzerland… major league  rebelliousness against British rule leading up to the Revolutionary War… thrived economically between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars due to ‘plantation agriculture’ of the slave trade and goods… fell quickly and early to Union occupation and became a refuge for over 10,000 escaped slaves… post-war economic second wind from the lumber industry … post- Depression economic third wind with the  establishment of a Marine Corps training base at nearby Cherry Point just seven days before Pearl Harbor and remaining an active Air Station toda

Cedar Grove Cemetery -- New Bern's oldest. Those things that look like tables are...tables. They used to have picnics with their dearly departed in the family plot.

The town boasts three unique claims to fame.    The first is Tryon Palace, the grand Colonial Capitol and Royal Governor’s house completed in 1770.  After burning down in 1798, a replica was completely rebuilt from the original blueprints in 1959 and its lush gardens recreated.  Full disclosure:  Dave and I didn’t actually take the tour because we actually toured it twenty years ago when we spent a weekend in New Bern, of which the only thing either of us remembers is Tryon Palace. We did enjoy a trolley history tour of the town through the Tryon Palace NC History Center and highly recommend.

The gates to Tryon Palace and gardens.

Second claim to fame is as the birthplace of Pepsi Cola.  Caleb Bradham’s small corner drugstore where he created it in 1893 has been turned into Pepsi Central.  Now solely a tourist site, you can buy a Pepsi at the vintage soda counter and anything imaginable with the Pepsi logo on it.

Enjoying a Pepsi and popcorn outside the Birthpalce of Pepsi Cola
Pepsi merchandise at Bradham's Pharmacy

The third claim is all the bears.  Not the live ones, mind you, but the New Bern Bears.  There are over 90 statues of bears painted in the theme of the various sponsors scattered all over the town.  We found about 15 in our explorations, most with punny names like Bear-ista in front of a coffee place, Bear-on von Graffenreid after the town founder in the waterfront park.  It was actually a little out of control, and they are still adding more.  But we had fun looking for them and laughing at the names. 

Bear-on von Graffenreid
Bern-ie the Bear
Bear-beard the Pirate
Trains still run right through town down a residential street, a throwback to the heyday of the railroads. There are no barriers or guardrails, and while the train is plodding along at its required 10 mph max speed twice a day, you’re trapped until it passes.
This restaurant is located in a historic building. Note the reflection of the outside street clock in the upper lefthand corner, which is also part of the logo.

Beaufort to Hampstead

Nov 24-27

Time to make some tracks south.  Once again, the Gods of the Neuse River were kind and provided smooth waters as we headed back down to one of our favorite towns, Beaufort NC.  That made it five for five on hitting ideal cruising conditions while traversing the most finicky stretches of those part of the ICW, and we were feeling pretty lucky.  We even saw dolphins for the first time since leaving Norfolk as we rejoined the ICW at Adams Creek.  Beaufort was even more charming than usual with all the holiday lights. 

Sinking to new levels with our DFRs

The route to Swansboro for our overnight was full of dolphin sightings.  As we approached the marina, I was up on the bow watching dolphins and a couple of parasailers with their lawnmower-sounding engines buzzed overhead!  That was a first for us.  The tiny downtown was also impressively festive.  We did discover that Dave’s favorite candy store in Swansboro had been replaced with an even better candy store, making it even favorite-er! 

Like a kid in a candy store...
Getting buzzed by a parasailer.
We were the smallest boat at Casper's Marina in Swansboro. You can see a corner of See Level to the left of the shed.

From Swansboro, we passed through Camp LeJeune and were buzzed by  Marine Ospreys – bigger and noisier than parasailers.   As we passed by Topsail Beach, our good friends The Three Dredges popped up on AIS, having reached their destination long before and dutifully dredging away.  We pulled in at a new marina for us in Hampstead – Harbour Village.  It’s a nice marina in a residential neighborhood with nothing around, but there were lots of decorated boats.  Turns out the owner/dockmaster was from Osceola WI, right across the river from Stillwater!

It was here that Roxy fell in while getting off the boat.  We were doing a sunrise start, so it was still dark as we embarked on her morning walk.  It was an easy step to the floating dock from the boat, so  we’re not sure what happened.  I was on the dock watching as a large boat departing was  drifting concerningly close to us when I heard a splash near my feet.  Dave was right behind her and saw her disappear between dock and boat.   We couldn’t see her in the dark, and Dave reached blindly in and managed to pull her up by her tail, then we both got a hand under her under her belly.  We rolled/dumped her onto the dock, where she gave a couple shakes and headed off to find a patch of grass none the worse for it while Dave and I were both still lying flat on the dock, wet and cold, fighting the fear of what could have been.  And so the Roxy Splash Count now stands at four.

