Paddling to Portsmouth Island

Portsmouth Island Viewed from Ocracoke Island

"Sunny conditions. Current temperature is 54 degrees with an expected high of 57 degrees.
Northwest winds 15 to 20 miles per hour with gusts over 20 miles per hour. Seas are 4 feet.
There is currently a small craft advisory in effect...."
-NOAA Weather Service on KIG77, Newport, NC

A "small craft advisory" is a GOOD thing, isn't it? I mean, it's advisable to take out small craft then, right? Oh, it's not!?!? OK, then...I screwed up. It seemed like a good idea at the time: take the ferry to Ocracoke Island, launch the kayak from Silver Lake, paddle to Portsmouth Island, and then camp at Portsmouth Village over the weekend. I planned it carefully, checking my route, the weather, water conditions, and everything else I could think of.

According to my calculations, the trip would be about 7 1/2 miles. (I bought a book on sea kayaking in North Carolina that said it was 4 miles. It might be 4 miles as the crow flies, but I'm not a crow.) After following the shoreline down to Teach's Hole, you need to turn northwest towards Beacon Island to avoid the sand shoals and the current from the Inlet mouth. You then turn southwest a little short of Beacon Island and head for any one of a number of Portsmouth Village landmarks. The plan for the trip is shown below in detail.

The plan was to follow the western side of Ocracoke Island and then head northwest towards Beacon Island. Turning southwest at Beacon Island would bring me to Portsmouth Village.
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I made great time on Friday morning, leaving the house shortly after 5:00 AM to catch the 9:30 AM ferry from Swan Quarter to Ocracoke. I was the first in line and on board. There were only 12 vehicles on the ferry for the 2 1/2 hour trip.
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The sea wasn't too rough. The swells were a couple feet and there weren't many whitecaps. One of the big problems was that I had missed slack water by at least an hour.
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You can launch from a public boat ramp near the ferry dock, but the concrete ramp is quite slick from vegetation. It's much easier to walk in from a sandy cove, like this one. The "Ditch" is about 4/10 mile away.
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I launched around 1:00 PM, which was well after the low tide at 10:40 AM. I was overloaded with gear and had very little freeboard on the kayak. When I turned from Silver Lake to the south, I knew it was going to be a lot more difficult than I had anticipated. With the tide coming in and the strong winds, I had a hard time maneuvering. I made it to Teach's Hole, near the Inlet, and then made an executive decision to go back to Silver Lake. My route would have taken me directly into the wind for 2 miles as I tried to pass Beacon Island and, with my limited experience, I did not feel ready for it.

It was a challenge to get back to Silver Lake at all. The worst part was at the very end, when I had to round a jetty about 200 yards south of "The Ditch" (the entrance to Silver Lake). At that point I was heading directly into the wind and it was about 4:00 PM, the time of the heaviest winds. The winds was were reported the next day as reaching 27 MPH. I made very slow progress and was seriously thinking about beaching nearby, but I finally turned the corner and was then entering Silver Lake before the wind. I landed and unloaded. (I'm sure that nearby residents who had seen me load up 3 1/2 hours before were having a good laugh.)

On Saturday, I went out about 45 minutes before low tide and with much less of a load. I headed back down the west side of the Island towards Teach's Hole, getting to South Point within about 1 1/2 hours. Near South Point I decided to try to paddle straight across to Portsmouth Island. This was a mistake. First, I found that water was still moving from the Sound out to sea, even 45 minutes after low tide. This was compounded by the fact that this was also the direction of the wind and so I was being swept through the Inlet to the sea at a steady rate. Second, there is a sand shoal that blocks the direct route to Portsmouth Island from this point. In fact, even the route shown in the book I have would not have worked, because the shoal blocks that route as well. The best route is actually to go straight to Beacon Island from Silver Lake.

I landed on the sand shoal, which was occupied mostly by pelicans and gulls, and then started to walk northeast around the shoal to get closer to Silver Lake. I had to pull the kayak across some sand flats in about 6" of water. Fortunately, the water was still fairly warm and it was not uncomfortable to wade through it. I then launched from the sand flats and paddled directly towards Silver Lake, which was about 2 1/2 miles away. This was another tough paddle, but the wind was more from the north this time and hit me at an angle off my bow. Still, it was slow going and I took almost a full hour to make the distance. I landed about 3:30 PM. Below is an image of Saturday's trip overlaid on a satellite photo of the Inlet.

I went out on Saturday and found out quite a bit about the Inlet. The Sound basin drains slowly and "slack water" comes about an hour after the tide changes. Here's my actual route.
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I'm heading southeast about 1 1/2 miles from Teach's Hole on the southern end of Ocracoke Island. The weather conditions are much better, with light winds and virtually no swell.
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I landed on this sand shoal in the mouth of the inlet. This shoal will be completely underwater in a couple hours, but at present it's completely covered by birds.
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It's about 2 1/2 miles north-northeast to Silver Lake, then another 1/2 mile or so to the takeout point. The winds are about 12-15 MPH and off my port bow. Time for some work!
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Sorry about the quality of the last three pictures. They are scanned from film because I used an inexpensive waterproof disposable camera. And next time I'll be better prepared and, with a little better planning, I'll be spending the weekend on Portsmouth.

Drop me a note if you want to discuss this particular trip (er, attempted trip). I'm also very interested in hearing about paddling trips in North Carolina.

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