Wilmington NC

Nov 28-30

The Wilmington Riverwalk.

Wilmington was our second side trip, and neither of us had ever visited before.  We were very pleasantly surprised at all it had to offer.  It was a relatively short 15 miles off the ICW and up the Cape Fear River, and another great travel day with lots of dolphin sightings.  The large river is a major commercial channel, and we passed industrial areas and large container ships being unloaded by massive cranes.  Passing the historic downtown shortly before pulling into Port City Marina, we got our first inkling this would be a great stop as we glimpsed the mix of historic buildings and recent construction.

Passing by downtown Wilmington on the Cape Fear River

60-second Wilmington history highlights :  Settled in 1730s…first major Stamp Act protest against British Colonial rule…early economy in naval supplies and lumber… Confederate blockade runners…last Confederate port to fall to Union forces …Willmington Race Riot and massacre of 1898 … later economy in cotton shipping then WWII shipbuilding… home of the USS North Carolina Museum & Memorial since 1968

There has been a huge investment over the last few decades to develop the Wilmington waterfront and preserve historical structures.  The marina was surrounded by very nice developed developing condominium complexes, with restaurants and retail opening soon.  There was a new outdoor amphitheater nearby.  A two mile long Riverwalk runs along the waterfront to the historic downtown, with numerous restaurants, hotels, shopping, and activities.  We walked through the historic neighborhood, admiring the well-maintained homes, churches, and a post-Civil War synagogue.  Old warehouses and markets had been tastefully converted to condominium and retail spaces, preserving their architecture and historical context.  We checked out several coffee shops, and took in a local production of Miracle on 34th St at a surprisingly cozy and well-appointed theatre on the fourth floor of a non-descript building in the middle of a downtown block. 

The conversion of the old Cotton Exchange into retail space was artfully done.

An absolute must-see is the Battleship North Carolina Museum & Memorial, a five minute ferry ride across the river.  Mothballed shortly after WWII, a campaign was successful in bringing it to Wilmington twenty years later.  We have visited several other battleships over the years, and this was by far the best exhibit.  You can walk through almost the entire ship, and they’ve outfitted with vintage items like old typewriters, log books, communication equipment, barber chairs, and even glass IV bottles and medical equipment in the sick bay!  You could climb into one of the big gun turrets and the engine room.  You really got a feel for what life onboard was like during WW II.

Loved this story of daring-do.
Dave demonstrating how they communicated from the magazine for the big guns. The next generation up from two cans and a string.
Inside one of the big gun turrets. Can't even imagine how hot and loud it must have been in here during battle.
Porthole view of the bow.
POrthole view to starboard, looking up the Cape Fear River. You can just make out our marina in the distance.

Southport, NC

Dec 1-2

Last stop in North Carolina was Southport, all the way back down to the mouth of the Cape Fear River and on the ICW.  This was a new stop for us.  Our marina was too far away to walk into town and there were no Ubers, but there was a gentleman who you could call directly for an Uber-like service.  Billy took us into downtown, which I think gets my vote for most holiday festive decor.  The main drag is several blocks of unique shops and boutiques, and we had dinner right on the water.  This was also the location of Ft. Johnston, guarding the mouth of the Cape Fear River from Colonial times all the way until 2004!

A cruise ship passing by the marina on its way south.

Final Thoughts

During this trip through North Carolina, we realized we have reached a point where the best cruising of the Atlantic ICW is a mix of the familiar and the new. It’s the comfort of knowing the route, revisiting favorite spots, and knowing what to expect balanced with the thrill of exploration, recognizing changes along the way, and learning something new with every stop.  We were incredibly fortunate with cruising conditions all the way through NC, but also feel confident we know what to watch for in weather conditions and when to stay tied to the dock.  It’s  a good feeling.  And even after five transits, there are still plenty of new places to explore. 

It’s also been a lesson in our retirement philosophy:  take comfort in the familiar, seek out the new, respect the forces out of your control, don’t get stuck behind the dredges, and always have a flashlight when you go to walk the dog in the dark.    

Pops’ Stats Corner*

  • No of Days: 20
  • Travel Days: 9
  • Miles Traveled: 385.9 (335.6 nm)
  • Roxy Splash Count: 4

*Pops is the family’s affectionate name for Dave’s dad.  He had a mind for sports statistics, earning him the nickname Numbers from the coaches of several Stillwater teams with whom he worked.  This regular section of the blog is in his honor, because it’s the kind of thing he would love.

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1 thought on “Slow Crawling Down the NC Coast”

  1. If you are lucky it's a Dog's Life

    SEMPER GUMBI Out the porthole, love it! Unless your Roxy adding to her splash count… No more dark morning dunkings please

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